The history of the British moving image, as told in limited edition Royal Mail stamps

I’m at an odd stage of the thesis. The arguments are there and the chapters all exist*. I can state with certainty that I have made a contribution to the field of television history and the practice of archiving television documentation, but I can’t for the life of me state, concisely and authoritatively, what that contribution is. It’s a common issue with historical research: it’s hard to move away from analysing discrete documents that exist in their own specific context to articulating what those documents have to say about British moving image culture as a whole.


So, I’ve been doing what postgraduate students do so well: I put my chapters in a box and started reminding myself of the history of British moving image as it is generally understood – not through forgotten programmes, degrading formats, complicated production jargon and legislature, but through the shows that people remember, the personalities they recognise, and the images that are celebrated and commemorated.

L-R: 'British Discovery and Invention' stamp, 1967; 'Broadcasting Anniversaries' stamp, 1972.

L-R: ‘British Discovery and Invention’ stamp, 1967; ‘Broadcasting Anniversaries’ stamp, 1972.

Which is a really longwinded way of saying that I wasted a good couple of hours today seeing which parts of moving image history have been celebrated through that very British form of acknowledgement: the limited edition ‘special’ Royal Mail stamp. A few weeks ago Royal Mail launched an online repository of all its special stamps, dating back to the 1960s, and it makes for compelling browsing.

The very earliest stamp to celebrate the moving image, produced in the 1967, focuses on television as part of a series about British discovery and invention. Invention and innovation are common reasons to highlight moving image technologies, and in 1972 technology was highlighted again in a series commissioned to celebrate varied anniversaries of broadcasting, including Marconi’s experiments and 50 years of the BBC.

L-R: '50th Anniversary of Children's Television' stamp, 1996; '100 Years of Going to the Cinema' stamp, 1996.

L-R: ’50th Anniversary of Children’s Television’ stamp, 1996; ‘100 Years of Going to the Cinema’ stamp, 1996.

Anniversaries are the most obvious reason for issuing commemorative stamps. 1996 saw two different anniversaries: 50 years of children’s television, and 100 years of cinema going in Britiain. The former focused on well known programmes, such as Stingray, The Clangers, The Sooty Show – nearly all of which I’m sure were still in regular rotation in TV schedules well into the 1990s. The latter illustrated cinema culture, rather than films themselves, though the set included a picture of a Pathe newsreel which I like.

L-R: 'F.A.B. The Genius of Gerry Anderson' stamp, 2011; '50th Anniversary of Independent Television' stamp, 2005.

L-R: ‘F.A.B. The Genius of Gerry Anderson’ stamp, 2011; ’50th Anniversary of Independent Television’ stamp, 2005.

Stingray crops up a second time, in 2011, in a set titled ‘F.A.B. The Genius of Gerry Anderson’. However, it did not make it to the 50th Anniversary of ITV set, though ITC was represented by The Avengers. Perhaps the strangest stamp in that set is the one of Emmerdale – a long running and much-loved soap, to be sure, but Coronation Street would seem the more obvious choice (perhaps too obvious).

L-R: 'The Sky at Night' stamp, 2007; 'Doctor Who' stamp, 2013.

L-R: ‘The Sky at Night’ stamp, 2007; ‘Doctor Who’ stamp, 2013.

2005 notwithstanding, Royal Mail slightly favours BBC shows over commercial television, though really there have been so few stamps celebrating TV at all that it’s hard to make any kind of conclusion from that. In recent years only two seminal programmes have been given their own set of stamps – The Sky at Night in 2007 and Doctor Who in 2013.

'Great British Film' stamps, 2014.

‘Great British Film’ stamps, 2014.

In the 20th century, the moving image industries were much closer aligned with the General Post Office and telecommunications. The GPO had a film unit in the 1930s that produced a number of public information films, but it wasn’t until 2014 that the GPO’s films made it onto stamps, including the famous ‘Night Mail’ featuring WH Auden’s poem and the music of Benjamin Britten, as well as two of the GPO’s more avant garde animations, Len Lye’s ‘A Colour Box’ and Norman Maclaren’s ‘Love on the Wing’. The same set includes some better remembered features by celebrated British auteurs such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

'Posters for Carry On and Hammer Horror Films' stamps, 2008.

‘Posters for Carry On and Hammer Horror Films’ stamps, 2008.

Before last year’s set, very few films had been immortalised in stamp form. One exception is a 2008 stamp set: a peculiar mash-up celebrating Hammer Horror and Carry On! Otherwise, British cinema has not received much attention at all from Royal Mail, though perhaps this will change.

L-R, T-B: 'Millenium Series: The Entertainers' Tale' stamp, 1999; 'British Film Year' stamp, 1985; 'Great Britons' stamp, 2013; 'Remarkable Lives' stamp, 2014.

L-R, T-B: ‘Millenium Series: The Entertainers’ Tale’ stamp, 1999; ‘British Film Year’ stamp, 1985; ‘Great Britons’ stamp, 2013; ‘Remarkable Lives’ stamp, 2014.

Programmes and inventions are all routinely featured in stamps, but the most common theme of special stamps is the generic ‘Great Briton’ stamp set, which comes around every few years featuring headshots of random personalities, celebrities and otherwise notable figures from British history. Charlie Chaplin and Vivien Leigh have featured in at least two such sets apiece. Hitchcock, Peter Sellars, Richard Dimbleby, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness and Roy Plomley have also been singled out for a stamp at one point or another.

So what conclusions can I draw from my rigorous browsing? Well, I was not surprised to find that the Royal Mail looks to individual moments, people and images, as single moments and ideas are all that can be communicated in a single stamp. However, I was surprised at how piecemeal the stamps are – I assumed I could trace the collective memory of British moving image through stamps, but special stamps are so few and far between that the selection of what goes on a stamp seems somewhat arbitrary. Yet there is always a rationale – an anniversary or some other point of significance that prompts even the most strange special stamp. However, that rationale isn’t always to do with lofty ideals of cultural or educational value: after all, the Royal Mail has celebrated cult film and television just as readily as serious drama or documentary. And Britons really like puppets.

*sort of

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