Night Mail

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For the 1935 British film by Herbert Smith, see Night Mail (1935 film). For the 2014 Chinese film, see Night Mail (2014 film).
Night Mail
Parallel boilered Scot from Night Mail.jpg
Directed by Harry Watt
Basil Wright
Produced by Harry Watt
Basil Wright
Written by W. H. Auden
Narrated by John Grierson
Music by Benjamin Britten
Edited by Basil Wright
Distributed by Associated British Film Distributors
Release dates
  • 1936 (1936)
Running time
26 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

Night Mail is a 1936 documentary film about a London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) mail train from London to Scotland, produced by the GPO Film Unit. The film ends with a "verse commentary"[1] by W. H. Auden, written for existing footage. Benjamin Britten scored the film. The film was directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, and narrated by John Grierson and Stuart Legg. The Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti was sound director.[2] The locomotive featured in the film was Royal Scot 6115 Scots Guardsman, built in 1927.[3] The film has become a classic of its own kind, much imitated by adverts and modern film shorts.


The film documents the way the post was distributed by train in the 1930s, focussing on the so-called Postal Special train, a train dedicated only to carrying the post and with no members of the public, travelling on the mainline route from Euston station, London to Glasgow, Scotland and on to Edinburgh and then Aberdeen. External shots include many of the train itself passing at speed down the tracks, some interesting aerial views, with interior shots of the sorting van (actually shot in studio).

As recited in the film, the poem's rhythm imitates the train's wheels as they clatter over track sections, beginning slowly but picking up speed so that by the time of the penultimate verse the narrator is at a breathless pace. As the train slows toward its destination the final verse is more sedate. The opening lines are "This is the Night Mail crossing the border / Bringing the cheque and the postal order". The copyright on the film expired after 50 years, but some sources assert that the W.H. Auden poem remains protected by copyright as a written piece. The musical score was first published in 2002. Britten's score imagined the real sounds of the train and incorporated these imaginary sounds into his score.[4] At over fifteen minutes, it is one of Britten's most elaborate film scores.[5]

According to Forsyth Hardy's biography of Grierson, "Auden wrote the verse on a trial and error basis. It had to be cut to fit the visuals, edited by R. Q. McNaughton, working with Cavalcanti and Wright. Many lines were discarded, ending as crumpled fragments in the wastepaper basket. Some of Auden's verbal images -- the rounded Scottish hills "heaped like slaughtered horses" -- were too strong for the film, but what was retained made Night Mail as much a film about loneliness and companionship as about the collection and delivery of letters. It was that difference that made it a work of art. Night Mail was a genuinely collaborative effort. Stuart Legg spoke the verse, timed, with Britten's music, to the beat of the train's wheels. Grierson himself spoke the moving culmination passage: "And none will hear the postman's knock without a quickening of the heart, for who can bear to feel himself forgotten?"[6]


On 14 May 2014, the film was one of those chosen to be commemorated in a set of Royal Mail stamps depicting notable GPO Film Unit films.[7]



  1. ^ "Verse commentary by W. H. Auden" is the standard phrase used by distributors of the film and by film historians; e.g. [1]
  2. ^ "Night Mail (1936)", Night Mail, BFI Screenonline, retrieved 25 February 2013 
  3. ^ "Flying Scotsman Announcement", Flying Scotsman Announcement, National Railway Museum, 16 March 2012, retrieved 25 February 2013 
  4. ^ Mitchell, Donald. Britten and Auden in the thirties: the year 1936: the TS Eliot memorial lectures delivered at the University of Kent at Canterbury in November 1979. Faber & Faber, 1981. p. 83
  5. ^ Mitchell, Donald. Britten and Auden in the thirties: the year 1936: the TS Eliot memorial lectures delivered at the University of Kent at Canterbury in November 1979. Faber & Faber, 1981. p. 89
  6. ^ Hardy (1979), pp. 76–79
  7. ^ [2]


  • Hardy, Forsyth (1979), John Grierson: A Documentary Biography, Faber and Faber, ISBN 0-571-10331-6 
  • Anderson, Scott (2007), Night Mail (BFI Film Classics), BFI Publishing, ISBN 978-1844572298 

External links[edit]