|Directed by||Harry Watt
|Produced by||Harry Watt
|Written by||W. H. Auden|
|Narrated by||John Grierson|
|Music by||Benjamin Britten|
|Edited by||Basil Wright|
|Distributed by||Associated British Film Distributors|
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" 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. The locomotive featured in the film was Royal Scot 6115 Scots Guardsman, built in 1927. The film has become a classic of its own kind, much imitated by adverts and modern film shorts. Night Mail is widely considered a masterpiece of the British Documentary Film Movement.
The film follows the distribution of mail by train in the 1930s, focusing on the so-called Postal Special train, a train dedicated only to carrying the post and with no members of the public. The night train travels on the mainline route from Euston station in London to Glasgow, Scotland, on to Edinburgh and then Aberdeen. External shots include the train itself passing at speed down the tracks, aerial views of the countryside, and interior shots of the sorting van (actually shot in studio). Much of the film highlights the role of postal workers in the delivery of the mail.
W.H. Auden's poem "Night Mail," written for the film's final sequence, imitates the rhythm of the train's wheels as they clatter over track sections. It begins slowly but picks up speed so that by the penultimate verse the narrator is speaking 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.
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?"
Benjamin Britten's musical score for the film was first published in 2002. It imagines the real sounds of the train and incorporates these imaginary sounds into the score. At over fifteen minutes, it is one of Britten's most elaborate film scores.
Night Mail’s significance is due to a combination of its aesthetic, commercial, and nostalgic success. In contrast to previous GPO releases, Night Mail garnered critical notice and commercial distribution through Associated British Film Distributors (ABFD). Night Mail was also one of the first GPO films built on a narrative structure, a critically influential technique in the development of documentary filmmaking. The film was widely admired by contemporary critics as well as current scholars, and remains popular with the British public. Schoolchildren often memorize Auden’s “Night Mail,” and the film is regularly parodied in advertisements and sketch shows. It even inspired a sequel in 1986: Night Mail II, which tells the story of the contemporary mail delivery system, complete with a narrative poem by Blake Morrison.
More broadly, the personnel of the GPO and Night Mail contributed to the development of documentary film worldwide. Grierson, in particular, pioneered not only a highly influential theory of “actuality” film, but developed structures of funding, production, and distribution which persist to this day. He advocated state support for documentary film as well as arguing the civic merits of educational film. Night Mail, one of the first commercial successes of the GPO, served as a “proof of concept” that his methods and goals could be publicly successful. The film’s blend of social purpose and aesthetic form position it as an archetypal film of the British Documentary Film Movement. For these reasons, the film is a staple of film education worldwide.
Night Mail was produced for a modest budget of ₤2,000 with a small crew. Basil Wright initially outlined the film, and was credited as one of its producers, but the script was heavily reworked by Harry Watt. Although initially credited as a producer, Watt is widely acknowledged as the director of the film. Alberto Cavalcanti was its sound director, though he worked in close connection with Benjamin Britten to create and mix the sound, dialogue, and music. Due to technological constraints, most of the film was recorded silently with the sound (including the dialogue) added in post-production. The characters onscreen were all real postal employees, but the dialogue was written by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, inspired by conversations they overheard while embedded with the night mail crews.
While much of Night Mail was captured on location at various points along the Royal Mail’s Postal Special train route, the interior of the sorting coach was filmed on a set at the GPO studio in London. The employee/actors were instructed to sway from side to side to recreate the motion of the train. Location shooting was very difficult and often dangerous. Shot on 35mm film in 200 foot magazines, each canister only allowed for two minutes of filming. Harry Watt worked with two cameramen at a time, Pat Jackson and either Jonah Jones or Chick Fowle, the latter of whom is credited with capturing several dramatic sequences by leaning off the side of the train as it traveled at high speed.
After viewing a rough assembly of the film, Grierson, Wright and Cavalcanti decided Night Mail needed a coda to both provide an ending and emphasize the majesty of the postal system. WH Auden and Benjamin Britten had recently been added to the GPO payroll, and it was decided they should write poetic commentary and music for a final sequence. Initially against the idea, Watt eventually collected additional new and archival footage to complete the famous closing sequence. Both Auden and Watt went through many drafts in an attempt to exactly match the rhythm of the traveling train.
Night Mail was heavily distributed upon its completion. The London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company which operated the train was eager to aid its creation and release in order to capitalize on the film’s promotional possibilities. The GPO commissioned posters, special screenings, and other soft publicity opportunities, taking advantage of the glamorous image and popularity of railway films to promote Night Mail. The push largely worked. Unlike most other GPO films, which were primarily screened in schools, professional societies, and other small venues, Night Mail was shown in commercial cinemas as an opening act for popular feature films. Poor contracts for short documentary films, however, meant Night Mail failed to make a significant profit, despite its high viewership.
According to Betsy McLane (2012), Night Mail makes three primary arguments: First, the postal system is complex and must function under the auspices of a national government in order to thrive. Second, the postal system is a model of modern efficiency, and third, postal employees are industrious, jovial, and professional. John Grierson also articulated a desire to reflect “Scottish expression” and unity between England and Scotland with Night Mail. More broadly, Ian Aitken describes Grierson’s position on the function of documentary film as “representing the inter-dependence and evolution of social relations in a dramatic and symbolic way”. He cites Night Mail’s portrayal of the postal system’s practical and symbolic importance through both humanistic realism and metaphorical imagery as characteristic of Grierson’s ideals.
The film utilizes three contrasting techniques to convey its meaning. First, Night Mail portrays the daily activities of the postal staff on a human scale, with colloquial speech and naturalistic vignettes, like sipping beer and sharing inside jokes. This was the approach favored by Harry Watt, who apprenticed under ethnographic filmmaker Robert Flaherty. Second, Night Mail uses expressionistic techniques like heavy back-lighting and the lyric poetry of Auden to convey the grand scale of the postal endeavor. These techniques were championed by Basil Wright, a lover of experimental European cinema. Finally, the film occasionally employs narration to explain the particular marvels of the mail system. This factual exposition was promoted by John Grierson.
Night Mail, though edited in a naturalistic style, nevertheless utilizes potent lyric symbolism. The film contrasts the national importance of the postal system, embodied by a train journey which literally enables cross-country communication, with the local accents and colloquial behavior of its staff, demonstrating that a great nation is composed of its humble and essential regions and peoples. Night Mail further reinforces the strength of national unity by juxtaposing images of cities and countryside, factories and farms. The technologically advanced rail system, nestled comfortably in the immutable landscape, demonstrates that modernity can be British.
The main body of the film uses minimal narration, usually in the present tense and always underscored with diegetic sound. This ancillary commentary serves to elaborate on the onscreen action (“The pouches are fixed to the standard by a spring clip”) or invigorate and expand the world of the film (“Four million miles every year. Five hundred million letters every year.”) The bulk of the story is conveyed through dialogue and imagery, however, leaving the narrative thrust in the hands of the postal workers.
The GPO Film Unit was initiated by Sir Stephen Tallents when he was appointed the first Controller of Public Relations of the GPO in 1933. Previously a director of the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), Tallents became a nationally recognized proponent of the power of mass media to define and promote the British Empire’s “brand” with the 1933 publication of his pamphlet The Projection of England. When the EMB, a de facto government advertising agency, disbanded in 1933, Tallents used his influence to secure the transfer of the EMB Film Unit to the control of the GPO. John Grierson transitioned from head of the EMB Film Unit to head of the GPO Film Unit, bringing most of his staff with him, including Basil Wright, Harry Watt, and Alberto Cavalcanti.
At the time, the GPO employed almost 250,000 people and controlled the telephone and media infrastructure of Great Britain. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the GPO expanded its advertising efforts to sell more telephones and promote new services like directory inquiries. Tallents used his position to burnish the GPO’s public image thorough a massive rebranding effort, including a new logo and documentary films produced by the Film Unit. Consequently, the GPO spent more on publicity than any other government entity at the time, with a significant portion of its budget allocated to the film unit. Although ostensibly designed to educate the public about GPO services, as with the 1933 film The Coming of the Dial, GPO films were also largely intended to ward off privatization and promote a positive impression of the Post Office and its employees.
Night Mail, in addition to serving as the public face of a modern, trustworthy postal system, was also created to boost the low morale of postal employees. Despite an increase in profits in the late 1920s, by 1936 real wages had fallen 3% for the mostly working-class GPO employees. The Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act of 1927 had seriously curtailed postal union power, and the Great Depression fostered a general mood of pessimism worldwide. With Night Mail, the liberal-minded Watt, Wright, Grierson and other Film Unit artists focused not only on the up-to-the-minute efficiency of the postal system, but its reliance on its honest and industrious employees.
Despite its many critical successes, the comparatively limited budget of the GPO Film Unit as well as unfavorable terms for short documentary films under the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, which required British cinemas present a minimum quota of British feature films, ultimately doomed the GPO Film Unit. The unit’s films could not compete with commercial fare and the Treasury’s skeptical assessment of its value. The unit disbanded in 1940 and reformed as the Crown Film Unit under the Ministry of Information.
John Grierson and many other prominent members of the GPO Film Unit continued their work in documentary film in the United Kingdom and abroad. Grierson has subsequently been called “the person most responsible for the documentary film as English speakers have known it”. Night Mail itself is sometimes considered the apotheosis of the collaborative work of the GPO Film Unit, a beloved, and nearly unique ode to the Royal Mail, the British people, and the creative possibilities of “actuality” films.
- "Verse commentary by W. H. Auden" is the standard phrase used by distributors of the film and by film historians; e.g. 
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