BFI Film Classics: Night Mail

Author: Scott Anthony

This is the night mail crossing the border

Bringing the cheque and the postal order.

Many people will recognize this snippet from a poem by WH Auden, but few will be aware of where or what it refers to. The poem is a four minute segment written by Auden which was included in one of the first documentaries from Britain which was given any recognition, Night Mail. The film itself lasts for a little over 20 minutes and today looks rather dated. Scott Anthony’s book in the  BFI Film Classics series casts a critical eye over John Grierson’s flawed classic. The documentary, commissioned by the GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit in 1936, follows the story of a letter from dispatch to sorting and delivery from Euston to Glasgow, and the work involved as it crosses the country. We see postal sorters on the train, cuttings workers, tea maids and supervisors as we follow its progress. This very human story was an ingenious idea in promoting the work of the postal office in a country coming out of a depression. Britain at the time was, as today, suffering much in the way of insecurities: threats from fascist Europe, job insecurity and Union crises. The GPO’s idea was to promote how much its employees took pride in and ‘loved’ their jobs. Of course this is corporate propaganda but it seemed effective and received strong praise on its release.

Anthony’s book and puts the film perfectly in the context of the social history of the time. He not only looks at the formation of the GPO Film Unit (later known as the Crown Film Unit, responsible for much of the best Second World War home-front films such as London Can Take It and Fires Were Started), but also the strong characters involved in making it. The documentary was commissioned by Stephen Tallents and produced from an original idea by film pioneer John Grierson with direction going to Basil Wright and Henry Watt (both credited as producers, but were actually the film’s directors). On top of this there’s the aforementioned poem by Auden along with a memorable score by Benjamin Britten.

Anthony’s book goes into the conflicts between the team and the fairly troubled backroom politics of the GPO as well as the dictatorial way that Grierson ran the company. At times, as riveting a read as the book is, it can be a little repetitive and padded out in places particularly in the chapter on Britten, as well as the chapter about future film director Alberto Cavalcanti (he went on to direct a few Ealing classics – not mentioned in the book – and the sound director here). A few interesting facts do come out of the book though, one being that Grierson himself is credited with coining the word documentary. This is in spite of the fact that there were many documentary film makers before him, most notably Robert Flaherty, who was making films about hardship and struggle in the 20s like Nanook of the North. Sergei Eisenstein also had a big influence on Grierson and his editing process and he also cites Soviet filmmakers like Aleksander Dovzhenko.

Until this weekend I hadn’t seen this film for many years, but it didn’t matter as the book is an easy and comprehensive study of the background to the film and the time in which it was made. Anthony also contrasts the book with a rather ham-fisted promotional advert made by the Post Office in the 80s replete with un-subtle anti-Thatcherisms and an Auden-like poem portraying a breakdown in the social fabric. The subtleties of the Grierson film are definitely the version to stick with.

Chris Hick

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