50 years, 50 films Vol II: Night Mail (1936)
The landmark British documentary paints a picture of a vanishing world.
We have neglected a great many great talents on our journey through the last century of film. Among them is the influential Scottish film-maker John Grierson. It has been argued that Grierson, born in Stirling in 1898, actually coined the term “documentary”. After all, somebody had to. Along with Humphrey Jennings, Grierson certainly made the British doc what it had become by the middle of the century. He had credits on such films as Man of Aran and Song of Ceylon. That’s his voice you hear in the famous Night Mail, a picture about the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) mail train from London to Scotland, but he did not direct or produce the piece. Behind the camera were Harry Watt and Basil Wright. Both went on to have vital careers in British film. Watt ended up working with Jennings on such wartime classics as the still gripping London can Take It (1940).
If you know anything about Night Mail you probably know that it features a poem by W H Auden scored to original music by Benjamin Britten. In fact that sequence doesn’t kick in until the 19th minute of a relatively short film, but it remains one of the most oddly exhilarating moments in contemporaneous British cinema. The beats of the verse meet the rhythms of the train that in turn meld with the throbs of Britten’s music. ”This is the Night Mail crossing the border / Bringing the cheque and the postal order,” Auden’s near-nursery rhyme begins as the train surges forward. Grierson takes over from Stuart Legg at the close of the poem to tell us: ”And none will hear the postman’s knock without a quickening of the heart, for who can bear to feel himself forgotten?” Which is how we used to feel all right.
Made for the GPO, for whom Grierson was public relations officer, Night Mail is now seen as a meditation on how then-modern communications brought a nation together. As a government-financed production aimed at promoting a public service, Night Mail seems more like a product of the post-war Labour administration than of Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative regime. Maybe, there was a already hint of consensus at work.
If you study the whole piece (available above) you will be reminded that for most of its duration it really is a public information film. What really stands out is the amount of ingenuity that goes into creating and maintaining such a communications network. It always seemed a miracle that post could get to faraway places as quickly as it did then. It seems no less surprising when the curtain is pulled back to reveal the cogs and levers within.
So much that was important in mid-century British culture is bound up in this lovely film. Auden brought new rhythms and hitherto underexploited emotions to English verse. Britten composed work that seems as peculiar — and accessible — then as it did 80 years ago. Note also that the sound director was Alberto Cavalcanti, who went on do direct the wartime classic Went the Day Well.
Such odd things did once exist within the system. They may not do so again.
For 1936 we also considered Camille, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, Dodsworth, Mr Deeds Goes to Town, Un Partie de Campagne, The Petrified Forest and Swing Time.