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  1. #1
    Senior Member Country: UK DB7's Avatar
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    Stamp of excellence

    Night Mail, about the London to Glasgow postal train, is a classic of the 1930s British documentary boom, with contributions from Auden and Britten. Blake Morrison marvels at its poetry and populism

    Saturday December 1, 2007

    The Guardian

    Steam, coal, levers, pistons, the bright-lit faces of British working men: no film better expresses the concerns and ambitions of the British documentary movement of the 1930s than Night Mail. It was directed by Basil Wright and Harry Watt, and when released in 1936, after an acclaimed premiere at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, became the GPO Film Unit's biggest box-office success. Until then, despite the work of Robert Flaherty and others, documentary films were usually regarded as dull, pontificating tracts intended to fill the gap before the "real" entertainment of a main Hollywood feature film. Night Mail changed all that, finding poetry, music, beauty and laughter in the story of the London to Glasgow "Postal Special" and the men who worked for it.

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    The GPO Film Unit was established by John Grierson in 1933, after his previous venture, making films for the Empire Marketing Board, came to an end. Funds were limited, but Grierson managed to recruit young men with leftwing sympathies who were willing to work for little money. When WH Auden was taken on, he was paid "starvation wages" of �3 a week - less than he'd been getting as a schoolteacher (he made ends meet by lodging first with his friend Basil Wright, then with another of the unit's recruits, the painter William Coldstream). Auden's job wasn't just to write poetry to accompany soundtracks, as he did for the 1935 film Coal Face, but to gain experience as an assistant director. For Night Mail, he was briefly in charge of the second camera unit as they shot mail bags being moved at Broad Street station. Basil Wright thought it "one of the most beautifully organised shots in the film".

    Harry Watt, who took over the directing of Night Mail from Wright at an early stage, wasn't altogether pleased to have Auden foisted on him: "I didn't give a damn if he'd written The Ascent of F6 or whatever the hell he'd written. He was just an assistant director, as far as I was concerned, and that meant humping the gear and walking miles, and he turned up late . . . He looked like a half-witted Swedish deckhand." Watt was even less pleased when, after seeing a rough assembly of the film, Grierson, Wright and the man in charge of sound, Alberto Cavalcanti, decided that something was missing and commissioned Auden to write a new ending. "We've only had the machinery of getting letters from one point to the other," Grierson objected. "What about the people who write them and the people who get them?" Watt couldn't see the point of a verse coda but, realising that he could shoot new material and incorporate footage he'd not found room for, he soon came round to the idea.

    As well as using Auden, Grierson brought in the composer Benjamin Britten, who, at 22 - shy, blond and good-looking - was also on the GPO Film Unit's payroll. "Now I don't want any bloody highbrow stuff," Watt told him, urging him to make the music jazzy. Britten wasn't into jazz, but he did write music that caught the rhythms of a train, as did Auden with his verse:

    This is the night mail crossing the border,

    Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

    Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,

    The shop at the corner and the girl next door.

    Past cotton grass and moorland boulder,

    Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,

    Snorting noisily as she passes

    Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.

    Auden wrote the poetry for the film on an old table, in noisy, ramshackle surroundings, at the Film Unit's main office in Soho Square, chopping and changing his lines as he watched the rough cut, or (as he put it) timing "the spoken verse with a stopwatch in order to fit it exactly to the shot on which it commented". Many lines had to be discarded - among them one that described the Cheviots as "uplands heaped like slaughtered horses", a simile that Basil Wright thought too violent for the landscape that he (or Harry Watt) had filmed.

    When Night Mail came out, Watt was enraged at receiving only a joint credit, feeling that he'd done most of the work. Wright certainly shot some of the film, including the sequence of the train seen from an aeroplane flying directly above. But Watt did all the filming inside the train and on location, which led to some dangerous moments: to get a shot of a leather mail pouch being whisked off into a trackside net, the main cameraman, Chick Fowle, had to hang out of the window, held by his legs, while the train travelled at a hundred miles an hour; and his assistant Pat Jackson, sitting up on top of the coal holding a reflector, narrowly avoided being decapitated by a bridge. The shots of men sorting envelopes in the mail van were more easily accomplished, on a reconstructed set at the unit's studio in Blackheath. To simulate movement, a piece of string was dangled and jiggled about, and the men sorting the mail - real post office workers, not actors - swayed in accompaniment.

    Night Mail will always be remembered for Auden's and Britten's participation, and for Grierson's courage and vision in commissioning them. But what's striking to anyone seeing the film today is how modest (in duration at least) their contribution is - a mere three minutes or so at the end of a 22-minute film. The rest of the soundtrack is heavy on statistics - the 500m letters delivered annually, the 13 minutes the train is scheduled to stop at Crewe, the 34 points along the route at which mail is picked up or dropped off, the 48 pigeonholes each mail-sorter is in charge of, and so on. But whenever we're reeling from information overload, there are lovely isolated shots to ease us through - a window reflection of passengers on a local train, criss-crossing railway tracks and telegraph wires, the industrial landscapes of Wigan and Warrington.

    The film is fascinating in its observations of people at work, and in showing the mass of different skills required to get a letter from A to B. Though there's a clear propagandist intent - to celebrate the lives of the unsung proletariat (whose night-time labours the sleeping bourgeoisie knows nothing of) - it doesn't make the film pious or heavy. Some of the clerks speak in cut-glass accents, but the Post Office and LMS Railway workers bicker and banter ("Hey, what's the game?" "Take it away, sonny boy"). The spirit of the film certainly infected Auden. Never before or after was his poetry so cheerily populist:

    Letters of thanks, letters from banks,

    Letters of joy from the girl and boy,

    Receipted bills and invitations

    To inspect new stock or visit relations,

    And applications for situations,

    And timid lovers' declarations,

    And gossip, gossip from all the nations.

    Auden worked at the GPO Film Unit for only six months. As well as his work on Coal Face and Night Mail, he had plans to make a film of his own, provisionally entitled Air Mail to Australia, which would have meant him flying to Australia; and to collaborate with Benjamin Britten on a film called God's Chillun, about slavery. But neither project came to fruition, and his only other contribution at the unit was to play the part of Father Christmas in Calendar of the Year, a film that led to a furious row with Basil Wright since Auden, as production manager, was also responsible for controlling the budget for the film and overspent by �30. Disillusioned, Auden quit shortly afterwards and went off to Iceland with Louis MacNeice.

    Those brief six months may have left their mark on him in deeper ways, however. A striking aspect of Night Mail is the way it cuts from the dramatic onward rush of the Postal Special to shots of people and landscapes that have little to do with its journey - a farmer leading a horse, for example, or a black dog running in a field. This contrast between the march of history on the one hand and ordinary life persisting untouched on the other is central to the poetry Auden was writing a few years later: "Mus�e des Beaux Arts", for example, with its glimpse of "some untidy spot/Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree". Or "The Fall of Rome", which ends with an image of a world unaffected by politics, war and imperialism:

    Altogether elsewhere, vast

    Herds of reindeer move across

    Miles and miles of golden moss,

    Silently and very fast.

    It would be too much to say that it was the experience of working on Night Mail that taught Auden how to adapt montage techniques for his poetry, or that working at the unit triggered his disillusion with Marxism. But those six months did have a lasting effect.

    Night Mail is a great film, and the British Film Institute is to be commended not just for making a digitally remastered version available in a special collector's edition (with 93 minutes of extras), but for its timing: as the centenary year of Auden's birth comes to a close, here's another reminder of the range of his talents. When, in 1986, I was commissioned to write the poetry for a remake 50 years on - Night Mail 2 - I knew I was on a hiding to nothing. But it was instructive to reflect on how much the postal service had changed, and how little our feelings about post had ("Yet still the heart quickens at/The click of the letterflap, the thud on the mat"). And since part of the film featured a brooding Scottish landscape, I was able to steal - or adapt - Auden's line about "uplands heaped like slaughtered horses". For that alone, I was pleased to be part of the remake.

    � Night Mail and Night Mail 2 (along with three other short films) are available in a collector's edition presentation box from the BFI at �15.99.

  2. #2
    Senior Member Country: Great Britain
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    Really interesting article, thanks DB7



  3. #3
    Senior Member Country: UK
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    I'm thinking of getting the special edition DVD for my mate's birthday, who looked at the documentary movement of the 30s in his MA thesis. A compelling, hypnotic film.

  4. #4
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    I am sure that Royal Mail made a remake of this - or the general idea around 25 years ago.

    BTW - I work for Royal Mail - happy days in the innocent 1930's!

  5. #5
    Senior Member Country: Great Britain
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    Many thanks DB7, the poem had only recently been brought to my attention by Iain Sinclair in his introduction to Robert Westerby's book "Wide Boys Never Work" (later filmed as "Soho Incident").

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