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Horsey Mail, The (1938)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Horsey Mail, The (1938)
35mm, black and white, 9 mins
DirectionPat Jackson
Produced byGPO Film Unit
CameraFred Gamage
MusicVictor Yates

How two postmen delivered mail by boat to the village of Horsey in Norfolk after it had been cut off by flooding.

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In February 1938, the farming village of Horsey on the Norfolk coast came to national attention when it was struck by devastating floods. Unusually high tides and fierce north-westerly winds demolished the sand dunes which normally protected the low-lying farmland from the sea, and salt water poured through to cover nearly 12 square miles. Whilst others may have thought about the effect on farming and wildlife, the GPO Film Unit's first response was naturally "But what about the post?", and Pat Jackson was despatched to make a film.

The Horsey Mail was Jackson's first direction credit at the age of 22, but with a surprising five years at the GPO Film Unit already under his belt. It is clear from Jackson's memoirs on his documentary days, 'A Retake Please! Night Mail to Western Approaches', that one of his biggest influences at the GPO and beyond was fellow director Harry Watt. In particular, Jackson was an apostle for the kind of story documentary using non-professional actors that Watt had developed in The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1936, on which Jackson was assistant director) and North Sea (1938). These were the foundations for the most celebrated wartime examples of the genre, Watt's Target For Tonight (1941), Humphrey Jennings' Fires Were Started (1943), and Jackson's own Western Approaches (1944).

The Horsey Mail gains a scant paragraph in Jackson's book, with the director chastising himself for lacking invention and imagination. This is unfair self-criticism for such an early work in his career. If there is a fault in the film then it is that Jackson did not have sufficient courage in his convictions. The central section, which follows the delivery of the post to Horsey village and the surrounding farms, is clearly the kind of film that Jackson wants to be making. He brings warmth and life to the story by building it around the jovial character of Bob the van driver. Bob's playful to-and-fro banter with the narrator and on-screen tomfoolery bring a delightfully mischievous, puckish presence to the film. In contrast, the opening and closing sections follow a more formulaic, newsreel style, revealing the kind of film this could have been if Jackson truly had no imagination.

Jez Stewart

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 2'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (9:01)
Jackson, Pat (1916-2011)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
The GPO Film Unit: 1938