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Night Mail (1936)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Night Mail (1936)
35mm, 24 min, black & white
DirectorsHarry Watt
 Basil Wright
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
Produced byBasil Wright
 Harry Watt
Sound DirectionCavalcanti
VerseW.H. Auden
MusicBenjamin Britten

Narrator (uncredited): Pat Jackson

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The nightly run of the postal special train from London to Glasgow.

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Night Mail (1936) was one of the most critically acclaimed films to be produced within the British documentary film movement. It was also among the most commercially successful, and remains the film most commonly identified with the movement. By 1936, film output at the GPO Film Unit was divided between the production of relatively routine films promoting Post Office services, and more ambitious ones experimenting with the use of sound, visual style, narrative and editing technique. Night Mail is firmly in the latter category.

The film was the product of collaborative, rather than individual authorship. Although it was primarily directed by Harry Watt, Basil Wright developed the script, and had overall production responsibility for the project. The resulting film was edited by Wright and Alberto Cavalcanti; John Grierson and Stuart Legg were also involved in its production. The music score was arranged by Benjamin Britten and Cavalcanti, and the rhyming verse used in the film - spoken by Pat Jackson - was written by W.H. Auden, who also acted as assistant director.

Night Mail is an account of the operation of the Royal Mail train delivery service, and shows the various stages and procedures of that operation. The film begins with a voiceover commentary describing how the mail is collected for transit. Then, as the train proceeds along the course of its journey, we are shown the various regional railway stations at which it collects and deposits mail. Inside the train the process of sorting takes place. As the train nears its destination there is a sequence - the best known in the film, in which Auden's spoken verse and Britten's music are combined over montage images of racing train wheels.

Although the narrative is concerned with issues of national communication and integration, the thematic centre of the film is more closely linked to representations of the regional environment. This elevation of the regional above the national is reinforced by the portrayal of the railway as separate from the metropolitan environment, and little attempt is made to link the railway and its workers with the city. The film also channels representations of modern technology and institutional practice away from an account of the industry of postal delivery, and into a study of the train as a powerful symbol of modernity, in its natural element speeding into the countryside.

Ian Aitken

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 2' and is also the subject of a BFI Film Classics book by Scott Anthony.

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Video Clips
1. The Postal Special (5:11)
2. High-speed pickup (3:20)
3. 'Night Mail' (3:26)
Complete film (22:23)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
6.30 Collection (1934)
Coal Face (1935)
Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)
Watt, Harry (1906-1987)
Wright, Basil (1907-1987)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
Industrial and Corporate Films
The GPO Film Unit: 1936
The Romance of Steam