This is the Night Mail – An Icon of Britain’s Documentary Film Movement

22 March 2017

This week we take a closer look at a stylistic and lyrical gem of the General Post Office Film Unit – and probably the greatest train documentary of all time – Night Mail.

Created in 1936, just ten years after the introduction of sound on film, this iconic, sometimes scripted documentary, is much more than a snapshot of life of postal workers on Travelling Post Offices. It is as much about the movement of mail and delivery of letters as it is a take on loneliness and companionship. Featuring now famous words by W. H. Auden and a score by Benjamin Britten, it has become synonymous with the ground-breaking work of the British Documentary Film Movement of the 1930s and 1940s.

Artwork for a poster by Pat Keely, 1939 (POST 109/377)

GPO Film Unit

Established in 1933, the GPO Film Unit was a subdivision of the General Post Office. This highly innovative team led by John Grierson, who was often credited as the father of British documentary film, was set up to produce sponsored documentary films informing the public on the activities of the GPO, often in a propaganda style and with gritty realism previously reserved for newsreels.

Their second and most significant masterpiece, Night Mail (1936), was narrated by Grierson himself, and features music and poetry by a young Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden.

Informative, heart-warming and witty, Night Mail focuses on the work of Travelling Post Offices, specially equipped trains tasked with the speedy movement and sorting of mail to all corners of the United Kingdom.

While Night Mail’s onscreen characters were all real postal employees, the dialogue was scripted, written by directors Harry Watt and Basil Wright, and inspired by conversations they overheard during their stay with the night mail crew. The film opens with a message being rushed to meet the ‘Postal Special’ before it leaves Euston for Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. Over the next twenty-four minutes the film explains and elaborates the everyday obstacles faced by the workers of the Travelling Post Office – a piece of art focusing not only on the process and physical effort required to deliver mail on time across the country, but also giving a peek into the life of a postal employee tasked with keeping the system going.

While much of Night Mail was captured on location at various points along the Royal Mail’s Postal Special train route, the scenes of postal workers sorting mail were in fact filmed on a set at the GPO studio in London: the posties were directed to sway from side to side to recreate the motion of the train.

Travelling Post Office, Letter Sorting, 1934 (POST 118/5745)

Orchestra, chorus, and natural sound were cut rhythmically with the images. Auden’s poetry purposely reflected the rhythm of the train’s wheels, picking up speed to a breathless pace before slowing.

” 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.”

The film was produced for a modest budget of ₤2,000, funded by the GPO not only to promote the Post Office itself, but also to help staff understand how even the most humdrum of jobs were of crucial importance.

Night Mail holds an iconic place in British culture. It is far more than a film about a train or a poem about moving mail from A to B. It illustrates how Britain is socially, economically and technologically bound together and gives an insight into the people that spent their working lives making it all possible.

Night Mail has transformed the routine chores of the postal service into an emotionally charged, highly aesthetic tribute to their work. There is something very authentic and almost sentimental about the dialogues between the workers, and a steely pride runs throughout the film. Every time we watch Night Mail we take something different away from it. That might be what, in the end, makes it such a classic.

Watch the full version of Night Mail for free on BFI Player.

Interactive Sorting Display at The Postal Museum

You can discover more about the GPO Film Unit at The Postal Museum, and even try your hand at sorting the mail on a moving train! Sign up here to be the first to know about our opening date.

– The Postal Museum Team