The sleek steam engine—the Royal Scot No. 6115 Scots Guardsman—powers its way through the English countryside, spewing sooty clouds of smoke into the night air. As the racing train passes through towns, postal workers hang nets on the side of the train to grab leather pouches that station workers have hung on stout hooks. For almost 20 minutes, two voices describe the train’s progress from London to Scotland. Then comes three minutes of rhyming verse in staccato recitation, accompanied by a soaring orchestral score:
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 lines were written by W. H. Auden, and the score by Benjamin Britten, two giants of the 20th century, Britten still early in his career. Their work accompanied, of all things, a 25-minute black-and-white documentary film called Night Mail, released in 1936 by Great Britain’s General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit. Although never famous in the United States, the film quickly achieved iconic status in England and has maintained that prominence ever since. What significance has this audience found in a documentary about letters sorted and distributed by an overnight mail train? The film certainly communicated the power, speed, and authority of railroads and has remained a favorite of railway buffs. And it lives on today on YouTube, which shows not only Night Mail in its entirety but also the films it inspired, together with loving parodies of the Auden poem (also called “Night Mail”), which accompanies the final three-minute sequence. The numerous worn copies housed at the British Film Institute, before the film’s meticulous restoration for DVD release in 2007, attest to its popularity in theaters, especially art houses, over the decades.
Inspired as the documentary is, was its lasting appeal attributable to those final three minutes—combining images of the train’s descent into the Scottish lowlands with the jaunty poem by the 29-year-old Auden and the innovative score by the 23-year-old Britten? The collaboration was fortuitous. Auden was already one of England’s leading poets, having published two collections and begun his literary collaborations with Christopher Isherwood. Britten, a recent graduate of the Royal College of Music, had composed his opus 1, Sinfonietta, but was a decade away from his masterpiece, the opera Peter Grimes. The GPO Film Unit experience led to further collaborations between the two, and Auden was moved to write several poems expressing his unrequited love for Britten.
Night Mail unites apparently paradoxical elements. For one thing, the film promoted a government agency that hardly seemed to need promoting. The GPO was a monopoly that covered mail and telegraphs as well as other new electronic systems linked to defense and national security. (Throughout World War II, GPO engineers worked with code breakers at England’s Bletchley Park National Codes Centre in Buckinghamshire and helped develop Alan Turing’s first electronic computer.) So why produce a promotional piece? Historians suggest that the film was an effort by the GPO to counter calls for privatization and a means to buck up the morale of its workers. It seems certain that the relatively new form of documentary film was itself an influence. Documentaries grew from a contemporary interest in educating people about the conditions of life for the ordinary workingman and workingwoman. If not designed to stir rebellion in the downtrodden masses, many documentaries were inspired by the hope that the spread of information would help create a better world. For the GPO, that giant steam locomotive, a visceral symbol of progress, embodied such noble sentiments.
For all the film’s empathy with the workers, stemming perhaps from the socialist and aesthetic sympathies of its producer, John Grierson, the real hero of the piece is the engine and its role as message bearer. A powerful machine, it is given a human guise and feminized in Auden’s poem as “she.” She crosses the border and brings the checks and the postal orders. “The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time,” we learn, and that passage is followed by the superb image of “her” in motion,
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
Footage of the fireman shoveling coal into the furnace is juxtaposed with Auden’s imagery of the heroic gallop of a horse, the sibilants and “sh-sn” sound suggesting both a snorting animal and the sound of the fireman’s shovel before he slings the fuel into the flames.
Like the film, Auden’s poem combines social documentary with lyric expression. The first 16 lines are heavily percussive in echo of the sound of a train, and so is Britten’s evocative score with its cellos playing a staccato passage sul ponticello (the hazy, wheezing effect produced when the notes are bowed very close to the bridge)— reminiscent of a passage in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Stuart Legg, a member of the uncredited production team, utters the urgent opening lines: “This is the Night Mail crossing the border …” Then comes a lyric section spoken by Grierson himself, accompanied by an adagio passage in Britten’s score, where flutes herald the dawn and clouds seem to blossom for the phrase “All Scotland waits for her.” The poetry mirrors the film’s striking jump cuts, substantially influenced by Soviet cinematographers and directors, Sergei Eisenstein in particular.
The sequence then repeats itself: another 20 lines in the poem of social, factual details, a panorama of life delivered by Legg at breathtaking speed (“Letters of thanks, letters from banks”) only to be undercut by a lyricism in the last 10 lines, which present the urban life of Scotland’s recipients. Here one has to note the incredible confluence of the maze of rail track that spins from one shot to another as Britten’s score whirls and skirls, leading to the poem’s final line, asking, “For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?” It seems a Kafkaesque suggestion of the anonymity and alienation that was so talked about in those years—the Age of Anxiety (as Auden later put it), when technology can sweep away the sense of an individual’s identity. Thank God for letters in the mail, you feel. Thank God for the GPO. A subtle piece of advertising propaganda or an existentialist plea? The film works on several levels, all of them compelling, all well crafted.
The film was difficult to make. It took hours of trudging along lines of track with cumbrous equipment, including spring-driven Newman-Sinclair cameras holding 200 feet of 35-mm film (giving only about two minutes of footage), together with lights for shooting at night. Clickety-clacks on the soundtrack were accomplished by recording a model railway engine. The new railway worker has to count off seconds to know where he is, it is explained, while preparing the leather pouch of mail for the trackside pickups and deposits, caught in nets on either side of the train. Filming one of the pickups, the cameraman was held by his feet and legs as he leaned out only yards behind the net, which he fervently hoped would catch and contain its cargo, since nets had been known to break. The numerous difficulties in the making of the film are entertainingly recounted by the film’s co-director Harry Watt in his memoir, Don’t Look at the Camera (1974). Watt’s film credit, it turns out, was a point of contention, according to Scott Anthony’s Night Mail (2007). The credits do not accurately represent who did what and belie the often vituperative personality clashes among the leading members of the production team, especially between Watt and his co-director, Basil Wright.
But production squabbles did not extend to the creative principals responsible for the film’s aesthetic highlights. Although given a bare four days for composition and a spare nine-piece orchestra for recording his score, Britten worked calmly and efficiently and was pleased with the eventual results, which he augmented with inventive sound effects he had developed for the earlier documentary Coal Face (1935). An uncomplaining Auden was shunted into a studio storeroom, impolitely known as the “back passage,” where he scribbled his lines, sacrificing many excellent ones to tailor his verse to the film. Not all were irretrievably lost, as can be seen from the version of “Night Mail” in Edward Mendelson’s The English Auden, in which 17 lines are restored, including an infamous one: “Uplands heaped like slaughtered horses.” It is a curious image, not only in itself, but also because Auden was an admirer of the Scottish countryside, having been a schoolmaster in Dunbartonshire a few years earlier.
Like much of Auden’s work in the 1930s, his poem was heavily concerned with landscape, but equally with the land’s dramatic confluence with human activity, past and present. Auden’s lyric “O lurcher-loving collier,” which Britten had scored for the Coal Face soundtrack, had led Grierson and Wright in 1935 to give the poet a full-time contract with the Film Unit, primarily as a trainee director-producer but actually as a general dogsbody—who also happened to be a brilliant poet. Helping to celebrate the heroic worker was a congenial task for the then-leftist poet, but the description of the “poetic” journey of the mail from London to Scotland as adventurous flight was aesthetically irresistible, and Auden adds a brilliant descriptive zest to the cinematic images. I particularly like the couplet in which the train passes farmland while people are still asleep: “In the farm she passes no one wakes,/ But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.” The lines mesh beautifully with footage, heightening the imagery.
Like any pioneering work, Night Mail has drawn criticism. As a cultural record, the film glosses over the “letters for the rich, letters for the poor” divide, implying that humble workers rightly should toil all night providing a crucial service for banks and businesses as well as delivering “letters with holiday snaps” from “uncles, cousins, and aunts.” The documentary does not mention that the GPO was under threat of privatization or that the wages of postal workers were down. Above all, in the aesthetic economy of the film, everything was going extremely well: each component performed like clockwork, including the men who were cogs in the machine. Obviously the filmmakers wanted to portray an efficient public service that, despite the increasing importance of the telephone, provided the main means of communication for the nation, obviating intervention from private enterprise, thank you very much. There is something intensely satisfying about the heroic depiction of a well-oiled locomotive shrinking the distance between north and south, bringing them together in the vital enterprise of communication. “Feel good” was the message, and it extended to the whole community, public and private.
Today we respond perhaps nostalgically to the film’s image of social cohesion knowing that it no longer exists, if it ever did. Old divisions of left and right have been blurred by new concerns of personal expression in politics, and communications are no longer evidently the province of huge centralized bureaucracies. The global electronic village is often seen in metaphoric terms, but seldom are they heroic, primarily because communication by computer is untouched by human hands along the way. No lifting and carrying, no shoveling coal, and certainly no effort of calligraphy.
Could such a documentary be made today? There have been two British attempts with two British poets providing the poetry: Blake Morrison’s work in Night Mail 2 (1986) can be seen on DVD; only the text of Tony Harrison’s Crossings (2002) is available in his Collected Film Poetry (2007). For me, both works suffer from the message’s taking over the medium: they want to tell it like it is rather than evoke the feelings the subject suggests. Night Mail, in contrast, involves its audience but does not preach to it—miraculously so, for Auden could be an officious didact. In the famous words of creative writing instructors, the film shows rather than tells. By inference, it shows how a society can work together through communal action, a message far from current today.
Although the GPO Film Unit spawned many other cinematic efforts over the years (a three-disk compilation is available), Night Mail’s true inheritor for sheer collaborative effort in seamless editing and brilliance of images has to be Geoffrey Jones’s Snow (1963), an eight- minute gem depicting British Rail’s efforts to keep the trains running through the terrible winter of 1963. Snow’s dizzying montage blends comfortable carriage interiors with the efforts to clear vast tracts of seemingly impassable snow. The film offers another reminder that collective effort is a true provider of a peaceful democracy, all to the remixed sounds of Sandy Nelson’s “Teen Beat.”
Auden himself readily acknowledged the public resonance of the GPO’s documentaries when he inserted this slightly cheeky stanza on modern communication into his long 1937 poem, “Letter to Lord Byron”:
And as for manuscripts—by every post …
I can’t improve on Pope’s shrill indignation,
But hope that it will please his spiteful ghost
To learn the use in culture’s propagation
Of modern methods of communication:
New roads, new rails, new contacts, as we know
From documentaries by the G.P.O.
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