Night Mail

Scott Anthony,
Night Mail.
London: British Film Institute, 2007.
ISBN-13: 978-1-84457-229-8
£9.99 stg (pb)
(Review copy supplied by British Film Institute)

Night Mail, the GPO Film Unit’s 1936 paean to the British rail-based mail delivery system, occupies an ambivalent place in documentary history. It is almost always cited as a seminal film, but its influence on modern documentary form is close to nil. And although the film has been much praised and often damned, until now it had not to my knowledge been subjected to the kind of comprehensive and fair-minded analysis that Scott Anthony conducts in this excellent BFI Classics volume.

In recounting the origins of Night Mail, Anthony gives pride of place not to John Grierson but to Stephen Tallents, who as head of the Empire Marketing Board and then the General Post Office supported, protected, and nurtured the Grierson-led documentary film movement. It was Tallents who steered the two government agencies toward the broad-minded and aesthetically sophisticated approach to public relations that enabled films like Night MailIndustrial Britain (1931), Coal Face (1935), Song of Ceylon (1935) and Housing Problems(1935).

Anthony devotes his first chapter to Tallents, which is considerable emphasis in a short, seven-chapter book such as this. I think he is right to emphasize Tallents over Grierson, if only because the latter has much received far more credit and attention. But it is puzzling that in his brief summary of Grierson’s post-GPO career, Anthony mentions Grierson’s work at UNESCO, his headship of the Central Office of Information, and his long stint as host of the Scottish TV series This Wonderful World (1957) but makes no reference at all to Grierson’s creation of the National Film Board of Canada, arguably his most significant contribution to documentary.

Anthony then provides a clear and entertaining account of the film’s production. My impression of the film and its making had been one of an overly contrived story in which the workers are idealized and their labor sanitized. Of course there is some of that, but Anthony documents the extensive location research that the filmmakers did and the pains they took to get the story right, such as working shifts in the engine themselves and risking their cameraman’s life to get good shots of the speeding train’s pick-up and drop-off procedures.

Night Mail is remembered in part for the several talents that were assembled for it: directors Harry Watt and Basil Wright, poet W.H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten, and sound director Alberto Cavalcanti. Anthony reports a number of facts that were unknown to me, among them that Stuart Legg read some of Auden’s poetic commentary and Grierson some of the prose commentary. Anthony also describes the tension and conflicts that arose during (and after) the production. Britten felt overworked. Auden’s contribution met with disapproval from some of his GPO Film Unit colleagues, and he soon left its employ. Watt and Wright squabbled over who deserved the most directorial credit. These two also had very different aesthetic ideas, Watt being more interested in people and stories, Wright obsessed with patterns and ideas. Successful creative collaborations are often contentious, and Anthony’s concluding comment on the matter seems apt: the GPO Film Unit “was a hothouse of unstable collaborations; Night Mail is its outstanding testament” (p. 54).

Anthony is interesting on the film’s critical reception and reputation. At the time of its release, the film (and the form of financing and production that it represented) had its champions and detractors. Over time, its reputation declined. In 1986, to celebrate the film’s fiftieth anniversary, the Post Office remade the film, including a new poetic commentary. But this new verse displaced Auden’s optimism with a darker view of Britain and the modern world. Anthony includes this commentary as well as Auden’s in an appendix. Read side by side, they recall Blake’s songs of innocence and experience. And in 2002, another remake apparently denigrates the original film. At one point, reports Anthony, “the commentary rails, ‘Fuck you, Night Mail.’” “It all seems a tad overstated,” (p. 71) understates Anthony. Again, as with his perspective on the fights among the GPO filmmakers, Anthony’s final assessment of Night Mail strikes me as knowing but wise. He acknowledges the film’s propagandistic function, but observes that Night Mail “also serves as a historical document of liberal interwar optimism,” expressing “a genuine admiration for, and well-placed confidence in, the rising tide of social democracy” (p. 71). This is balanced judgment on a remarkable film.

D.B. Jones,
Drexel University, USA.

Created on: Thursday, 11 September 2008

About the Author

D.B. Jones

About the Author

D.B. Jones

D.B. Jones is Head of the Media Arts Department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He taught at La Trobe University in the early 1970s, is the author of two books on the National Film Board of Canada, and has written and/or directed numerous films, among them the Australian experimental feature Yakkety yak (1974).View all posts by D.B. Jones →