Night Mail shows both the daily operations of two of the most efficient infrastructures ever developed, mail and rail, and something that today sounds so fantastical that it could have walked out of a steam-age fantasy or magical realism novel: a rolling post office speeding down the rails all through the night, humming with postal clerks, never once stopping as it delivers and picks up mail from each station along the route.
Basil Wright and Harry Watt’s 22-minute-long 1936 documentary, commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the travelling post office, describes the postal and rail infrastructure for transporting mail between London to Scotland, to a Britain that is still heavily agricultural. While the product of an age dependant on manual labor and mechanical technology, it’s a fast and efficient system. Trains are stunningly fuel-efficient for moving large amounts of freight, even by modern standards, and the mail is dropped and collected at each station by the moving train, making no scheduled stops except for the turnaround at each end. Rather than diverting mail to processing center to be sorted, adding sorting time onto transit time, Night Mail shows a travelling postal processing office in the train cars, sorting the mail en route.
Watt’s focus was bringing to life the men of the postal service, humanizing working men and their labor in a film designed in part to smooth over morale problems during rough economic times, while Wright’s was the graceful movement and rhythms of the system in play. Adding composer Benjamin Britten and poet WH Auden to much of the crew of Wright’s Song of Ceylon, it’s a film centered around rhythm, of mechanical motion, of words, of men counting out the time to swing the mail bags out from the train, of Britten’s score: the film is cut to the pace of the driving wheels of the train.
Night Mail is iconic today, but was the product of a great deal of tension between the creative forces behind it. Blake Morrison at the Guardian discusses, in a fascinating article about the production of the film, the creative conflicts between Wright and Watt, Watt’s displeasure with WH Auden, who was an assistant director in training at the time, and a very young Britten’s attempt to reconcile his musical style with the “jazzy” score he was asked for… and again between Wright and Watt.
Grab a cup of coffee and settle in:
For more on Night Mail and the artists involved:
- Scott Anthony, author of The Projection of Britain: A History of the GPO Film Unit, wrote a little about how Night Mail was made for The British Postal Museum.
- Auden’s poem “Night Mail“, written for the film
- A forthcoming biography on composer Benjamin Britten, Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music
- And, last but not least, if you can’t wait for that steam-age fantasy novel about the travelling post office, it looks like Rudyard Kipling might have come through for you in 1909’s “With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 AD”, a short story about the GPO’s travelling dirigible night mail service. Retrofuturist fiction is all part of the service here at Fast Approaching.