On Thursday 11 July Dr Scott Anthony will give a talk here at the BPMA on the classic film Night Mail which will be accompanied by a screening. In this blog Dr Anthony talks about Night Mail‘s timeless relevance.
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.
Night Mail – the 1936 cinematic account of the travelling post office, to text by WH Auden – is the most famous film from the GPO documentary unit. It’s as evocative of the 1930s as Battersea Power Station, the Shell Guides and Agatha Christie.
For much of the past 20 years Night Mail has also been deeply unfashionable. It’s liable to be seen as the kind of thing that might have starred Harry Enfield’s Mr Chumley Warner.
It’s true that, for a documentary, parts of Night Mail are not that realistic. For a start, the scenes of travelling post office workers sorting the mail were filmed on the GPO’s lot in Blackheath with the posties urged, Star Trek style, to sway gently from side to side.
Indeed, Night Mail is actually the film of a train set. The GPO had commissioned the exquisite Bassett-Lowke to produce a miniature travelling post office for display at exhibitions. The miniature proved so popular with the public that it then became a documentary. When people say that Night Mail portrays a model post office, they’re more right than they know.
However, the genesis of Night Mail – the corporate promo – was far from straightforward, and it began with the future Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee. Pressure was growing for the reform and part-privatisation of the GPO. Besieged by criticism, the then postmaster-general Attlee hired the publicity expert Sir Stephen Tallents to project an image of the GPO as the “outstanding example of collective capitalism”.
Previously, the British establishment had frowned on government advertising during peacetime; it was considered something indulged in only by dubious continental regimes. Now, though, state innovations were to be unveiled with dramatic showmanship. During 1934’s Telephone Week speakers were erected in Trafalgar Square to blare out Jack Hylton’s jazz band as they were flown over London in an Imperial Airways plane. Tallents commissioned the artist Macdonald Gill to design a new brand logo for the GPO. The introduction of the speaking clock, telephone chess and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s redesign of the Jubilee telephone kiosk followed.
Night Mail was part of Tallents’ effort to use emerging new media to promote an up-to-date concept of Britishness. Films such as Night Mail and Humphrey Jennings’ Spare Time are testament to Tallents’ collective method of developing an appropriate identity for Britain’s burgeoning social democracy.
But such nostalgic risks reducing Night Mail to the status of a tatty-eared Penguin classic, when those who commissioned, made, starred in and watched the film were confronting some startling contemporary dilemmas. Grappling with public service reform, technological, social and economic change, as well as the growth of internationalism, is a tricky task. Just ask the Communication Workers Union. Or Vince Cable.
Visit our website to purchase tickets for Dr Scott Anthony’s talk and the film screening of Night Mail.