Tag Archives: British film

This is the Night Mail crossing the border

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.

Still from Night Mail.

Still from Night Mail.

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.

The classic Night Mail poster.

The classic Night Mail poster.

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.

Night Mail is available on DVD from our online shop.

Night Mail: a classic?

Night Mail holds an iconic place in British culture. Say the words ‘this is the Night Mail crossing the border’ and you’ll likely get the response, ‘bringing the cheque and the postal order.’ But critics haven’t always been so impressed. There’s a strand of thinking that says Night Mail is a classic of British documentary by virtue of being the one that everyone knows. This is a critical assessment worth picking apart, because Night Mail is far more than the film of the poem.

Commissioned in 1935 to commemorate the centenary of the travelling post office, Basil Wright sought to apply the lessons of silent Soviet cinema to inter-war Britain. Viktor Turin’s Turksib was an important model. Borrowing techniques from Hollywood (Turin was obsessed by Westerns) Turksib tried to turn social, political and technological exposition into an exciting tale of progress. He cast the train between Turkestan and Siberia in the role of the lone gunslinger bringing order to the frontier. Night Mail apes this approach, albeit modestly, it illustrates how Britain is socially, economically and technologically bound together.

However, Wright’s love of the expressive grammar of silent cinema was disrupted by co-director Harry Watt, who wanted to focus on the life of the postal workers. It is creative tension in the best sense of the term. Interestingly, Watt’s eagerness to get across a flavour of the workers’ lives meant that the train interior had to be shot in a studio. Night Mail’s ‘realism’ was achieved by building a set of the travelling post office and scripting the workers’ dialogue.

Night Mail was also funded by the GPO to help improve morale. Beset by the industrial disputes of the slump era, the film was supposed to help staff understand how even the most humdrum of jobs could be of crucial importance. Not only is Night Mail probably the greatest train film of all time then, it’s also possibly also the greatest training film.

Night Mail’s unique sensibility remains key to its appeal. The dialogue may be flat, and the acting might be wooden, but the film retains a whiff of authenticity. ‘There’s something in these bags all right, Bert’, a postman says at one point, to which the sparring reply is, ‘must be old Fred’s coupon night’. There is something about the dialogue that makes you believe it, and more than that, makes you trust the sentiment that underpins it. Then again, Myles Burnyeat has argued that the meaning of great works changes over time. The fact that every time you watch Night Mail it says something different might be what, in the end, makes it a classic.

– Scott Anthony

Dr Scott Anthony is a Fellow of Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, and co-editor of a new book The Projection of Britain: A History of the GPO Film Unit.

The BFI have produced a new DVD The Soviet influence: From Turksib to Night Mail, featuring GPO films.

The GPO Film Unit

From 1933 until its demise in 1940, many now celebrated talents of cinema and the arts worked for the GPO Film Unit. The films produced during the relatively short existence of the Unit had a major impact on British film, especially in relation to documentary film making. Benjamin Britten, W.H Auden, William Coldstream, Humphrey Jennings, Alberto Cavalcanti and John Grierson are just some of the names that appear in the credits.

Night Mail

Night Mail

Made up of a dedicated, largely youthful (Britten was only 22 when he joined in 1935), but badly paid group of individuals the creative impact of the Unit has been immense. The Unit’s existence is credited to Sir Stephen Tallents who transferred it with him when moving from the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), where he had been working to modernise Britain’s image, to the General Post Office (GPO), where he set about doing the same. Tallents retained John Grierson to head up the Unit, and commissioned work from them and other artists as part of an extensive rebranding exercise for the GPO. It was Grierson and later Cavalcanti who were responsible for negotiating many of the complexities of working for a government department. Budgets were small and rigorously enforced to the extent that an overspend on Night Mail (1936) nearly signalled the end of the Unit.

Today the films provide a fascinating insight into the history of communications in the 20th Century and of course, postal history. They include documentary, animation, advertising, public information films, drama-documentary and satirical comedy on a range of subjects, from postal rates to working class pastimes. Some of the films are a reminder of a bygone era and some are still strangely relevant; documenting the difficulties of delivering mail to a flooded village or promoting the Post Office Savings Bank which was secured by government backing in a money sensitive post-depression age.

The films were shown in cinemas and other venues including schools and community halls reaching a very wide audience. As a result of the popularity of stamp collecting The King’s Stamp (1935), commissioned as part of the Silver Jubilee celebrations of King George V, is apparently one of the most watched films of all time alongside Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Gone with the Wind and King Kong.

There were mixed ambitions behind the unit including using film to advance PR techniques, experimenting with film and sound, and an intent to empower British Citizens with information through film. Grierson’s vision was for a documentary approach to film making where reality was key and where films had a social purpose: ‘It was something altogether new to be looking at ordinary things as if they were extraordinary’. He was later joined by the Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti, who had a reputation for experimenting with sound and music in film and eventually moved on to work at Ealing Studios. The combined presence of Grierson and Cavalcanti led to a hugely innovative period in British film history.

Colour Box

Colour Box

Work by experimental film makers such as Len Lye and Lotte Reiniger meant that the public saw cutting edge film animation used to promote the services of the GPO. Examples include Lye’s 1936 film Rainbow Dance, a film about the Post Office Savings Bank which saw Lye experiment with new ways of using the Gasparcolour film, and Reiniger’s The Torcher (1938). Lye pioneered the technique of painting directly onto film negative in Colour Box (1935), to which he had added a sequence on the introduction of new cheap parcel rates allowing the film to be bought by Grierson for the GPO. This was at a time when colour film was still a novelty so it is hard to imagine what the films must have looked like to audiences at the time.

The influence of contemporary art, especially Surrealism, can be seen in films from the animation Love on the Wing (1938), promoting the new Air Mail service, to N or NW (1937) on the virtues of using the correct post code, although Love on the Wing was later banned by the Postmaster General, who found some of the imagery too ‘Freudian’. Rainbow Dance (1936) was even released in a programme of Surrealist and Avant-Garde films. Cubism was also an influence as was Soviet cinema, as seen in films including Coal Face (1935).

The documentary style saw its high point in the celebrated Night Mail (1936) where the journey of the overnight postal express for Euston to Glasgow is told through the eyes of those who work on the train; making the working man the screen hero. But the realism gives way to drama as the now famous lines of  W H Auden’s poem are read to Britten’s score and the story of those who will receive the mail comes into play with the words ‘This is the Night Mail crossing the border….’.

Grierson’s documentary vision at the Unit gave rise to drama-documentary and the seeds of our modern day soaps can be seen in films including The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1937) – seen as the first ‘story’ documentary – and Men of the Lightship (1940).

Britain Can Take It!

Britain Can Take It!

In 1939 the unit began to document and produce films to support the war effort, creating an often poignant portrait of Britain during the early years of World War Two. Films included Britain Can Take It! (1940), produced to provide US President Roosevelt with help in securing American popular opinion for Britain’s war effort, to Men of the Lightship (1940), which was a dramatic reconstruction of the bombing of the East Dudgeon lightship –significant as lightships and lighthouses had previously been considered neutral. In 1940 the GPO Film Unit became part of the Ministry of Information as the Crown Film Unit and with that the GPO Film Unit was no more.

Some of the films produced by the GPO Film Unit are now available on DVD from our Shop.

If War Should Come

Today sees the release of If War Should Come, the third and final deluxe double-disc box set of films from the GPO Unit.

Created in 1933 out of the ashes of the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit, the GPO Film Unit was one of the most remarkable creative institutions that Britain has produced. A hotbed of creative energy and talent, it provided a spring board to many of the best-known and critically acclaimed figures in the British Documentary Movement, including John Grierson, Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Wright and Harry Watt, alongside innovators and experimentalists such as Len Lye and Norman McLaren. Their work embraced public information films, drama-documentary, social reportage, animation, advertising and many points in between.  

The British Postal Museum & Archive, in partnership with The BFI National Archive, Royal Mail and BT Heritage, has curated and preserved the legendary output of short films produced by the GPO Film Unit.

This final volume of three sets covers 1939-1941, the last years of the GPO Film Unit before it evolved into the Crown Film Unit. This period saw it at its most technically sophisticated, with directors such as Humphrey Jennings, Harry Watt and Alberto Cavalcanti leading the way in the use of documentary cinema in support of the war effort. Among the films in this collection are Jennings’ poetic masterpiece Spare Time and the rousing classics Christmas Under Fire and London Can Take It!

The discs are presented in a deluxe box with a 68-page bound book containing introductory essays, film notes and selected biographies.

Disc one:
The City (Ralph Elton, 1939)
The Islanders (Maurice Harvey, 1939)
Spare Time (Humphrey Jennings, 1939)
A Midsummer Day’s Work (Alberto Cavalcanti (uncredited), 1939)
If War Should Come (uncredited, 1939)
The First Days (Harry Watt, Humphrey Jennings, Pat Jackson, 1939)
SS Ionian (Humphrey Jennings, 1939)
War Library Items 1, 2, and 3 (uncredited, 1940)

Disc two:
Squadron 992 (Harry Watt, 1940)
La Cause Commune (Alberto Cavalcanti, uncredited, 1940)
French Communiqué (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1940)
The Front Line (Harry Watt (uncredited), 1940)
Men of the Lightship (David MacDonald, 1940)
London Can Take It! (Harry Watt, Humphrey Jennings (both uncredited), 1940)
Spring Offensive (Humphrey Jennings, 1940)
The Story of an Air Communiqué (Ralph Eton, uncredited, 1940)
War and Order (Charles Hasse, 1940)
Christmas Under Fire (Harry Watt, 1941)

Special features:

  • Britain Can Take It! (1940) Slightly shorter version of London Can Take It! which was made for British audiences
  • Interview with director Pat Jackson (2007)

Format:
PAL Region 2 DVD, designed to be played on Region 2 encoded DVD players.

If War Should Come is available now from the BPMA Shop. More information on the GPO Film Unit can be found on our website.