Tag Archives: documentary

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.

The distinctive films of Humphrey Jennings

Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950), is widely considered to be one of Britain’s greatest documentary filmmakers, with a distinctive style much admired by cinema-goers and critics alike. Born in Suffolk to a painter mother and architect father, he was creative in a number of fields before working in film: after attending the Perse School, he studied English literature at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where in his spare time he painted, designed sets, and also managed to find time to co-found the literary periodical ‘Experiment’, with William Empson and Jacob Bronowski (later to become well-known figures themselves).

A still from "London can Take It!", Jenning's documentary made in the early days of World War 2.

In 1934, Jennings joined the GPO film unit, where he worked with colleagues such as John Grierson and particularly Alberto Cavalcanti, and developed an experimental style that became instantly recognisable. Having helped to organise the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936 it’s no surprise that the movement influenced his work: he strove to see the extraordinary in the everyday, stating that ‘to the real poet the front of the Bank of England may be as excellent a site for the appearance of poetry as the depths of the sea’. This sensibility was perfect for his work for the General Post Office, and is evidenced in films like ‘Penny Journey’, where the seemingly simple journey of a postcard is followed with a focus on the behind-the-scenes processes that enable its arrival, and, most famously, ‘London can Take It!’, a film that celebrates London’s enduring spirit, resilient even during the Blitz.

GPO Public Relations Department poster - "Visit the Post Office film display - Free" - a projector is projecting an image of a GPO badge. (POST 118/506)

Many of Humphrey Jennings’s films (alongside other GPO classics) feature on the compilation GPO Film Unit DVDS ‘Addressing The Nation’, ‘We Live In Two Worlds’, and ‘If War Should Come’, available from the BPMA shop.

Or if you want to see even more of his work, a brand new compilation released by the BFI features some of his GPO work as well as his other films. ‘The Complete Humphrey Jennings: Volume 1’ is available from the BFI shop.