Tag Archives: Harry Watt

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.

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.

We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume Two

The second of three deluxe double-disc box sets presenting all the key films of the GPO Film Unit on DVD for the first time was released on 23rd February 2009. It includes the much loved Night Mail and the experimental animations of Len Lye and Norman McLaren.

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 springboard 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. 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 been working for several years to curate and preserve the work of the GPO Film Unit. Volume One, Addressing the Nation was released last September. Volume Three, If War Should Come, will be released on 13th July 2009.

We Live in Two Worlds covers 1936-1938 and represents the Unit at its creative height. The films included on the disc are:

Disc One
Rainbow Dance (1936)
The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1936)
Calendar of the Year (1936)
The Fairy of the Phone (1936)
Night Mail (1936)
Roadways (1937)
Trade Tattoo (1937)
Big Money (1937)
We Live in Two Worlds (1937)
N or NW (1937)

Disc Two
A Job in a Million (1937)
Book Bargain (1937)
What’s On Today (1938)
Love on the Wing (1938)
The Horsey Mail (1938)
The H.P.O. (1938)
News for the Navy (1938)
Mony a Pickle (1938)
North Sea (1938)
Penny Journey (1938)
The Tocher (1938)
God’s Chillun (1938)

The discs are presented in a deluxe box with a 100-page bound book containing introductory essays, film notes and selected biographies.

We Live in Two Worlds is not just important in cinematic terms, but provides a valuable and fascinating insight into 1930s Britain. It is now available from the BPMA Shop.

For more information on the GPO Film Unit please see the Screenonline/BT Archive Interactive Derek Jacobi on the GPO Film Unit.