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« Tout ce qui bouge sur un écran est du cinéma. » (Jean Renoir)

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Henry Watt & Basil Wright, Night Mail, 1936

NIGHT MAIL (1936)(Edit)

de Harry Watt et Basil Wright.
Documentaire - 1936 - 35mm - Noir et blanc - 24 mn

Site www : http://www.nightmail.rweasel.net/

Night Mail - Courrier de Nuit - (dir. Harry Watt and Basil Wright, 23 min., 1936) — With a live original soundtrack by Ken Thomson, New York avant-jazz vikings Gutbucket breathe new life into this classic documentary about the British mail train.

Night Mail is a 1936 documentary film about a London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) Anglo-Scottish mail train, produced by the GPO Film Unit. A poem by English poet W. H. Auden was specially written for it, as was music by Benjamin Britten. The film was directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, and narrated by John Grierson and Stuart Legg. It starred Royal Scot 6115 Scots Guardsman.

As recited in the film, the poem's rhythm imitates that of the train's wheels as they clatter over the track sections, beginning slowly but picking up speed so that by the time the narration reaches the penultimate verse the narrator is speaking at a breathless pace. As the train slows toward its destination the final verse is taken at a more sedate pace. The famous opening lines of the poem are "This is the Night Mail crossing the border / Bringing the cheque and the postal order". The poem however remains under copyright. Such is the iconic status of the film, it was used as inspiration for a famous British Rail advertisement of the 1980s, known as the "concerto ad" ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddtPI07hhA8 )

"Concerto ad", British Rail advertisement, from the 1980s

Night Mail had modest origins: a film to explain to Post Office employees how the postal special travelling between London and Scotland worked. John Grierson asked several writers to make the journey and give him their observations about the trip from Edinburgh to Euston. Grierson insisted that in the film the train journey be made in the opposite direction from south to north. Harry Watt was given the film to direct, with Chick Fowle and Jonah Jones as cameramen and Pat Jackson and, later, W.H. Auden as assistants.

When the shooting was finished and the first rough assembly was shown, Grierson was conscious of something missing. The film showed only the machinery of getting letters from one point to another, there was nothing about the people who're going to get the letters or about the people who write them. Hugh MacDiarmid accepted an invitation from Grierson to write verse for the film but having heard Auden's contribution to Night Mail he was relieved it had apparently been found unsuitable. W.H. Auden wrote the verse on a trial and error basis. It had to be cut to fit the visuals, edited by R.Q. McNaughton, working with Cavalcanti and Wright. Many lines were discarded, ending as crumpled fragments in the wastepaper basket. Some of Auden's verbal images - the rounded Scottish hills 'heaped like slaughtered horses' were too strong for the film; but what was retained made Night Mail as much a film about loneliness and companionship as about the collection and delivery of letters. It was that difference that made it a work of art.


Réalisé en 1936 à la gloire des postes anglaises, ce documentaire montre le travail dans un train postal sur la liaison Londres-Glasgow. Une nuit durant, les réalisateurs suivent les étapes de tri, l’empaquetage et l’emballage des lettres, la distribution du courrier.

Exemple parfait du mélange typiquement britannique des chemins de fer, de la poésie et du documentaire social, ce court métrage saisissant a été produit par la GPO. Accompagnée d’une musique de Benjamin Britten et des vers rythmiques de WH Auden, le projet de Watt et de Wright devient un de ces classiques du cinéma documentaire.

Director: Harry Watt and Basil Wright.

Producer: Harry Watt and Basil Wright.

Script: W.H. Auden.

Cinematography: Chick Fowle and Jonah Jones.

Assistant Cinematographer: Pat Jackson and W.H. Auden.

Editing: Basil Wright.

Sound Department: W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Alberto Cavalcanti, Pawley and Sullivan.

Original Music: Benjamin Britten.

Commentary: John Grierson and Stuart Legg.


Night Mail: Art in Documentary

Following the passage of the Quota act in 1927, British film studios produced, as well as "quota quickies" several strong lines of cinematic development. The radical social commentary as represented by Maurice Elvey's Hindle Wakes (1927); the thriller, perfected by Hitchcock in a string of successes beginning with The Lodger (1927) and culminating in Jamaica Inn (1939); and the British documentary beginning with Grierson's Drifters (1929).

Night Mail, produced in 1936, stands as one of finest British films of all time. It represents one of the greatest collaborative efforts of the period, which transformed a proposal for a simple industrial film about the travelling post office services into a true work of art. John Grierson, father of the British Documentary movement, acted as producer, and assisted with the script and commentary. Benjamin Britten, noted composer, scored the film. W. H. Auden, the poet, wrote the greater part of the Night Mail narration, and was an assistant cameraman. Although not used, Hugh McDiarmid, another well known British poet of the 1930's, prepared an alternative script for the film. Night Mail became the progenitor of an entire genre, the British transport film, which flourished under the guidance of Edgar Anstey, another Film Unit member.

Harry Watt (North Sea, 1938; Squadron 992, 1939) and Basil Wright (Liner Cruising South, 1933; Song of Ceylon, 1934), both trained by Grierson, directed the film. Alberto de Almeida Calvacanti, (Coalface, 1935; Went the Day Well?, 1942), another trainee who directed a series of successful documentaries before moving to Michael Balcon's Ealing Studios, and returning home to Brazil in 1950, worked on the film's sound track together with Britten and Auden. Wright was a friend of Auden's who was able to gain him entrance to Grierson's Film Unit.

The film breaks down into three distinct sections: Euston-Crewe, Crewe - Carnforth, and Scottish border-Glasgow. The first is both artistic and factual; the second, largely factual, and the final third almost entirely lyrical, providing a visual accompaniment to Auden's poetic text, which provides a social and artistic context for the film.

Night Mail opens with some initial, fussy establishing shots of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway's despatch offices preparing for the Down Postal Special. Then the camera moves to London's Euston Station for the Special's departure, and an extended sequence of overhead tracking shots of the train. During the course of this film segment, there is the inclusion of many statistics on the amount of mailed hauled by the Special. One scene is shot at Bushey, where a permanent way crew is working on the track and water pans, and must clear the tracks for the Down Postal Special.

At Crewe, emphasis is given to engine changing and mail interchange with other trains. The initial sequence is photographed almost entirely within the Crewe Station complex. Although there are some very nicely formatted shots, this is probably the most prosaic part of Night Mail.

Further enumeration of statistical material takes place during this section. An element of suspense is added by the late running of the Holyhead connexion, and shots of the empty platform, the despatchers' office and the train schedule board. There is another sequence at Carnforth of the trackside and carside mail handling apparatus.

Crossing the border into Scotland, we begin Auden's text linked with a cinematic poem or paen to the train and its locomotive. Of particular interest is the use of alternating voices, and the rythmic chanting form adopted for delivery of the verse, which mimics the panting exhaust of the locomotive. Here Britten's musical score appears, replacing the locomotive's exhaust and track noises which had been used in the earlier parts of the film. Watt and Wright use a mixture of canted close-ups of the engine and its parts coupled with distant tracking shots to show the train and the territory it traverses.

The narrative in this sequence is very closely matched to the cinematography, and it is difficult to judge which may have preceeded the other. Camera footage was shot by Jonah Jones and Chick Fowle who travelled to Scotland specifically to secure the rail footage. Both became well-known camera men who worked on a number of significant films. Fowle later worked in Brazil.

During the 1930's, a great number of documentaries were produced in Britain, but only a handful are remembered or watched today. Most of these were produced by Grierson's film unit, which he compared to the Soviet VGIK. Grierson's original Drifters is available, as well as Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon, and perhaps best regarded, of all, Night Mail.

One possible reason for Night Mail's continuing vitality is that it is an industrial film, a documentary and an art film. Yet, at the same time, it is none of these. The film unit produced something quite unique and different. Other documentary films from the period seem dated and uninteresting, but Night Mail, although dated, has a freshness and sophistication that Pett and Pott, for instance, lack.

Grierson's Film Unit was very organic and even a bit disorganised. Yet things would come together, usually at the last minute in a final flurry of frantic activity. This seemed to work well enough for Grierson, although this lack of discipline was later cited by Auden as one reason he chose to leave.

Night shots of the Special travelling in the night, showing only the illuminated carriage windows breaking through the dark, were an especial challenge. Night Mail's camera work was difficult, in that it required working on location, with large objects often moving at high speed, and working in often constricted and/or dangerous places to secure the desired effect shots. As a case in point, the shots of lineside mail pickups at speed offered potential death to anyone hanging too far out of the carriage doors. The engine shunting activities at Crewe also presented difficulties in providing sufficient illumination for photography.

Grierson was very particular in stressing the educational basis for the documentary, and its potential for social change. Grierson's concern to is to provide support for the existing social hegemony, and he does this poetically and artistically. Night Mail stresses the benefits of the social order.

Night Mail, too maybe be tapping into a collective memory, although this is less certain and quantifiable. The years 1887-1895 were a period of immense technological change and development on British railways. Two peak periods marked the apexes of that change, the summers of 1888 and 1895, called the Races to the North. During these two periods, the running time from London to Scotland was cut from ten hours to less than eight. During 1888, experimental schedules were carded between London and Edinburgh; in 1895, between London and Aberdeen.

During this period, travelling time was slashed by over 25%, even as train lengths and weights doubled, on both the East Coast and West Coast Routes. This is very much analgous to the moon races of the 1960's, for they both embodied a goal which captured the popular attention, and which forced rapid technological advancement and change. In each age, the newspapers were filled with the details of these projects which captured the imagination of their readers and fired the British spirit.

The creators of Night Mail were born between 1906 and 1910, and were heirs to the excitement that stirred their fathers and grandfathers. Grierson himself was born in Deanston, Scotland, about 25 miles from Glasgow.

The brilliant cinematography of Jones and Fowle especially seem to emphasise the masculine and erotic attributes of power and speed of the Special, concentrating as they do on intimate bits of mechanism thrashing and thrusting in provocative and copulatory motion, and its intrinsic excitement and mystery.

Tapping into this folkloric vein of British memory and emotion is one of the strengths of the film. In Spender's words,

Ah, like a comet through flame, she moves entranced, Wrapt in her music no bird song, no, nor bough Breaking with honey buds, shall ever equal.

Night Mail is a remarkable cinematic document, for in the last analysis, it does indeed fulfill its original purpose, to impart knowledge of the travelling post office services, but it goes far beyond that, glorying in the romance of travel, steam and the railways themselves, and contextualising the meaning and import of the postal services to everyone in Britain. It presents an extended truth about the mails, the rails and Britain itself. Sadly, the travelling post offices, which began running on January 20,1838, made their last run the night of January 8-9, 2004. Yet, even as Britons were expressing their sense of loss, they often referred to this 70 year old film which stuck in the memory, a tribute the continuing power and glory of Night Mail.




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