February 28, 2017


Night Mail – 1936 | 25 mins | Documentary | B&W


Plot Synopsis

Night Mail

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.

Production Team

Harry Watt: Director
Basil Wright: Director
Pat Jackson: Assistant Cinematographer
Chick Fowle: Cinematography
Jonah Jones: Cinematography
Stuart Legg: Commentary
John Grierson: Commentary
Basil Wright: Producer
Harry Watt: Producer
Sullivan: Sound Department
Pawley: Sound Department
Alberto Cavalcanti: Sound Department
WH Auden: Sound Department
Benjamin Britten: Sound Department

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