Night Mail: Collector's Edition Review
Perhaps it's the period murder mystery on the Orient Express, the sound of a train clattering on its tracks through the night and through sleeping villages or waking to hear the train pause at a station early in the morning but there's a romance to train travel that survived even some years spent commuting daily into London. An overnight flight, even in first class, compares unfavourably even to being tossed through the air in a caravan that one shares with two-dozen unpleasant and unwanted guests while the first class compartment on the overnight express from London to Aberdeen is a treat, one in which the passenger is able to pass the first hour drinking one's way out of London before retiring to a tidy little cabin for the journey north. I would wholly recommend it even if there isn't a murderer or a snooping Belgian about.
So this reviewer comes to Night Mail with a certain liking for the subject matter, the documenting of the Travelling Post Office on its journey between London and Glasgow. That might not sound particularly interesting but Night Mail, from such an inauspicious start and a running time of a mere 23 minutes, has garnered quite a reputation. In spite of being fixed on a Travelling Post Office between London and Glasgow and the stations it passes through, the viewer can take much away from Night Mail. Some, with an interest in British documentary filmmaking, of which Night Mail is amongst the most critically and commercially successful, will regard Night Mail's marriage of sound, film, narrative and editing very highly indeed. The limit the GPO Film Unit placed on the production forcing some experimentation with style and Night Mail is more ambitious than most. Others will prize the Night Mail's portrayal of working in a Travelling Post Office even to the clink of teaspoons in chipped metal mugs.
As well as the sight of the Travelling Post Office rumbling through the countryside in the middle of the night, my interest in Night Mail is one of the GPO engineering a solution to delivering and picking up mail whilst keeping the train moving. Before WH Auden/Benjamin Britten ending, which only lasts for three minutes or so, there's a wonderful sequence of preparing the mail bags for handling off the train and for the picking up of mail destined for Glasgow. A series of hooks and nets were the means to accomplish this feat and Night Mail contains a scene of a rookie preparing these bags. "Two bridges and forty five beats!" By it's success in joining picture to sound, the viewer counts along with the post office workers as they ready themselves for the transfer of the mail, a daring shot from outside the moving train showing the track side nets snaring the letters from the Travelling Post Office.
As the train approaches its destination and the hills of Scotland guide it to Glasgow, the narration makes way for WH Auden and Night Mail, the poem written for this film. "This is the Night Mail crossing the border / Bringing the cheque and the postal order" is how it begins but it's a great reading. Night Mail becomes almost breathless with its picking up speed alongside the train carrying letters, "Written on paper of every hue / The pink, the violet, the white and the blue." Eventually, the train passes through the cities still asleep and the tone of the film slows once again. It ends thereafter as dawn breaks and the Night Mail reaches Glasgow, this film presenting the everyday delivering of a letter as a revolution in industry, one that was carried out nightly as the country slept.
Night Mail is shown regularly on BBC4 and one would think that, like many of the British Transport Films features, it has proved popular over the years. As such, the prints available to the BFI probably aren't in the best condition and while it does look as though they've done everything possible to clean up the image, it's still a grainy picture with a slight softness to it. To be fair, though, it's still better than this viewer had expected it to be, keeping in mind this was produced in 1936 by, one imagines, a poorly-funded part of the GPO Film Unit. What the BFI have done is not only to make consistent the detail and contrast but to have cleaned up the image such that there are very few noticeable faults with the print. There are certainly none of the scratches or spots seen on Spotlight On The Night Mail (also in this set), which shows the restoration that has been carried out on Night Mail.
The DD2.0 audio is a dual mono track and while there is clearly some background noise, again, it's much less than I had expected there to be. The narration, music and dialogue spoken by the staff of the Travelling Post Office is all clear and easily understood leaving it sounding very much of its time and place, particularly in the rattling of the train on the tracks. Finally, there are subtitles on Night Mail and all bonus features.
The Way To The Sea (15m38s) is the first extra that the viewer is offered on this DVD, one that also features a narration by WH Auden and the music of Benjamin Britten but which couldn't be further from Night Mail. Where one has a certain grace to its use of poetry and music, the prose in this sits uncomfortably against the film. A line of passengers waiting for a train are said to be, "...people who read adventure stories or understand algebra..." while a sailor holding a handful of cash aloft is treated rather shabbily by a, "...celebrate the artless charm of the far-travelled sailor." It begins with a potted history of Portsmouth but it's intention is simply to celebrate a day out at the seaside and nothing more.
Spotlight On The Night Mail (17m28s) dates from 1948 and while it covers much of the same ground as Night Mail, it does so with less of an eye on art and rather more on the engineering. Dating from 1948, the techniques used to film the Travelling Post Office had clearly improved with the footage of the journey from the train having a clarity that wasn't possible in the 1936 feature. However, it does keep watch on the earlier work, covering the journey with much the same structure and with the same points of interest, albeit this time following the progress of a letter sent by a Mrs Smith in London to an address in Aberdeen.
Thirty Million Letters (28m25s) is a documentary on a major sorting office from 1963 (and in colour) and while it takes in the Travelling Post Office, it has just as much interest in the unmanned postal trains that run beneath London and in the machinery that checks for stamps, that sorts letters from parcels and in the lipstick kisses that seal letters to Elvis Presley. Finally, it looks at those letters that need to be carried by air and sea to reach their destination before ending with a postmen doggedly delivering his letters through a blizzard on the islands of Scotland.
It is a plane taxiing down a runway that opens Night Mail 2 (25m33s), a remake of the first film to show how the Royal Mail had changed between 1936 and 1987. Instead of WH Auden and Benjamin Britten, Night Mail 2 has Blake Morrison, who admits in the booklet in this set that he was, "...on a hiding to nothing", and James Harpham. Morrison pays homage to the first film but including the line that Auden was forced to cut, "Uplands heaped like slaughtered houses" but while the aircraft it features aren't quite the match for the locomotives of Night Mail but it gives due time to one of the forty Travelling Post Offices that, until recently, crisscrossed the country at night.
Finally, there is a Booklet, which contains details on the restoration of the film, all of the features in this set, notes from Britten's diary, WH Auden's and Blake Morrison's poems and an excerpt from Harry Watt's book that deals with the making of Night Mail.