Night Mail, the GPO Film Unit’s 1936 documentary, seemingly had everything going for it from the start – from its directors Harry Watt and Basil Wright, narrators John Grierson and Stuart Legg to the poem that WH Auden wrote especially for it and the music score composed by a 23-year-old Benjamin Britten.

The GPO Film Unit, set up by John Grierson in 1933, to take on the responsibilities of the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit, had a reputation for producing worthy, but somewhat dull films on realistic subjects – usually to do with the post office. The films were screened in local cinemas and shown to the general public. In practice, however, Grierson, by employing left-wing, cutting-edge filmmakers, such as Humphrey Jennings, managed to produce innovative media at the forefront of international documentary filmmaking – not just in terms of film production or cinematography, but also in music composition, sound recording, animation and film editing as well.

Experimental filmmakers like the brilliant animator Len Lye worked for the unit, innovating to create the kinds of visual or oral effects they wanted to achieve. Lye, for example, in the 1935 film A Colour Box, painted directly onto negatives, producing a fast-paced, visually stimulating animation, made all the more exciting by the Latin-influenced sound track. Lye put in a section on parcel rates so that the film could be bought and distributed by the unit. Commenting on the film unit’s success, Grierson said: ‘It was something altogether new to be looking at ordinary things as if they were extraordinary’ and this is what the unit excelled in.

Working at the GPO Film Unit in 1936 was young WH Auden, who was employed to write text, but also to act as an assistant director. He was, in fact, in charge of the second camera unit on Night Mail, although he failed to impress director Harry Watt, who later commented:

‘I didn’t give a damn if he’d written The Ascent of F6, or whatever the hell he’d written. He was just an assistant director, as far as I was concerned, and that meant humping the gear and walking miles, and he turned up late … He looked like a half-witted Swedish deckhand.’

Although Auden later left the unit after arguing with Basil Wright, travelling around Iceland with Louis MacNiece instead, he produced some extremely fine work during the six months that he worked there and none better in my opinion than the poem that he wrote specifically for Night Mail.

Following a postal train travelling from London to Scotland, the documentary is beautifully shot. Auden’s words are used to evoke not just the the movement and speed of the train, but also portray its beauty and the humour and comrady felt by the very many workers who come together to deliver the post. Auden’s words were cut to fit the film sequence. He said that he timed ‘the spoken verse with a stopwatch in order to fit it exactly to the shot on which it commented‘ and this technique contributes to the film’s success.

A box-office hit, Night Mail altered public perception of the GPO Film Unit. The documentary has subsequently influenced leading filmmakers and many of its techniques – the use of music, rhythm, the way in which the documentary was shot, for example – have since been commandeered by other industries to great success.

Between 1933 and 1940, Grierson’s film division produced realistic documentaries that were hugely influential on British film and in the development of modern advertising techniques. It also had many important admirers, including Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels who looked to the film unit for inspiration when making his own diabolical Nazi-inspired media.




Also of interest A Colour Box (1935) by Len Lye, GPO Film Unit; The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) – a Billy Wilder classic?; Hitchcock (2012); The Splendour of George Stevens’ Giant (1956).