NIGHT MAIL (1936) – an appreciation


Nostalgically carried-away as ever by its final 3-minute section, I wondered (again) which element is most crucial in advancing the classic Night Mail has become, into an area way beyond the aims of documentary? Pat Jackson’s mysterious and striking black and white images are always more than you expect. Auden’s poetry (or “verse commentary”) sharply observant, reminiscent, perfectly timed and liberally proselytizing. Benjamin Britten’s music, a call to attention, both emphasising and challenging the rhythm . . .   The truth is that everything is better than everything else – and none will ever have to bear being forgotten.

Throughout the film’s 24-minute entirety, between the propaganda of facts and figures, Cavalcanti’s snatches of diegetic sound – clanking point levers and crashing nets, sirens and whistles, the din and clatter from factory heartlands – are commanding, the entire sound element heartened and linked by the reassuring roar and rush of the train.  Even when the film goes silent and at times almost dead, in the wooden, pigeon-holed coffins of Auden’s blank-faced coaches – studio re-enacted verité with the workers asked to sway – something preternatural and oneiric remains. Even the drudgery is haunting. The self-conscious workers smiling nervously and making forced jokes, almost post-modern in their unintentionally ironic theatre.

One thing I have not been able to discover[i], is where the farm section with its beautiful trees, embankments, fences and haystacks, was filmed, and how fictional that lineside idyll is. Are those men, (“Charlie. She’s come back at 5 to 2”), and his mate merely actors? Who provided the straw-hatted farmer with his racing results in so picturesque a manner, beneath the telegraph poles? Was it a relative or a friend on board? Or did the GPO of 1936, toss all manner of documents from speeding trains to anyone prepared to pay? This forty-five-second-long Eden of hayfields and horses and relative silence, is etched into my brain. Time slows down and sometimes I feel I’ve lived in that high, halcyon summer, with its visionary cloudscapes, forever.

In Night Mail, the nightly working journey becomes heroic. The man in the beret training an apprentice, who winks at a colleague and at us, looks like a partisan, a lower-class version of one of Auden’s airmen or saga wanderers – aiming to shoot enemies from the flashing bridges, to defend the workers perhaps? Take me back to the idyllic farm where it is always summer, and I will be anxious no more . . .

Pedantic train buffs often get fussy about all the constant switching of locomotives in Night Mail – that has never bothered me. The magic of steam engines – and I’ve coaxed them to life in winter, fired them, ridden on the footplate and got cinders and ash in my eyes and been black all over, so it’s no mere fantasy – their living presence, is what compels the motion of the film. I don’t care about the wheel-arrangement or the number.

It doesn’t matter either, that the “Postal special” isn’t really passing the shunted local, but rather that someone has just got the loco crew to move their heads, cartoon-like, in unison: That was Shell that Was[ii]. I used to fanaticise that this section was filmed at Cheddington – one of the locations where me and my friends would go on our bikes, circa 1969-72, to watch trains pass, always hoping we might stumble upon some left-over money from the Great Train Robbery[iii].

Fifty years later we live not far from the Night Mail’s old route through the Northern Fells. Yesterday, criss-crossing its route to get to Haweswater, all the farms were busy with haymaking. In some mountain areas, these farms are not so different to the idyll above, but the haystacks have been replaced by acres of plastic, and the horses by tractors and quadbikes. I wonder in the long term how much of that will be seen as progress?


Lawrence Freiesleben, Cumbria, July 2019




[i] at
and in Blake Morrison’s wonderful Guardian piece of 2007, Auden’s centenary year:



By Lawrence Freiesleben

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