Directed by Harry Watt & Basil Charles Wright • Documentary • 1936 • 23 minutes
A cornerstone of British documentary, Harry Watt and Basil Wright's NIGHT MAIL, with music by Benjamin Britten and verse by W.H. Auden, stands as a beacon for John Grierson's original purpose for documentary - to make the working man the hero of the screen.
The film is an account of the operation of the Royal Mail train delivery service and shows the various stages and procedures of that operation, beginning with the mail collected for transit. As the train proceeds along the course of its journey, we are shown the regional railway stations at which it collects and deposits mail, while inside the train the process of sorting takes place. Then, as the train nears its destination there is a sequence – the best known in the film – in which Auden’s spoken verse and Britten’s music are combined over montage images of racing train wheels.
It is ironic that, despite the shared credit of Watt and Wright, it is the partnership of W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten that steals the limelight for this film. Almost an afterthought, developed as a way of finishing a narrative that had reached an anti-climax, it was Basil Wright that had suggested some verse to draw the film to a close.