One of the features of interwar Britain is its rapid modernisation and the expansion of its infrastructure. This extended to the General Post Office (GPO) which looked after the expanding telephone network as well as paper mail delivery and the sending of telegrams. Although telephones rapidly became more widely used during the interwar period, placing phone calls outside one’s own exchange district, or outside of working hours, could still be a very costly affair. Writing letters remained very popular, and of course most business affairs were also conducted by writing. With the introduction of long-distance commercial flights in the 1920s, it became possible to send and receive letters to all corners of the Empire much more quickly than before.
In 1933, the GPO established its own film unit, to produce documentaries and propaganda films about the GPO’s work. Britain already had an Empire Marketing Board which produced films to favour the Empire, so the establishment of a specific unit for the GPO was a small step. The GPO film unit was headed up by pioneering director John Grierson.
In 1936 the GPO produced a documentary short about the postal train which travelled from London to Scotland every night. Night Mail has become a documentary classic, mixing art with fly-on-the wall footage of the postal service in action. WH Auden wrote a poem for the documentary, which features as its voice over, and the music was written by Benjamin Britten.
In its runtime of just over 23 minutes, Night Mail shows real postal workers in the business of running the nightly postal train from Euston up to the highlands. On its route, it passes railway workers, passengers on other trains, and farmers. The infrastructure of the railway line is intimately connected with the vast infrastructure of the postal service, which ensures that any letter is delivered to the correct address in record time. Cutting through the country from south to north, the postal train is depicted as cutting through all layers and sections of British society. A high-tech control room, which was in constant connection with station managers up and down the line, ensured that the whole system kept running smoothly.
The rural scenes the train passes are juxtaposed with the ingenious systems the GPO had devised to ensure maximum efficiency. Postal workers up and down the line hung bags of post from poles, destined for towns further up north. These bags which were picked up by the train as it sped past through a specially designed system. At the same time, workers on the train chucked out bags of mail for postal workers to pick up and distribute. Inside the carriages, dozens of men sorted individual items of post into pigeonholes at high speed.
Where Night Mail presents the successful running of the postal delivery system as a collective endeavour which uses the latest technology to benefit the whole country, a film made by the GPO film unit a few years later focuses on the personal side of sending post. N or NW was made in 1938, several years after the first introduction of lettered postcode districts in central London. Postcodes in central London are based on compass points, so N for north London, SE for South East and so on.
In N or NW we are introduced to Jack and Evelyn, a young couple who have recently had an argument. Evelyn is writing a letter to Jack, which she relates to us in voiceover. Jack has been ‘simply beastly’ to her: he got angry with her for going to a party with a male friend. Evelyn demands that Jack sends her a written apology by return post, otherwise the relationship is ‘ruined’.
Upon receiving this missive, Jack is eager to apologise and he quickly pens his response. However, when it comes to addressing the letter, he cannot remember if the postcode for Evelyn’s home in Islington is N or NW. He eventually plumps on NW. We then return to Evelyn, who has waited in vain for Jack’s letter to arrive and is now writing him another one, in which she encloses the ring he gave her. But! Just as Evelyn is about to leave the house to post this final rebuttal, the postman arrives with Jack’s apology.
Evelyn and Jack go out picnicking the water in the countryside, their relationship restored. It is revealed that the post office corrected the address on Jack’s letter, changing the postcode from NW to N. A postman informs the audience that writing addresses clearly and without errors will ensure prompt delivery. However, the film implies that even if you do make a mistake in the address, the GPO is there to correct your mistakes and avert disaster.
N or NW has an experimental formalism belied by its thin and sentimental storyline. The film is full over superimpositions, characters speaking to camera and other surprising shots, all set over an upbeat jazz soundtrack. Like Night Mail, it paid attention to its form as well as its message. The films combine instruction with visual innovation. Despite their different perspectives, both presented the postal service as kind, community-based and highly efficient and reliable.
Night Mail can be viewed for free on BFI Player by people in the UK.