The Foxearth and District Local History Society

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Meetings, announcements and notices for the Foxearth and District Local History Society, and associated organisations. For details of our activities, and for more information on recent events and current programme, please contact Clare Mathieson 01787 311337 or Lynda Rumble 01787 281434.

'The Night Train': Talk and Film-Showing - Tuesday, 14th September

On Tuesday, 14th September, Peter Jones gave 22 members & visitors a fascinating talk about the background to the making of the classic 1936 film 'Night Mail' followed by a showing of the film. It was a first meeting back after covid restrictions, in the refurbished Foxearth Village Hall

In 1935 the 'in house' film unit of the GPO were commissioned to make a film about the Travelling Post Office (TPO) as part of a series of events to mark its centenary. The head of the film unit was John Grierson. and it was down to his vision, and readiness, to use untried talent that made the film so successful. Released January 13th 1936, it is now recognised as one of the most critically acclaimed films to be produced within the British documentary film movement.

It was collaboration of talents rather than of any one individual. Most of the direction was down to Harry Watt who would go on to direct feature films like "The Overlanders" and "Where No Vultures Fly".

The film also shows a bold use of sound, bearing in mind that the first talking picture had appeared less than 10 years previously. The sound direction was under the control of Alberto Cavalcantti, a maverick Brazilian filmmaker. His skilful mixing of location sounds, speech, music and contrived sound effects regarded as commonplace today, in the 1930's was ground breaking. His expertise can be seen particularly in his collaboration with Benjamin Britten's music and WH Auden's poetry in the atmospheric conclusion of the film featuring Auden's famous poem "Night Mail". Britten was only 22 and in his first job, and Auden had been taken on as an assistant director, and for both of them working in the film industry was a bit of a culture shock.

The film was made with heavy, difficult to handle clockwork cameras, they weighed 221b and used 35 mm film in a magazine that held 200 feet, enough for two minutes. One "wind" of the clockwork mechanism ran 170ft of film. A further difficulty was that the image in the camera's eyepiece appeared upside down. So different from the camera's of today.

The appeal of the film is that although it is a documentary, it does not just quote facts and figures. It tells a story, shows the camaraderie and team spirit of the workers and looks into the human aspects of running the TPO from the railways point of view as well as the Post Office. The film has some nice sequences. The signal box piece is a masterpiece of film editing and shows the work of the signalman in a few well placed shots.

Filming the TPO arriving at Crewe was done over several nights, and captures the busy atmosphere very well, bearing in mind the train only stopped for 13 minutes!

Just as they were packing up after an all night filming session the wheeltapper, who had been waiting patiently and whom the film crew had completely forgotten, said "What about me Mr Watt?". They had to unpack the camera and shoot his bit. Consequently, within the film crew, any forgotten shot was always known as a "wheeltapper".

Because of the very restricted space in the TPO carriages it was impossible to film the TPO staff at work. All the interior shots were filmed on a specially built set at the film studios in Blackheath. To convey the impression of movement the actors, who were all TPO staff, were told to sway, a technique that would be later used on the early Star Trek TV series. Also, there were lengths of string hanging from the sorting frames that were surreptitiously nudged about to give the impression of movement. The section showing the bagging sequence, where the mail is made up into leather pouches ready for despatch, is well done, and explained in the form of instructions being given to a new recruit. The bags, which could weigh as much as 601bs had to be put out with split second timing, as demonstrated when they are put out but not until they have passed under two bridges and counted 25 wheels beats. Clever use of the carriage wheel beats helps to build the tension, but they were not able to get the train wheels to the right rhythm, so they recorded the wheel noise of a model train.

The film was originally allocated a budget of £2000, which the film unit blew quite convincingly, and the ensuing row nearly caused the shut down of the Unit. The film starts quite grandly with aerial shots and 19 out of the 22 minutes running time is spent getting from London to Preston when there is a sudden change of pace. The next minute we are over Beattock and shortly after arrive in Glasgow. It was partly because they had run out of money that accounted for the films abrupt end and Auden was commissioned to write his poem "Night Mail" to make the ending grander.

This film is a masterpiece on so many levels and can be regarded as a milestone in filmmaking. Its style certainly influenced many later British films such as the "Blue Lamp" and "The Cruel Sea". Although there are a few continuity and operating errors, "Night Mail" it is still a marvellous film that has never lost its appeal and with the demise of steam trains and the Travelling Post Office never will.
Clare Mathieson

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