The sleek steam engine--the Royal Scot No. 6115 Scots Guardsman--powers its way through the English countryside, spewing sooty clouds of smoke into the night air. As the racing train passes through towns, postal workers hang nets on the side of the train to grab leather pouches that station workers have hung on stout hooks. For almost 20 minutes, two voices describe the train's progress from London to Scotland. Then comes three minutes of rhyming verse in staccato recitation, accompanied by a soaring orchestral score:
This is the Night Marl crossing the border, Bringing the cheque and the postal order, Letters for the rich, letters for the poor, The shop at the corner and the girl next door ... The lines were written by W. H.Auden, and the score by Benjamin Britten, two giants of the 20th century, Britten still early in his career. Their work accompanied, of all things, a 25-minute black-and-white documentary film called Night Mail, released in 1936 by Great Britain's General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit. Although never famous in the United States, the film quickly achieved iconic status in England and has maintained that prominence ever since. What significance has this audience found in a documentary about letters sorted and distributed by an overnight mail train? The film certainly communicated the power, speed, and authority of railroads and has remained a favorite of railway buffs. And it lives on today on YouTube, which shows not only Night Mail in its entirety but also the films it inspired, together with loving parodies of the Auden poem (also called "Night Mail"), which accompanies the final three-minute sequence. The numerous worn copies housed at the British Film Institute, before the film's meticulous restoration for DVD release in 2007, attest to its popularity in theaters, especially art houses, over the decades.
Inspired as the documentary is, was its lasting appeal attributable to those final three minutes--combining images of the train's descent into the Scottish low-lands with the jaunty poem by the 29-year-old Auden and the innovative score by the 23-year-old Britten? The collaboration was fortuitous. Auden was already one of England's leading poets, having punished two collections and begun his literary collaborations with Christopher Isherwood. Britten, a recent graduate of the Royal College of Music, had composed his opus 1, Sinfonietta, but was a decade away from his masterpiece, the opera Peter Grimes. The GPO Film Unit experience led to further collaborations between the two, and Auden was moved to write several poems expressing his unrequited love for Britten.
.................. NIGHT MAIL UNITES APPARENTLY paradoxical elements. For one thing, the film promoted a government agency that hardly seemed to need promoting. The GPO was a monopoly that covered mail...