CSDF 2023 review: Night Mail / Drifters ★★★★☆

13 mins read

2023 marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of John Grierson. As well as being the acknowledged ‘father’ of the British documentary film movement, Grierson was originally from Stirlingshire (as it was then called), and his archive is held at the University. It’s fitting then that this anniversary has been marked with a special presentation of two of his most influential films. 

Presented in the “A Doc, A Dinner, A Drink” format, which owes much to the Central Belt’s A Play, A Pie, and A Pint format. The stage of the Main House at Macrobert Arts Centre had been transformed into a shared dining space, with the films to be projected onto the large screen filling the width of the stage. 

This sense of a shared experience, of a community coming together, reflects one of the central themes of both of this presentation’s films. A community is needed to give effect to even the smallest of outcomes.

The format meant that the audience’s attention was focused intently on the screen, with both films being applauded as they concluded.

Image credit: Central Scotland Documentary Festival

“Drifters is however an essential film to understand the very beginnings of documentary film.”

The second film in this double bill was Drifters, from 1929. This silent film was accompanied by Forrester Pyke, who was playing the grand piano that had been situated on the edge of the stage. Pyke’s playing was superb, lending a supportive score to the silent images. He also managed to reflect the tone of danger and peril which formed the occasional part of the narrative depicted.

The story follows a group of North Sea herring fisherman, as they travel out into the hostile environment to bring in a catch of almost 160,000 fish. 

This film is regarded as the documentary that began the documentary movement in Britain. Shown here after Night Mail, it is clear to see some of the ideas which became Grierson’s trademark. 

The focus on details, the foregrounding of the work to be done, and how many people it took to get a fish from the depths of the sea, to a plate on a restaurant in London all make it clear that everything depends on an intricate network of people, all working towards a common aim.

As the film originates from 1929, some of the technology used is obviously considerably more basic than we accept as a fundamental requirement in film-making today.

In particular, some of the images are almost out of focus – no doubt a consequence of filming in the open waters, as much as the lack of sophistication in the equipment used. 

Image credit: Central Scotland Documentary Festival

There are also moments when more effective use of lighting would have helped to be able to fully understand what we were being shown, and again, the difficult filming conditions cannot be dismissed as a highly relevant factor. 

As this is a very early example of a British style of documentary, there is perhaps less of a deliberate attempt to impose meaning onto the audience. There are intertitles which establish what we are about to be shown, but it is left to the viewer to construct their own response to the different characters of the fishermen, and their lives at sea. 

Perhaps slightly long, Drifters is however an essential film to understand the very beginnings of documentary film.

Drifters was preceded at this event by the grand-daddy of British documentaries, 1936’s Night Mail. This is the point where all of Grierson’s ideas coalesced, and the result is a film which has become a critical and artistic touchstone for filmmakers and other creatives in the nine decades since the film’s release. 

Image credit: Central Scotland Documentary Festival

Narrated by Grierson himself, with Stuart Legg, the film is a 24 minute examination of the “down postal special”, also known as the Travelling Post Office, followed in its journey from London Euston, up the West Coast Main Line, terminating at Glasgow Central. 

The narrative follows the service on one journey, as the Post Office staff on board the train sort the mail, ensuring some of it is delivered to small villages situated along the route, directly from the moving train. The train exists to transport letters from all over the country to Scotland, and the ‘postal special’ stops at major stations to off-load sorted letters, and collect more, as yet unsorted ones, as its journey continues.

Once again concentrating on Grierson’s aim of focusing on the working man, the attention to detail shows us the train being tracked on its journey as it is passed from the control of one signal box to another. 

Produced for the General Post Office, by their own in-house film unit, there is no doubt that there is a significant element of self-promotion here. At this time telephone lines, telegraph systems, and telephones were all part of the General Post Office, and this film therefore shows all the GPO’s different departments working together. 

It is also, in retrospect, a highly constructed piece of film, almost drifting into propaganda at times, in which much of the content has been artificially constructed. 

Much of the dialogue between characters has obviously been recorded either before or after the event – and, again in retrospect – regional accents have been considerably softened. This dialogue also frequently serves to advance the narrative, in a manner we would how regard as “scripted reality”, rather than true observational documentary.

In a time when ‘Health & Safety’ was almost nonexistent, the sequence where the mail is both dispatched from, and collected by, the passing train as it thunders past remote villages, remains a masterpiece of created tension. The knowing wink of the dispatcher as the moment of “will it work?” approaches, invites us to admire the skill of these manual workers, toiling through the night for our convenience. 

Once again, the sense of community, and of the sheer number of workers involved in this seemingly smallest of tasks is a strong theme running throughout the narrative. 

The community theme is also prevalent in scenes where a newspaper is thrown off the roaring express, allowing a farmer to learn of the sports results the same day they have happened. 

The swapping of postal sorters at Crewe suggests a shared understanding of the basic nature of their digs. As an act of storytelling, we are left wanting to know more – what do these men do in the hours when they are not working, but also not able to be at home?

The hints contained within the brief scene where these English and Scottish sorting crews swap over are a stunning example of the implied worlds created with the briefest, most carefully created exchanges. 

It highlights the necessity of the workers, while also exposing the mistrust of them by those at the top. In one scene in a worker who is consulting the gazette for the location of a town turns comical when the worker’s manager interrupts and conveys the same information the worker’s colleague had already shared moments earlier. It is made plain that no further checking by the worker is expected – he is to take the word of his superior, unquestioningly.

In further manipulation of the viewer’s understanding, the footage of the mail bags being unloaded, moved across the platforms, and reloaded at Crewe, has obviously been sped up. Still, as a demonstration of British efficiency, carefully developed logistics and a willingness to solve problems as they arise, the film remains as an outstanding exemplar. 

Women are almost wholly excluded from Grierson’s film. Only three women are shown – one a passenger on a local train, held at a station to allow the Special to pass through at speed, the other two the staff working in the buffet at Crewe in the twilight hours.

At least the women here fare better than in the earlier Drifters, where they are only seen from behind. The women at the Crewe buffet have lines, and, to an extent, a voice. But they serve almost as visual wallpaper. 

Night Mail, possibly accidentally, captures a moment in time which a mere five years later had been all but destroyed by World War Two.”

Night Mail concludes with Auden’s infamous rhythmic poem, opening with “This is the Night Mail, crossing the border, bringing the cheque and the postal order”. As Benjamin Britten’s score swells, and the Scots Guardsman hauls the Travelling Post Office’s long train up the gradient at Beattock, fanfares greet the train’s arrival at the summit, as Auden’s verse kicks in again. 

Working now as nostalgia for an England that no longer exists: the mines of Wigan, and steel works of Warrington are long closed. Night Mail, possibly accidentally, captures a moment in time which a mere five years later had been all but destroyed by World War Two. 

When produced in the 1920s and 30s, Grierson may have had the intent of making the ordinary working man a hero on the screen – what he actually achieved was to both define a genre, and to create what are now historic artefacts. But he could have turned his lens towards the women keeping everything running behind the scenes.

The genre termed ‘documentary’ by Grierson has truly become a modern archive. This collection of visual texts, or documents, allow a 21st century audience to experience, for a short time, a recent past that would probably already have slipped from the collective memory if not for the endeavours of Grierson, his colleagues, and those who continue to work in the field he developed and shaped. 

This presentation of two of his foundational films serves to show us how influential his ideas for how to make a documentary have become. 125 years on from his birth, these films show that Grierson’s legacy is assured.

Night Mail is available to watch, for free, on the BFI Player.  

Featured Image Credit: Central Scotland Documentary Festival

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