Commercial sound film was less than ten years old when in 1935 Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden joined the General Post Office Film Unit. Composer and poet were only recent acquaintances, but over the next seven years their relationship would turn to friendship, admiration, artistic partnership and love, before cooling amidst diverging aesthetic aims and unretractable words.
The early years of this friendship were fruitful, though, both artistically and personally; Auden inspired and bullied, often in equal measure, those with whom he worked or slept. In the second half of the 1930s, this artistic partnership yielded works for stage (plays, not opera), screen, radio and concert hall. So technically assured were these works, that by the time that both men arrived in America in 1939, opera was the inevitable extension of their collaboration.
If Paul Bunyan (1941) marked an end to active collaboration, Night Mail in essence marked its beginning. Though predated by a few film collaborations-Coal Face (1935) and the cantata 'Negroes' (1935), re-assembled two years later as God's Chillun-Night Mail (1935-6) was the first of an audacious string of works that poet and composer produced over the following five years. Testing different genres and their associated conventions, these included Our Hunting Fathers (1936), On This Island (1937), The Ascent of F6 (1937), and Ballad of Heroes (1939).
The four film collaborations, though, allowed even more experiments in genre than those undertaken in the concert hall or theatre. Here was Auden's artistic métier: a blank canvas, with potentially a far wider audience than for his poems or plays. To these cinematic creators, life was intended to imitate art: how else were Utopias to be built? Indeed, it is a reflection of the politics, talents and preoccupations of those who worked for the GPO Film Unit in the 1930s that Night Mail, a documentary ostensibly about the delivery of mail, could serve also as a paean to the masculine worker and to gentle socialist ideals. Such subversive duality shaped GPO output-whatever public and government function the Post Office served. Before Night Mail, Coal Face too had applauded working-class men and masculinity, through a jackdaw's nest of genres and images. Similarly, though the slightly later Britten-Auden collaboration The Way to the Sea (1936) celebrates the electrification of the London-Portsmouth railway line, its coded treatise is on English rearmament in the late 1930s.
Night Mail has fewer sinister or ominous undercurrents. It shares a striking visual palette with Coal Face and The Way to the Sea; but the End Sequence, a linear aural narrative perfectly matched to the visual one, has no cinematic precedent. The Shakespearean imagery and metre of 'O lurcher-loving collier' in Coal Face gives way to a more directly appealing rhyming ballad, its rhythm underpinning that of the moving train it describes. In the film print, the narrator seems not to draw breath, something which reinforces the long visual and aural lines around which this final scene was conceived. (For one verse of the End Sequence, the narrator's part lacks a specific musical rhythm: though Britten put the cues into his sketch more or less where they are found in the published version, the placement is only approximate and should not result in stilted or rushed speech.) Britten's contributions (the sul ponticello cello writing, the rhythmic ostinato, the off-beat bass harmonics) are servants of the speech, but these simple effects imitate, never recreate, the engineering feats the film honours.
Though Britten had explored technical manipulation of sound in Coal Face-playing the sound-track backwards at one point-it was not a creative device that intrigued him beyond these early films. Yet the appendicised percussion sequence to Night Mail is nothing if not an exploitation of the possibilities afforded to him by the novel technology. More than a mere curiosity, this sequence presents a paradox. To balance this assortment of instruments-including a hand-cranked, chain-operated camera ('Motor Moy') and a small trolley ('Rail')-would be a difficult task in the concert hall without the technology Britten originally had in mind. But to exclude it from this publication would be wrong, since this wordless segment suggests something of the joy, experimentation, and forward-looking mastery of two creative geniuses early in their careers.