In 1936 British film makers Harry Watt and Basil Wright directed and produced what was to become one of the most iconic films of our time. This film was different however, it did not star Clarke Gable the Tom Cruise of the era or even Catherine Hepburn or Bette Davis as female leads. The lead in this film was a steam train. This piece of cinematic history was in fact co-produced by the General Post Office film unit and ran a total length of 24 minutes. The film documented the nightly journey of the postal train operated by London, Midland and Scottish Railway that ran between London and Glasgow. The stars of this film were the train itself and the staff who operated it. The film was Night Mail!
Probably the most recognizable cast member would have been poet W.H Auden, who ends the film with a verse commentary. Auden of course famous for his poem “stop all the clocks” which was used in the nineties film Four weddings and a funeral.
Many have debated the merits of this film but essentially what it did was demonstrate the hard work, enthusiasm and technology invested in communication in Great Britain at the time. Trouble and war were brewing in Europe and the only way to communicate with friends and relatives across the country and the globe was by letter, this train was the 5G network of its time, and those responsible for it felt undervalued and underappreciated. Sending multiple messages to multiple recipients the equivalent of bulk SMS was undertaken by a steam train and the staff who drove it, stocked it, and maintained it. The technology was cutting edge.
The Post Office in 1936 was Great Britain’s biggest employer and there was mounting pressure on it to demonstrate to not only the public but also to its employees that it was operating in the best interest of the country. The feeling being that this may ward off privatization and as such significant sums were invested with PR and advertising firms who undertook the massive task of repositioning the post office.
Fast forward to today and have things changed that much? Yes, our communications providers are now global public companies, but the pressure remains on them to demonstrate that in a competitive environment they have the best interests of both their customers and employees. The issues and platforms of the day have certainly changed. In 1936, no company was aggressively considering the issues of climate change, carbon footprints, inclusivity, equality or privacy when it came delivering messages between two parties. Envelopes have become data packets, texts and sms has replaced formal letters, and technology allows our devices to finish our sentences, but pressure remains on the operators to demonstrate to shareholders that not only do they care about themselves, their staff and the environment, but that they do so whilst simultaneously driving revenue profit and shareholder value.
Night Mail upon release received tremendous acclaim and applause. What was essentially a 24-minute advertisement had been timed to perfection, with the Post Office and the film makers clearly understanding the temperature of the nation and delivering a film that to this day is studied by film makers, journalists and social commentators across the world.
The likes of O2, Vodafone and EE are unlikely to be granted the public’s attention for 24 minutes, but the scale of advertising spend addressing the multitude of issues society views as important and delivered in shorter 30 second slots demonstrates that in the last 85 years advertising execs and film makers are still referring back to Night Mail not so much because of what was communicated in the film, but more because of its appreciation of the social environment and how the film makers were able to tap into the issues of the day.
I’m not convinced many would have the appetite to watch a film on the technology behind the text, but millions are interested in the impact that their text messaging has on the environment, their society and the well-being of those around them. Everything changes but everything stays the same.