This is the Night Mail…

Last week I visited the newly refurbished Central Library in Manchester where one of the main attractions is the BFI Mediatheque. This allows you to sit in front of a terminal and browse through a huge catalogue of historic British films and classic TV programmes; addictive for all of us media junkies!

I spent half an hour or so watching Night Mail, the legendary 1936 documentary which follows the Euston to Glasgow overnight mail train. There are a number of things which are truly memorable about this film; not least Benjamin Britten’s score and the unforgettable prose of W H Auden (“This is the Night Mail crossing the border, bringing the cheque and the postal order”).

It’s worth remembering that Night Mail was produced by the GPO Film Unit and was what we would today call a corporate video. In the 1930s, long before anyone had even heard of corporate social responsibility, organisations such as the Post Office had in house film units which made a wide range of films for screening in cinemas. These films were not just a way for the organisations to blow their own trumpet; they were also informative and highly entertaining. In addition, the likes of the GPO Film Unit and British Transport Films were a great training ground for some of Britain’s best directors and technicians.

There is also a big difference in how the films are distributed and viewed. In the 1930s films from the likes of the GPO Film Unit were shown in Britain’s extensive network of cinemas, which regularly attracted 18 million visitors each week. Today corporate videos are more likely to be found on the organisation’s website or posted on YouTube and will be seen by an audience of much less than 18 million.

Nowadays, corporate videos tend to be slickly produced, but few of them display the wit or style of Night Mail. If you are thinking of producing a video for your organisation, my advice would be to first of all go along to your local Mediatheque and spend half an hour watching Night Mail.

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