Thursday, 28 June 2007


By Fatmir Terziu
by W H Auden
This is the Night Mail 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.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient's against her, but she's on time.

Thro' sparse counties she rampages,
Her driver's eye upon the gauges.
Panting up past lonely farms
Fed by the fireman's restless arms.
Striding forward along the rails
Thro' southern uplands with northern mails.
Winding up the valley to the watershed,
Thro' the heather and the weather and the dawn overhead.
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from the bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Sheepdogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes.

Dawn freshens, the climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends
Towards the steam tugs yelping down the glade of cranes,
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In the dark glens, beside the pale-green sea lochs
Men long for news.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or visit relations,
And applications for situations
And timid lovers' declarations
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Notes from overseas to Hebrides
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
The cold and official and the heart's outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Thousands are still asleep
Dreaming of terrifying monsters,
Or of friendly tea beside the band at Cranston's or Crawford's:
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
And shall wake soon and long for letters,
And none will hear the postman's knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

In the documentary Night Mail, it is obvious from the start that, the relationship between soundtrack and the image is fine-tuned. The soundtrack leads fiercely and yet cools harmony that the director Harry Watt and the producer Basil Wright, settled. In the interior monologue, on the other hand, the voice and the body are represented simultaneously. As Braudy (2004 p.379) puts it, "The voice displays what is inaccessible to the image, what exceeds the visible". The essay discusses the relationship between soundtrack and image, and examines how it contributes to the meaning of the documentary.
Night Mail starts as an interior with a dialogue between two postal workers while the train moves. From that point viewers understand that this is a film made about the collection and delivery of letters by train. It makes quite an impression with the graphic black and white colour, the character lined faces of the railway and post office employees with the early morning shadows. "Composition in the frame is entered, with the erect human form a model and the face its apex" (Stam, 2000 p.88). However, as Richard Kilborn (1997 p. 78) pointed out, "the viewer begins to question whether the images and sounds of the text could possibly represent the world adequately" Throughout this documentary the words in dialogues are spoken off screen, but fit perfectly well with the images.
In contrast, in another scene the soundtrack is quite different. A male narrator recites various passages. The voiceover narrator speaks at the same time as a train is seen moving fast from birds-eye view. "Voice-of-God commentary and poetic perspectives sought to disclose information about the historical world itself and to see that world afresh; even if these views came to romantic and didactic" (Nichols, 1991 p. 32-33). According to Bruzzi, (2000 p. 56) "the ostensible purpose of the Voice of God' model is to absent the personality". Furthermore, Crofts (2003 p. 179) explains, "the use of sudden cutting and montage to create violent visual juxtapositions between unexpected images acts here to reinforce the narration". At this point, the voiceover brings attention to the viewers by providing details, which the image doesn't supply.
According to Grant, (1998 p. 155) from this perspective, "the poetic activity involves encouraging a new way of seeing. In his absence of a commentary, the spectator must seek meanings in the images and sound and though in the linkages established between them". However the poetry towards the end of the documentary tells the story more clearly and gives the pictures a sharper edge. Vaughan (1998 p. 119) in his study said that, "the shots have an air of irrefutability, as of objects fixed forever in the representations proper to them". As the train drives at sunrise through the northern moors, the sheep dog racing the train and the rabbits scurrying to cover, set to the simple visual verses of Auden, are extraordinarily exciting.
Sound too is conceived independent of the image but at the same time gives it a parallel meaning, a sort of running commentary to the scenes. In many shots it is seen together with the smile, the gesture of workers, the whole cord of their expression, the exact nuance. "It is the object of admiring glances, of conversation and of comment"(Vaughan, 1998 p. 119). According to that in fact viewers hear, and are oriented towards what they cannot see: movement of the train behind the workers, movement over the horizon. Alternatively the listener hears a track, which is charged with some elements that have no direct bearing on the narrative, where less preselection has taken place, and where he has to undertake an interpretation of the information for himself. According to what Izod said, (1984 p. 96) "composition of the image around speakers is only one way sound can centre visual attention". The sound quality in the print was good, while relationship with image establishes on-screen space.
Two sounds are heard: the train moving quickly and the sound of the bags hitting the mechanical grab. As the train speeds through the station, bags of unsorted letters are hung on the side of the railway line and caught by a mechanical grab. Bags of sorted letters are similarly hung out of the train and caught in a net as it flashes by. "It has become a sequence about the camaraderie of work and the passing on of the tricks of a specialised trade" (Vaughan, 1998 p.120). If seen closely the shots of the interior of the carriage where the mail is sorted reveal that they were filmed in a studio. An impression of movement is given by gently swinging the strings that were hanging down from the top of the sorting boxes. The postal workers walk with a rolling gait. The sound and the image work closely to make it seem real.
Furthermore in this documentary the relationship of the image with music is utterly complex. "Music plays an important part in the soundscape of documentary films" (Altman, 1992 p.226). When the music is played; it reflects the image seen by the audience. "As Aitken said, it contains the well-known sequence in which the poetry of Auden and the music of Britten accompany close-up montage images of racing train wheels, as the postal journey to Edinburgh continues" (Murphy, 1997 p. 62). The music makes it livelier, although most of the interior images are poor.
To sum up the relationship between soundtrack and image contributes to the meaning of this documentary. I have pointed out that all elements of the soundtrack such as dialogue, narration, music and sound effects have been in correlation with the image. Further, I have tried to examine it in detail. It can be said that together with image and the beat of the music and the verse, it all added up to a memorable glimpse in to the age of steam locomotion. In my view the relationship of soundtrack and image in this documentary should not be described simply as an association, but as synergetic.


Altman, Rick (1992) Sound Theory, Sound Practice 1st ed London: Routledge, p.226
Braudy, Leo, Cohen, Marshall & Mast, Gerald (2004) Film Theory and Criticism (Introductory readings) 6th ed New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.375
Bruzzi, Stella (2000) The New Documentary: A Critical Introduction 1st ed London: Routledge, p.56
Buckland, Warren (2003) Teach Yourself (film studies) 2nd ed New York: Contemporary Books, p. 32-33
Crofts, Charlotte (2003) Anagrams of Desire' Angela Carter's Writing for Radio, Film and Television (The Holy Family Album) 1st ed Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, p. 179
Grant, Barry K. (1998) Documenting the Documentary (Close Reading of Documentary Film and Video) 1st ed US: Library of Congress Cataloguing, p. 155
Kilborn, Richard & Izod, John (1997) An Introduction to Television Documentary 1st ed Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, p. 78
Nichols, Bill (1991) Representing Reality 1st ed Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 32-33
Stam, Robert & Miller, Toby (2000) Film and Theory: an Anthology 1st ed Oxford: Blackwell, p. 52 & 88
Vaughan, Dai (1998) Imagining Reality The British Movement 2nd ed London: Antony Rowe ltd., p. 118-120

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