Funded by a minuscule budget of £2,000 and using a small, inexperienced crew, Night Train tracks the journey of the Travelling Post Office, a train service running from London to Glasgow. Although it was originally commissioned as a run-of-the-mill promotional film for the Post Office, some inspired collaboration with poet W.H. Auden and young composer Benjamin Britten meant that the project became more of an ode to the process rather than a pamphlet for it. The film opens with a group of workers organising sacks of letters while exchanging unconvincing pleasantries. Once the sacks are safely on board the train, the film’s real adventure begins. As the steam train tears its way across the country, a trail of white smoke spilling behind it, Auden’s poem comes roaring in, narrated to the beat of the music. A staccato montage flaunts the rich beauty of the countryside, but is abruptly stopped with a title card signalling the end of both the journey and the film.
At just 23 minutes in length, it’s over very quickly, but for the minute or so in which we are hit with the heady mix of music, image and poetry, it becomes obvious why the film is so celebrated. It’s a brief moment of magic, but a memorable one nonetheless. The film does however suffer from some discordantly hammy acting by the workers during the dramatisations, which confuses the role of the film, something which co-director Harry Watt later acknowledged as an amateur mistake on his part.