Brief Encounter with the London Philharmonic Orchestra – Royal Festival Hall

Cinema is changing and, in the last couple of years especially, its role in culture and entertainment has undergone a significant shift. I’m not talking about 3D films which haven’t quite had the revolutionary impact some were expecting, but of the cinema as a place to participate in community-building events and to engage with wider art forms. First came the sports – football matches, Olympics and more – followed swiftly by NT Live, which more than anything else has democratised theatre-going by relaying the biggest shows direct from the West End stage to people not just across the UK, but around the world. Add to this operas, exhibition openings and ballet, and cinema is fast-becoming an affordable one-stop-shop for multiple forms of cultural engagement.

Alongside this, another quieter development has been taking place in how classic films are being revived. I’ve written before about the smattering of silent movies accompanied by live orchestra that appeared in London in the last eighteen months, largely pioneered by the BFI, but in 2014 this has become even more ambitious. Talking pictures have now replaced their silent counterpart as they did 90 years ago, so the new way to enjoy classic films is to remove their musical soundtrack and have it played by an orchestra in front of you as the actors speak on screen. The Royal Albert Hall began the trend with West Side Story earlier in the summer, and the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love has made Brief Encounter with the London Philharmonic Orchestra the centrepiece of its Love at the Pictures season at the Royal Festival Hall.

Brief Encounter, directed by David Lean, is one of Britain’s finest films, produced at the tail end of the Second World War. It tells the story of two married people – a housewife Laura Jesson, played by Celia Johnson and Alec Harvey a doctor, played by Trevor Howard – who meet by chance in a railway café and begin a chaste but intense affair. It’s doomed from the start, and they both know it, but their Thursday afternoons together become the highlight of their week, even though it brings guilt, regret and ultimately heartbreak. Based on a one act Noel Coward play (Still Life), and brought to the screen by the man himself, the film both expands and reduces its source material, taking the action out of the station and into the local area, but reducing its time to just a few weeks. There are two comical romance subplots involving station staff to lighten the mood, but to the emotional strains of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2, it is Alec and Laura’s relationship that moves the action forward.

The evening at The Royal Festival Hall begins with and introduction from Lucy Fleming, Celia Johnson’s daughter, reading letters Johnson wrote from the set to her husband serving abroad. This is a lovely touch, giving an insight into the film’s production, the cold in Lancashire where it was filmed, and Johnson’s reservations about the eight-year age gap with Trevor Howard, she being the elder. Fleming also tells us about the technical process of removing the soundtrack from the film, which involved the technicians meticulously going through it second by second to identify and remove the music sound waves, whilst leaving the speech and sound effects. In one day, they would only manage to treat 60 seconds of a film that runs for 107 minutes.

Then, before the interval, the London Philharmonic Orchestra plays the entirety of Rachmaninoff’s piece which lasts around 40-45 minutes. Conducted by David Charles Abell and with Leon McCawley as the solo pianist, it is a very affecting performance. I never go to concerts but it is difficult not to be engaged in this piece of music, with its melancholic and emotive feel which suits the film so perfectly. Although it predates Brief Encounter by 45 years, it seems to have been written especially for it. The film makes use of the concerto in sections so it’s a great decision by The Royal Festival Hall to play the entire piece before the screening and a real chance to appreciate it on its own merits.

After the interval, the film screening begins, again accompanied by the orchestra, which is an incredible experience and hearing the music live makes the film all the more poignant. The only tiny fault is the film’s projection which occasionally looks stuttered, which must be the result of taking it to pieces and putting it back together. You only really notice it when characters are walking and it didn’t impede the enjoyment of this mixed audience, ranging from children to pensioners. For those who have never seen it, yes at first you will find the clipped accents funny and it will feel a bit unlikely in places. The audience laughed their way through the intentional and unintentional comedy of the early scenes, but by the time Laura and Alec go rowing on the lake, the film had worked its charm and everyone was gripped by their affair. When they finally realise they have to part and Laura slumps defeated onto a railway bench even the most stony-hearted viewer will have a tear in their eye.

So the nature of film engagement is changing and this evening of Brief Encounter is not to be missed. While a night at the local Odeon or Vue is becoming habitual, this Southbank Centre event is the sort of ‘occasion cinema’ that London does so well, making it both memorable and special in a way that ordinary cinema no longer is. My seat at the back of the rear stalls with a perfect eye-line view of the screen was £20 – excellent value for money given this lasts 2hrs 45 mins providing an introduction, mini-concert and film viewing. It’s hard to get theatre seats for £20 these days and you could easily spend as much for a cinema ticket in Leicester Square. I would recommend the back actually; I sat near the front for Casablanca last week where looking up at the screen resulted in a painful neck. There are a number of unaccompanied films in the programme including Moulin Rouge, Dirty Dancing and Grease, but there are two more chances to see the live orchestra version of Brief Encounter, on the 22 and 29 August at 7.30pm. Most of us will probably never go to a film premier, so take this rare opportunity to indulge in some ‘occasion cinema’ and see this incredible presentation of one of Britain’s greatest films.

Brief Encounter with the London Philharmonic Orchestra is at the Royal Festival Hall until 29 August. Tickets start at £20 as part of the Southbank Centre’s Love at the Pictures season.


First World War Galleries – Imperial War Museum

Disappointing, that’s the only word for it, disappointing. After eighteen months of complete or partial closure and many millions of pounds spent, expectations for the newly designed First Word War Galleries were high. After all, it is the centenary of the conflict’s beginning and whatever this museum chose to do with its impressive collection would be a significant marker in the way the conflict will be remembered and understood in years to come.

As a regular visitor to the museum both as a customer in the galleries and an academic in the reading rooms, I did enjoy the old First World War collection. It was arranged chronologically and with clear sections for each area of study – the origins of the war, the battles, the air war etc. Although clearly somewhat old-fashioned in its glass cabinets and placards approach, as you walked around it you did get a sense of how those various elements came together to make up the experience of conflict. My hope for the repurposed galleries, therefore, was to retain that overall structure but weave into it much more testimony from the IWM’s extensive collection of letters and diaries, as well as the stories of those who fought in other services, other fronts and from other parts of the Empire, as well as the changing experience of life at home. The result would be a bold statement about how the war should be remembered and a place where all those who participated were recognised and understood.

It took two attempts to actually get into this exhibition such are the unstinting crowd levels even several weeks after opening. This time, with lots of signs explaining the need for timed entry (at last), and staff issuing tickets on the steps of the museum at opening time, I finally made it in there. The first thing you notice is that it’s very very crowded. Lots of people are being admitted in each batch so you do have to queue to get to the exhibits and to it’ll be impossible to read everything. This will calm in time but you should factor-in at least an hour or 90 minutes for even a superficial walk around.

It does look impressive, the gallery itself is low lit with lots of interactive maps, games, projection and videos all of which add to the richness of the content on offer. In the past the IWM has been among the first to embrace interactivity in its public engagement and this is becoming a vital communication tool for the modern museum. In some aspects it’s even artistically realised, particularly the stylised sculpture of a pack of running soldiers onto which is projected footage of soldiers charging. There’s also a huge amount of information here covering most aspects of the war including different nationalities and war roles. However, while this is good to see and gives the tiniest flavour of the scale and diversity of the experience, as a unified gallery collection it sadly fails in several ways.

First there is the problem of organisation. Although this is roughly a chronological account of the conflict, starting with a map of European rivalries and ending with the Versailles conference, it’s not always entirely clear where you are in the exhibition, or more importantly, when. This is further complicated by tangential ‘themes’ mixed into the soldiers’ story, such as the home front, which is placed next to some 1915 pieces about the Western Front. Looking down the room, you can see case after case of interesting items but no signposts to indicate the year – these could easily be suspended from the ceiling above the relevant section to guide the viewer as they walk around. The themes also sit somewhat uneasily in the current structure because they inadvertently imply that the Home Front or the naval war, for example, was a static thing and did not change as the conflict unfolded. Much as the events in France and Belgium changed, so too did every other aspect of the war but this is barely reflected here.

Second is the question of learning outcomes, what is it the curators want you to know about the war from this display? Yes, it tells you there were lots of elements and yes it wasn’t very nice, but unlike the old galleries, you don’t leave feeling that you have a basic overview of events. It is all in there, the early battles, Somme, Ypres, Jutland even, but that sense of participant knowledge evolving, of events developing alongside and directly resulting from the technological advances, how one thing leads to the next, and how it all fits together in a system of war which is as extraordinary as it is frightening, is missing. Again, better signals could have been given to those markers and what they meant in terms of the armed forces and Britain’s changing position. Even the trench experience is less than half the size and nowhere near as evocative as it used to be.

Now, there are a lot of signs -each item has its own description and sections are given a relevant quote and a bit of explanatory text – although bizarrely these look like poems with four or five words on a line, it’s really very odd – but somehow it falls short of a consistent narrative or any kind of bold statement about remembrance. And there are factual errors and sweeping generalisations that at times slightly misrepresent events. So, there are a number of improvements the IWM could try to make this both an insightful and educative experience. First their collections are astounding and much more could be made of the plethora of first-hand accounts they own. I would still arrange this chronologically but in each year have 5 sub-themes – the army, the navy, the Royal Flying Corps, the Home Front and technology / medicine. So in 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918 you would learn what each of the services was doing, what changes were occurring at home and how new machinery or techniques were changing the way war was fought and how men were treated. I would also pick some key dates for each year and show what was happening (e.g. 1 June 1916, the Somme; 31 July 1917 Passchendaele) and have a number of servicemen and others whose testimony recurs throughout the exhibition so you can ‘follow’ their war experience as well as seeing a variety of others.

The Western Front would dominate each year – that is to be expected give the emotional hold it still has – but this structure would give scope to tell the stories of other people involved, as well as the integration of colonial servicemen. It would also show you how the system of war developed in these years and how increasingly important the role of the three services became. Much as the soldier understandably dominates, pilots and sailors were an important factor in a complex war machine; take one piece away and the others function differently. The IWM claim they want the new galleries to help a modern audience understand human conflict, but in its current arrangement it fell short on curation. The objects and information are there and the new interactive technologies genuinely add a lot to the galleries, but you don’t leave with a clear understanding of the conflict or its human cost. I wanted the new galleries to be so great and I really hoped they would be, so disappointed really is the only word for it. A hundred years have passed and historians have done much with these primary sources to further our understanding of the Great War. IWM has a unique opportunity to use that to shape the public memory and decide what the conflict will mean to any who visit in the next hundred years.

The First World War Galleries at the Imperial War Museum are free to enter but currently timed ticketed entry is in operation. Tickets can be obtained from the front of the museum on entry at 10am or from the ticket desk by the new gallery entrance.


Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War – Imperial War Museum

On 4th August 1914, exactly 100 years ago, Britain entered the First World War. After weeks of debate and political wrangling the war began, sweeping Europe into four years of, largely unforeseen, destruction that toppled monarchs and killed millions. The Imperial War Museum, established in 1917 as the guardian of the war memory, recently reopened after an extensive redevelopment project that included an overhaul of the First World War galleries in time for this very day, the centenary of that first moment at war.

I was hoping to tell you about them in this post, but unfortunately they were so busy that it was impossible to get in and it wasn’t clear that ticketed-entry was in operation (IWM – a sign would have been helpful!). So I’ll try again another day, but in the meantime I visited the art gallery, always the quietest place in the museum, which across two sections examines the ‘truth’ of war from the perspective of serving solider and official artists, juxtaposed against the ‘memory’ of the conflict which draws on work commissioned by the British War Memorial commemoration scheme. The decision to separate these two things is a good one and draws a clear distinction between the changing purpose of Great War art.

‘Truth’ takes a number of war artists in turn and by looking at their attempt to convey a realistic picture of war, shows how their individual style developed as the years passed. Nevinson began the war as a volunteer ambulance driver and his famous La Mitrailleuse (recently seen at the National Portrait Gallery) is a beautiful example of the Futurist style, as is the bombing of Ypres – a dynamic depiction of buildings crumbling under barrage. But as the war progressed, and by then an official war artist, Nevinson’s figures became increasingly naturalistic, moving away from his original style and resulting in the controversial, but beautiful, Paths of Glory showing two dead soldiers face down against a mud and shiny barbed-wire landscape.

William Orpen, initially a society portrait painter, was similarly affected by the events he observed, painting almost ghoulish scenes of peasantry and soldiers, often washed in a sickly green, and deathly battlefield landscapes in pale white. These make for a stark contrast when displayed across from his stunning and fresh-looking portraits of Royal Flying Corps officers – some of the most beautiful in the collection. This part of the exhibition gives an interesting insight into how Orpen’s styles co-existed, almost as though two different people had painted them. There’s also work by John and his more famous brother Paul Nash in We are Making a New World whose sunlit battlescape just hints at opportunity as well as desolation.

Across the landing in an entirely separate gallery, ‘Memory’ considers the commemoration of war and the various works commissioned by artists, many of whom had never seen active service or experienced the battlefields. This physical distance is a good decision by IWM emphasising the different roles art played in these two contexts and forcing the viewer to adjust their perspective on what these two sections mean. There’s Percy Wyndham Lewis’s striking A Battery Shelled contrasting the stylised figures of soldiers struck by a German bombardment with the detached naturalistic figures of gunners in the foreground. This sits alongside Travoys Arriving with Wounded by Stanley Spencer showing servicemen being taken to a dressing station – no Great War exhibition is complete without a Spencer or two – and this piece reinforces the overall themes of redemption, heroism and sacrifice which unite the ‘Memory’ section.

Nowhere is this more strikingly portrayed than in the enormous John Singer Sargent painting, Gassed, presenting lines of men temporarily blinded by mustard gas being marched to the field hospital for treatment, while others lay around their feet. Rather than just implying the devastation of war, it is a painting that’s equally about redemption with the hurt men being taken to safety. There’s also a room of paintings by female artists who were largely absent from British War Memorial scheme collection as they were rejected on completion, and only later donated to the IWM (who by that point had acquired all these pieces). These depict wide-ranging subjects from home front life to the predominantly male world of airboat factories. Their inclusion here tells us as much about the experience of war as it does about the politics of such commemoration which seemed then to have been a largely male domain.

Truth and Memory gives us a contrasting picture of war as it was fought and how officials wanted it to be remembered. The IWM has an incredible collection of paintings from a raft of artists and they are very cleverly arranged to make you think about the way the war has been presented. By carefully differentiating between how the war was lived and how it was remembered, the IWM is referencing recent scholarship that draws a contrast between how men viewed their experiences at the time and later through the prism of survival and victory. So if you can’t get into the new First World War galleries then head up to this exhibition instead and you’ll begin to understand not just how artists represented the war but how their work still affect our perception of it 100 years on.

Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War is at the Imperial War Museum Art Galleries on Level 3 until 8 March 2015. Entrance is free.


Quentin Blake: Inside Stories – The House of Illustration

Imagine any Roald Dahl novel, Matilda say or the BFG, what’s the picture that immediately appears in your mind? Chances are it’s one of the distinctive illustrations by Quentin Blake who’s longstanding collaboration with Dahl not only brought those stories to life in his uniquely simply style, but for many of us, more than 30 years after they were written, remains the definitive picture of those characters. The primary images we have of The Witches, The Twits, George’s cantankerous grandma and many others are in our minds because Quentin Blake put them there.

The House of Illustration is a new exhibition space close to King’s Cross Station that celebrates the artistry of those who have designed pictures to accompany children’s books. Neighbouring the relocated Central St Martins campus overlooking Regents Canal, its inaugural exhibition quite rightly celebrates Quentin Blake and his many decades of work. Although this is a very small space, just three rooms, there’s quite a lot packed in which gives an interesting insight into the process of illustrating and how Blake works with the writer to enhance the text of the book.

The first room is decorated with Blake’s images and has one cabinet explaining in cartoon form, of course, what an artist must think about when illustrating a new piece. This is a clever way to introduce you to the thought processes including which parts of the text to draw and how to get across the key story points, issues or emotions. Each part of the exhibition includes explanatory labels which Blake has written to help the viewer understand more about his working style – this is a nice touch because you then end up with a direct connection to the pieces on display rather than how they’ve been interpreted by a curatorial team.

Most of the work is in the second (and main room), with each wall or display case dedicated to an original artwork and sketches from a particular book that Blake has illustrated since the 1970s. These include two of Dahl’s books – Danny the Champion of the World and The Twits – as well as his own creations. The Dahl pieces were carefully chosen to highlight the contrasting styles that an illustrator may need to use; The Twits is more grotesque, cartoonish and silly to reflect the pantomime-nature of the book, whereas for Danny, Blake used a more realistic style to enhance the warmth and familiarity of that story. In both cases we get to see a number of pieces from the books which clearly underline this point about the illustrators’ skill in first selecting what to draw and then carefully suggesting the tone of the book.

This is perfectly demonstrated in the final room dedicated to Michael Rosen’s Sad, depicting his own grief at the death of his eighteen-year old son. First we get to see the email Rosen sent to his publishers with the text for a potential book, written like a prose poem, which in itself is extremely moving. But then, around the room, are Blake’s interpretations of those feelings and descriptions of grief which both hammer home the crucial role of the illustrator and pack an enormous emotional punch at the end of this exhibition. Particular images linger in the mind, including Rosen’s description of sadness being all around him, which Blake depicted as a hunched Rosen against an imposing and overwhelming grey backdrop, where you can almost feel the emotion pressing down on him. Or the last picture of Rosen alone by a single lighted candle. These ensure you go home knowing that the pictures in children’s stories aren’t just pretty things to have, but a core means of conveying particular messages in a way that’s both visually appealing and quite affecting.

Although there’s a good amount of Blake’s work here, including his reimagining of Voltaire and accompanying images for David Walliams’s The Boy in the Dress, this is still a rather small exhibition which you can cover in about 30 minutes. Honestly, I was expecting there to be other work to see as well especially as the advertising hoardings on the walk from King’s Cross show lots of other artists’ work so I was expecting some permanent galleries in addition to the exhibition space. But if you go with that in mind, you’ll enjoy a chance to understand more about the process of illustration, and the man whose images will remain the definitive picture of many of our favourite childhood characters.

Quentin Blake: Inside Stories is at the House of Illustration until 2 November 2014. Entrance is £7.00 but a number of concessions are available.


Richard III – St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden

First published on The Public Reviews website.

There will be quite a few versions of Richard III in the coming months; since finding the body in the car-park last year, and now that the courts have decreed the he’ll be interred in Leicester, interest in Shakespeare’s play has increased. Sherlock colleagues Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch will both present their interpretations in the coming months – Freeman at the Trafalgar Studios and Cumberbatch as part of the BBC’s Hollow Crown TV film series. Add to that Mark Rylance’s critically acclaimed production at the Globe and Apollo last year, you would be forgiven for feeling a little overloaded with interpretations of the controversial Yorkist monarch.

While Freeman’s has received some fairly negative reviews both for the setting and central performance, the Iris Theatre’s new version, beautifully staged in the church and gardens of St Paul’s in Covent Garden is not one to miss. The play begins with the Battle of Tewkesbury in which the York brothers – Edward, George and Richard – defeat King Henry VI and kill his son. Edward becomes King and all is seemingly right with the world. Behind the scenes however, Richard is slowly and designedly removing those who block his path to the throne, starting with the old King, but soon dispatching his own brothers, his wife and most infamously, his nephews, before assuming the crown for himself.

The role of Richard is not an easy one, being almost entirely devoid of subtlety or remorse for his killing spree. Unlike other famous Shakespearean assassins who are often innocent or loyal until their lust for power corrupts and thereby destroys them, Richard is villainous from the start so the character doesn’t move much beyond that state. David Hywel Baynes takes this fairly flat villain and rather brilliantly gets the audience on his side, by drawing on the humour of Richard’s duplicity, first wheedling and pleading with key players, then mocking them to the audience. It’s also a very charismatic and physical performance; Richard’s deformity is not just expressed through the standard hump and bound hand, but in a squirmy, tensed quality throughout his whole body emphasising the supressed mania of Richard’s character.

The rest of this small company take on multiple roles and genders, which seems more a pragmatic decision about managing the various characters than a political statement. Mark Hawkins’s Queen Margaret is particularly astonishing, dressed like an extra from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, full of terrifying venom and screaming curses, yet it absolutely worked. Nick Howard-Brown as George, Duke of Clarence delivered a heartfelt final speech before he was dunked in vat of wine, and Sam Donnelly was notable in the dual role of King Edward and Lord Stanley. The rest of the company was rather less memorable, however and it wasn’t always easy to keep track of who they were.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this production is the staging, taking place in various locations around the church. This is very well managed by director Daniel Winder, with characters taking the audience naturally from the steps of the church, which forms the main location, to scenes among the trees and rose beds of the gardens, as well as into the church itself. Sound, by Filipe Gomes, is also used very cleverly to enhance the atmosphere, not just music, but creaking doors and echoes suggesting the Tower of London, and the clatter of horses and clashing swords in the battle scenes. Plenty of seats are provided so there is very little standing, which at over three hours including interval is an important element.

Seeing Shakespeare in the open air is always a very different experience and in the grounds of St Paul’s – ‘The Actors’ Church’- it feels particularly special, whilst the final scene inside the church is a powerful spectacle. This production is innovatively staged and gripping to watch, with an excellent central performance that almost has you rooting for him. There may be a lot of Richard’s to see this year, but the charm of this one is going to be hard to beat. It ends on Friday so see it while you can.

Richard III runs until 25 July at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden and tickets start at £12.

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