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.