On Friday 15th August I made my way to the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank for a screening of Brief Encounter with the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing a live score. I didn’t really know what to expect from this experience. I’ve been to the Royal Festival Hall so many times, but never have I seen a film screened in there and I wondered how the acoustics would work and how the evening would pan out.
Well, let me tell you… it was wonderful!
Filmed in the last few weeks of the Second World War and released in the Autumn of 1945, Brief Encounter tells the story of Laura (played by Celia Johnson), a comfortably married woman who, through a chance encounter at the train station, falls in love with Dr Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). Based on the one act play by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean, the score features heavily Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
The evening commenced with an introduction by Lucy Flemming, Celia Johnson’s daughter, explaining the history of the film and reading extracts of letters that Celia Johnson wrote to her husband during filming. This was simply charming and the perfect way to introduce the film and settle the audience. It was light-hearted and personal, witty and immensely interesting.
This was followed by a complete performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, conducted by David Charles Abell with Leon McCawley on piano. This was a great performance, really great balance throughout the orchestra and sublime soloists. The concerto is so memorable and so well-known that it had to be perfect, and it seemed so to me. I was very impressed. The opening few minutes were played by Leon McCawley with great precision, the opening few bars simply magical. I had goosebumps.
After the interval and a quick re-organisation of the orchestra onto the level, the screening began. Despite an initial problem with the film’s sound, made light of by the conductor and promtply fixed, the newly commissioned score was brilliantly balanced with the film. You completely forgot the orchestra was right in front of you as you were immersed in the film, the score fitting seamlessly with the pictures.
I found that the first 5-10 minutes were a little restless for the audience as everyone settled down and began to concentrate on the film rather than being distracted by the novelty of a screening in a concert hall. After that however, the entire audience had relaxed and simply enjoyed the film.
It is strange to think that people my age think of this as such a novel experience, live musical accompaniment. The fact that this was a normal cinema experience during the first half of the 1900s is a surprise to many, despite this actually being featured within the film. It is an age seemingly lost to us, but one that I hope we will see more and more.
Part of a three week series of screenings in the Royal Festival Hall, Brief Encounter is being shown three times with live score. I would definitely encourage anyone to go see the film on Friday 22th or 29th August. If you can’t make it, just watch the film anyway.
It is wonderful.