Having not previously experienced one of the talkies-with-live-music events that have become so popular since digital technology enabled them to exist, I went to see Brief Encounter with real-time Rachmaninoff at the Royal Festival Hall the other night. Digital transformation involves the careful stripping out of the music while leaving the voices in place; it's so detailed that 60 seconds takes a day to do. Striking the balance in the hall between the volume of the soundtrack and the live music isn't easy either, but the effect is so absorbing and compelling that we can forgive the occasional "what did she say?" for the gorgeous horn-playing or clarinet solo that might mask a couple of seconds.
|Alexandra Dariescu with a creation of her own. |
Photo: BBC Music Magazine
Celia Johnson's daughter, the actress Lucy Fleming, introduced the evening, telling us about her mother's memories of the filming: the cold early mornings at the station pervaded by the smell of the fish train from Aberdeen; the enormous challenge of playing a role that involves large tracts of silence with a narration over the top; and Noel Coward's absolute insistence, when others tried to demur from using that concerto, that nothing could happen without the Rachmaninoff - that Laura's character is circumscribed by the facts that "she changes her library book at Boots, she eats at the Kardomah and she listens to Rachmaninoff"...
Of course! Where would we be without Rachmaninoff? The music creates perhaps 85 per cent of the film's emotional world. The little town it shows us, otherwise, is cold, small, mean. Everything is based in deadened routine: putting on the wireless, picking up the embroidery or the Times Crossword, the Thursday ritual of going into Milford, chatting to acquaintances you can't stand and who haven't an interesting thought in their heads, going to the cinema no matter what's on, laughing at the Mighty Wurlitzer, and then the cup of tea at the station where the staff never say hello even though they see you every single Thursday and try to make life a little bit harder for you because it's their job (Beryl swings her keys at Laura with such relish). The one sign of passion is Alec's devotion to his work in preventive medicine; as he describes it Laura falls for him, perhaps because she has never seen anyone express such aliveness before.
We never really know Alec, though, or Laura either: only the tip of the iceberg, plus their eyes. Laura is Celia Johnson's eyes and Rachmaninoff. Everything in the movie happens at a tangent - the shadows of Alec and Laura in the station underpass, the chilly stone bridges, the snide and hypocritical "friends", and even Laura's impossibly cute kids are filmed from off-beat angles. ("My birthday's in June and there aren't any pantomimes in June," says little Margaret in expert plummy tones. Apparently the little girl was actually Celia Johnson's niece.)
Only the Rachmaninoff is direct. And we love it and we weep because there is so much love in there, being squashed to extinction by that ghastly, two-faced provincialism and hypocrisy that Coward captures to perfection. Remember, Coward was gay and homosexuality was illegal. The whole thing is an analogy of illicit love, with its truth spark buried deep.
Odd to think that that world-in-black-and-white represents to some the sort of nostalgia that's sparked the ludicrous prospect of Brexit. Love will go away from us forever on the 5.43pm train and we will never get it back because we're worried about what other people will think if we try. What could be more British than that?
Dated? Not necessarily. Quite a few people, not least in the orchestra, were seeing that film for the first time and it won a lot of new friends.