Film Last week, I talked about how In The Bleak Midwinter replaced It's a Wonderful Life in my top five films of all time. During one of the key moments in that film, for various reasons which I won't spoil in case you ever decide to see it, the characters talk about what makes their life worth living and Vernon, one of the sanest actors in this group who're staging Hamlet in an old church at Christmas says, "Rachmaninoff. That bit in Brief Encounter. And Brief Encounter, actually. That makes life worth living. I'll buy you the video for Christmas."
I actually saw Brief Encounter for the first time at around the time on video, not long after Christmas. For about six brilliant weeks (during my third year at university), The Independent newspaper had an offer where you could by a film on VHS at a heavily discounted price of £3 with the Saturday or Sunday edition of the paper starting with When Harry Met Sally and Brief Encounter was also included (the rest of the films are listed here and its fair to say its the first time I saw most of those too) and you could purchase these from the corner shop and I distinctly remember visiting the newsagents in Hyde Park Corner in Leeds and seeing them stacked up under the glass counter.
About six or seven years later I decided to do the inevitable pilgrimage to the newly re-opened Carnforth station, where Brief Encounter was filmed and I wrote about the visit on this blog. Find the entry reproduced below (which includes more detail about that first viewing) (and subsequent viewings) (yes, for the second week running here is one I prepared earlier). In the years since I've had a few occasions similar in sentiment to the final moments in the film, with plenty of metaphoric Mrs Baggot. There's never enough time is there?
Originally posted 3rd March 2004:
I'm standing on the platform of a railway station which I've never visited before but which is very familiar to me. Some things are wrong - the trains are electric not steam driven and small wooden tea room isn't there. And I know that the town which I would expect this to be gateway to is somewhere else. This is Carnforth, but I know it as Milford Junction in the film Brief Encounter.
My first brief encounter with the film was at a very young age. I remember seeing part of it on my gran's television set waiting to go home while my dad sorted out her household expenses. It was the end and I think I was quite interested in seeing the steam trains. It wasn't until university that I saw it in full when I finally gave my life to film and started working my way around the classics. It was on video, on a rented recorder and the cream bakelite tv I had in my third year. If I'm being honest I didn't really understand. My early twenties brain brought up on Neighbours and sitcom couldn't understand why Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard wouldn't leave their respective partners if they weren't happy and this was true love. Last week, when I watched again on dvd, with eight years of understanding that before the sixties people didn't enjoy the freedom they have now that despite their affections they couldn't continue, because of their responsibilities as human beings to themselves and their families - and that in fact this is still a fairly realistic representation even now.
I also understood why it was a classic. Like all classic film its an innovator. It has an incredibly intricate structure - the final moments of the relationship are shown at the start and then reappear at the end in a new light illuminated by the experiences of the characters and the audience - the 'how did we get here style' supposedly as equally innovative in Fight Club. The voiceover in which Johnson relates to her husband why she's been so mordant of late is echoed again in Fight Club but also in everything from Casino to The Shawshank Redemption. Cleverly, even the romance between the train conductor and the maid in the tea room plays out in the right order as we see the break down in communication at the start and during the film the lead up to the end of that relationship (which reminds me a bit of the narrative games Tarantino plays).
Suddenly convinced of the film's classic status, I recalled watching one of Michael Palin's travel programmes in which he visited the derelict station at which Brief Encounter was shot, and saying how awful it was that a national landmark should have fallen into such disrepair. The original architecture had gone, replaced during the sixties by an overzealous architect and some concrete, the place were the tea room had stood a brick shell. I didn't understand then so gave it no mind. Earlier on this year I was watching BBC News' North West Tonight and saw a report about how a local group had been set up to raise money for the renovation of the station and how the derelict buildings had been save and turned into a tea room which replicated the film and a visitors centre. It was this story which I remembered last week when I thought about what I was going to do during my holiday.
The curious thing about visiting film landmarks is that as you look about, the film plays through your head like a implanted memory, the strange becoming familiar. So as I walked through the tunnel beneath the platforms I saw Johnson and Howard stealing their kiss and standing on the platform I remembered the moment the express train flew through. Which is odd because on the whole as I've described, the station isn't all that similar. The tea room in the film was a façade built for David Lean the director because the actual location of the thing wasn't dramatic enough, for example.
So in renovating the station, the conservators have tried to produce a medium between what's there and what people remember from the film. So the interior of the tea room, which for the shooting was created on a sound stage, has been re-developed within one of the existing rooms. The bar from the film has been re-created and placed in situ, with the memorable taps, tea urns and display cases. The frosted wording from the windows in the film are here too, as are the chairs and tables. It's not the same, but its enough to create the feeling of stepping into the film. And it's a working tea room, and was incredibly busy - so I had to sit in an overflow back room which was fine - larger tables and slightly warmer. Leek and stilton soup, pot of tea and a scone with cream £4.25 and all lovely.
It's still relatively early days so the visitors centre is more of an exhibition space. There's currently a display highlighting the oral history of Carnforth which is interesting, but to be honest not really something a tourist might be visiting for. They want to know about Brief Encounter. There are photos from the film here and there and an archive letter from Celia Johnson, but it's almost an apology. The most exciting thing is a dvd projection system, showing the film on a wall and it is enthralling to be watching the story in the place it was filmed - and it does make a change from fighting with a chocolate dispensing machine when waiting for a train. There are things in the pipeline. I overheard a guide saying that by the summer there would be building a gift shop so that they could sell film merchandise and they had some old seats ready for a purpose built mini-cinema, which is actually a really fun idea.
I watched the opening moments of the film again at the station, then had a walk around Carnforth, went to the loo, realized my train home wasn't for some time then returned to the projector and saw the last twenty minutes. Having missed the courtship, I was back for the breakdown, the realization they couldn't go on and the parting. I was struck by how realistic those final moments they have together actually are. We have an idea of how something will happen, good or bad, that for a few brief moments things will go our way, then something will jump up unawares and throw things off course. Then we realize that's the only way it could end. When dotty Mrs Baggot appears and interrupts their silence it saves the couple from having to say goodbye and Laura can concentrate all of her what ifs on the hand that Alec places on her shoulder, his final moment of affection. From what the guide told me, if you're going to visit the station, give it a few months until they've produced the brilliant tourist attraction this will undoubtedly become.
[for an exhorstive insight into the making of Brief Encounter this is a brilliant resource. For insight into David Lean, he has a dot com.]