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Brief Encounter: The Back Story

In 1936 Noël decided it was time to revive the one act play form. Looking for a vehicle for himself and “darling old Gertie” Lawrence to follow up the success of Private Lives (1930), he came up with a sequence of ten short plays. The form allowed ‘Noël & Gertie’ to indulge their versatility by playing everything from standard romantic leads to washed up music hall comedians.

One of the nine was “Still Life”, which Noël later used as the basis for the film Brief Encounter (1945). In adapting it, he added a whole new dimension to the story.

Photo of Hannah Yelland as Laura and Jim Sturgeon as Alec in Kneehigh’s U.S. tour of Brief Encounter by Jim Cox.

In a theatre with its proscenium stage and the audience a distant fourth wall you find yourself an objective observer witnessing two people meet, fall in love and part. The characters are equal.

In the film Noël transforms this into Laura’s story by using her voice over as the Narrator. In his notes he pins down her character. She is a creature of suburban habit. Every week she goes on the train to the nearby town, changes her library book at the lending library (there were some in those days!) The book would invariably be a romance, probably by a ‘safe’ writer like Kate O’Brien, who specialized in the conflict between romance and everyday life. She would then have a simple lunch at her favourite tea shop, go to a romantic film at the nearby cinema, then take the train home. A set and safe routine until one day…

Noël found this kind of detail important in the creating of a character. “I need to know what she had for breakfast,” he would say, “even though we shall never see her at breakfast.”

The same care went into the choice of music. At the time it was almost obligatory for an English film to have a specially composed soundtrack – often it was the only memorable thing about it! The film’s musical director, Muir Matheson assumed this would be the case here but Noël was adamant. “She goes home and listens to Rachmaninoff on the radio.” And clearly that lush melody symbolizes the surging emotion a suburban housewife of that era might feel but never be able to express.

Director David Lean had reservations about the comedy elements of the genteel proprietress of the station buffet and the flirtatious station master. Were they really necessary to the story? Noël wasn’t about to justify them. He knew they provided necessary relief from the growing emotional tension of the main story.

The Coward Estate receives on a regular basis submissions for a remake of the film. Of course, in this updated version Laura and Alec would consummate their affair and the driving force of this more ‘contemporary’ version would be about the way they handled their guilt.

Photo of Hannah Yelland by Jim Cox.

They miss the point. The ‘romance’ in the film is that two ordinary people – just like you, a fact which often embarrassed British audiences at the time – meet, fall deeply in love and are then swept apart. They will spend the rest of their lives wondering what might have been; a perfect romance, because it can never be spoiled by real life. They’ll always have their version of Paris…

Which is why The Guardian found, in a recent poll it conducted to determine the most romantic of all time, that while Gone with the Wind came in at No.3 and Casablanca at No.2, the clear winner was…Brief Encounter?

Barry Day O.B.E. was born in England and received his M.A. from Balliol College, Oxford. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Trustee of the Noël Coward Foundation. He was awarded the O.B.E. for “services to British culture in the USA.” The world’s foremost expert on Noël Coward, he wrote Coward On Film: The Cinema of Noël Coward, Noël Coward: The Complete Illustrated Lyrics, The Noël Coward Reader, The Letters of Noël Coward and My Life With Noël Coward (with Graham Payn). He lives in New York City, London and Palm Beach.

Courtesy of the Noël Coward Foundation.

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