Written by Emma Mitchell


Re-encountering Brief Encounter

The 70th anniversary of David Lean’s masterpiece has prompted a special cinema reissue this month. Emma Mitchell was more than happy to reacquaint herself with love in the 1940s and offer an appreciation.

briefIt’s 1945 in an English town. People speak in short, plummy, clipped phrases and catch endless trains in order to go to the chemist or the pictures.

A woman called Laura, played by Celia Johnson, who looks like a beautiful but rather anxious bush baby, is living an ordinary life with her husband and two children, punctuated by crossword puzzles, trips to tearooms and Rachmaninov on the gramophone.

She meets a man called Alec in a railway caff, played by Trevor Howard, who helps her get a bit of grit out of her eye.

They chat about their spouses and children and his career. She looks at him longingly and rather furtively from under her hat. He asks her to meet her next Thursday.

In a boating shed he says: “You know what’s happened dun’t you?”

She says: “Yars, yars I do.”

They’re forever legging it for trains in the half-dark, swathed by steam from the engines. Then they get off with each other in a tunnel under one of the platforms and have a near miss in a rented flat.

“The dialogue is stupendous and often seems as though it’s parodying the 1940s, only it’s not – this is how people spoke and it fills me with joy.”

Ultimately though, they don’t hide the wartime sausage. Angst ensues. Angst and guilt and pining and Rachmaninov doles out his most rousing and emotive string-filled bits and boomy chords, echoing the imagined wrath of British society.

Laura’s eyes become even larger and wetter with yearning for Alec and fear of what people might think. She imagines relaying the affair to her husband, who is younger than mine but seems like a sort of gruff, patronising old huffer puffer.

Brief Encounter is a window into life 70 years ago, when our grans were but slips of lasses and wore hats that resembled Yorkshire puddings or Bake Off showstoppers, (especially Laura’s friend Dolly Messiter).

The dialogue is stupendous and often seems as though it’s parodying the 1940s, only it’s not – this is how people spoke and it fills me with joy:

“I’m terribly ambitious really, but not for myself so much as for my special pigeon.”

“You know how much I love a barrel organ.”

“I’ll give you ‘mother’, you saucy upstart!’”

“Now look what you’ve done – my Banburys are all over the floor.”

David Lean’s direction is packed with shadowy shots and murk, which were to give his 1948 version of Oliver Twist malevolence and menace. Here they relay the taboo and secrecy of extramarital affairs and the threat of being shunned.

Rachmaninov’s concerto No 2 matches the plot perfectly and is emotionally exhausting in itself. It’s an hour and 20 minutes of hat-wearing, fast-talking, posh-accented, wicker basket-toting, tear-filled, massive-eyed wonder.

I bloody adore it and so does Alan Bennett, who worked a Brief Encounter parody into The History Boys; Victoria Wood, whose version ends with an excellent Dolly-based twist, and Corrie Corfield here, with the wonderful Peter Donaldson who died last week, and whose voice I’ll miss terribly.

Brief Encounter is being screened at various venues across the UK as part of a 70th anniversary re-release of the film, which was restored in 2008 by the BFI National Archive. You can find details of the screenings here.


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Written by Emma Mitchell

I make things, mostly out of silver, sometimes out of wool. I’m never too far from a bottle of PVA glue.