A brief encounter with Noël Coward

As a writer, I love dialogue, the subtle nuances of words uttered in conversation, the ‘body language’ of words, the way silences in dialogue portray so much, the way the tone of voice can portray so much more. So this little blog post is a loving shout out to one of my favourite films of all time, Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter.

One of my ‘quirks’ is that I know the dialogue to Brief Encounter by heart. I’ve seen the film around 70 times and love every single second of it. So I paid a visit to Carnforth, the Lancashire town where parts of Brief Encounter were filmed in the early 1940s.

My mission was to go back in time to the pre-European Union, World War 2 cinematic world of director David Lean’s vision for Noël Coward’s play Still Life and sop up the atmosphere at Carnforth Station and the Carnforth Station Heritage Centre, proudly funded in part by EU money, according to one of the lovely volunteers there, (we can’t confirm this), but let’s not dwell on the irony here in the face of the hideous Brexit.

For those of you who don’t know anything about the film, Brief Encounter is the 1945 film adaption of Coward’s play Still Life, in which two married people who meet by chance at a railway station refreshment room, embark on an affair. The beauty of this classic film is the dialogue and the acting (Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson and Trevor Howard as Alec Harvey).

Noël Coward’s short play Still life, which he wrote in the 1930s as part of Tonight at 8.30 series was adapted for the cinema as Brief Encounter in 1945 by director David Lean and Carnforth Station was used as its location.

Brief Encounter is a powerful, solar plexus film that delivers intense emotion from the get-go. The film was shot at Carnforth Station at the end of the Second World War and Carnforth was chosen because it was so far from London, and the black-out rules could be ignored.

Carnforth is a small junction line just ten minutes north of Lancaster, on the west coast of England. It’s close to Morecambe Bay and just south of the Lake District. The area’s landscape is stunning and for lovers of the film a trip to Carnforth is well worth the visit.

The film’s success comes from its simple plot, sizzling dialogue and stellar acting; two ordinary people (Mrs Jesson is a housewife and Dr Harvey is GP) meet by chance in the refreshment room at the station. Mrs Jesson gets grit in her eye and Dr Harvey removes it for her. They both go their separate ways, then bump into each other the following week. Their natural friendship develops into something more, and before very long the two are in love. Both are married, both have children and both live in a simpler world where embarking on an affair with its potentially tragic consequences is unthinkable.

The film’s location – the fictional town of Milford – and the train station with its refreshment room are highly important in the unravelling of the film. The film enjoyed considerable success but in the late 20th century Carnforth train station fell into disrepair until moves were made to capitalise on the film’s much-loved status and create the Carnforth Station Heritage Centre.

Carnforth Station is a two-hour fifty minutes train ride from Edinburgh, changing only once at Lancaster. I stayed the night at a bed and breakfast and returned the following morning to sop up more of the atmosphere.

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