Brief Encounter with the London Philharmonic

London’s Southbank Centre delights audience with this screening of iconic wartime romantic film set to the score of Rachmaninov


The centrepiece to a three-week series of films as part of the Southbank’s Festival of Love, the screening of Brief Encounter accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra is a testament to the genius of Rachmaninov and the filmmaking craft of director David Lean and screenwriter Noël Coward.

After completing his first concerto, Sergey Rachmaninov fell into a depression, suffering from writer’s block and requiring a course of hypnotherapy before he could resume composing. As a treat before the film in which the Number 2 concerto famously appeared, audiences in London’s Royal Festival Hall are treated to all three Rachmaninov movements in their entirety – the masterpiece that has become one of the composer’s best-loved works – in this large yet familiar setting.

The performance is prefaced with an introduction by Lucy Fleming, daughter of the film’s leading actress Celia Johnson and the niece of James Bond creator Ian Fleming. Charming and funny, she sets the scene for the filming of Brief Encounter by reading some of the correspondences sent from her mother during the making of the film on location at Carnforth railway station, Lancashire, which was far enough away from big cities so that the lights would not attract German bombers during the Second World War.

The orchestra is conducted by David Charles Abell while the accomplished Leon McCawley, professor at the Royal College of Music, tackles the soaring Rachmaninov piano pieces with consummate elegance. The film begins after the interval, with each part of the original score painstakingly removed, enabling the orchestra to fill in on queue from conductor Abell who follows the action on his own private viewing screen.

For those new to the iconic 1945 original, this is the tale of a chance meeting by Laura Jesson (Johnson) and doctor Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) at a train station, which quickly transforms into a powerful love affair that threatens to bring upheaval to both their lives. As the film’s protagonist, Celia Johnson won an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a bored housewife tempted by extra-marital romance which threatened the social norms of the era. And while some of the dialogue can seem a little twee by today’s standards, the underlying themes of the film remain as relevant as ever.

For those with a special interest in this era of British filmmaking, visitors can take part in a fun elocution lesson and acquire the ‘proper’ clipped English accent that appears in the film, led by actors Jon Edgley Bond and Fliss Walton from The Fitzrovia Radio Hour comedy troupe. The workshop together with the swirling London Philharmonic Orchestra, the funny and sardonic tone of Coward’s dialogue and iconic black-and-white cinematography of Brief Encounter all make for a ‘frightfully good’ show. Don’t miss it.

The final performance of Brief Encounter with the London Philharmonic Orchestra is on Friday 29 August. For more information visit

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