THE WRECKER

Arnold Ridley, (Dad’s Army’s Private Godfrey and great-uncle of Star Wars VII’s “Rey”, Daisy Ridley) had an earlier and even more widespread success as a playwright who could be relied upon to fill theatres in the 1920s. The play that made his name, and is revived to this day, is The Ghost Train, a spooky mystery that cleverly uses stage sound and lighting effects to create the impression of a full-size train running across the back of the set. Keen to follow up his 1923 success with that play he wrote The Wrecker in 1924, which set much of the action of unmasking a terrorist at the highest echelons of British society in a fully-working signal-box, also a ground-breaking stage effect for its day. Although not the triumph Ghost Train had been, it did well enough and Gainsborough director Geza von Bovary turned to it as film material in 1929 following a superbly moody adaptation of Ghost Train the previous year.

Michael Balcon, head of Gainsborough Pictures, shared his morning commute from deepest Sussex to London in First Class with the head of Southern Railways. Balcon persuaded him to let Gainsborough shoot a costly train wreck on a working length of his track near Basingstoke, the same track Balcon would return to in 1937 with Will Hay for Oh Mr Porter. Southern said OK, the only caveat being that filming had to happen on a Sunday when the line was unused and had to be cleared before the first train at 6am Monday. The result you can see in this film, a condemned steam engine and coaches ploughing at full-speed into a Foden steam lorry on a level crossing, filmed by 22 cameras, one of which is clearly in the path of the oncoming wreck. It is the single most expensive shot in British silent film, and its footage was reused in many later Balcon films, most notably Seven Sinners (1936).

 

But that was by no means all of the Southern Railway’s co-operation – unique shots in working stations, cameras mounted on an engine, carriage roofs and even a moving shot from outside a carriage into the interior through a window give this film a rare authenticity, which helps the frankly laughable plot no end. Von Bovary gives some real tension to scenes of assassination and disaster that run through the film, there are good performances from Joseph Striker and Benita Hume as the young leads and venerable American silent star Carlyle Blackwell (who had begun his career in silents as early as 1910) reliably chews the scenery. The film adaptation by Angus McPhail (who would go on to write Spellbound, Dead of Night and Whiskey Galore) can’t entirely hide the film’s West End origins but does a great job of opening up the action to London locations, including some wonderful shots of 1929 Waterloo for us railway nuts.

The version we have is a unique print owned by collector and historian Bob Geoghan which may not be complete, although there is nothing obvious missing. I was delighted to score the DVD  release of this film a few years ago and still enjoy playing it – I have to say I envy John Sweeney playing it on the platform at Boness – the perfect surroundings to take us into the murky world of corporate intrigue and high-speed railway disaster, the luxury of first-class saloon coaches and the romance of a steam railway living through its golden age. Enjoy.

Remember, remember…

Its been a busy autumn, from September’s British Silent Film Festival (http://britishsilentfilmfestival.com/) which covered a momentous four days in Leicester with a mix of silent and early sound material including the superb Tell England by Anthony Asquith, to scoring three of my favourite Keaton shorts for the new Lobster films release, The Playhouse, The Cook and The Love Nest. Those should be coming out on DVD/Blu-Ray later this year.

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Pordenone (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pordenone_Silent_Film_Festival) was especially joyous for me this year as I had the honour to play one of my all-time favourite rare movies, the Henri Fescourt 1925 Les Miserables, which runs six-and-a-half hours in total and was played in four sections with a 90-minute dinner interval between parts 2 and 3. The film is a masterpiece with incredible fidelity to the novel, even down to replicating descriptions of character and location according to texture or body-language. I had played the first half when I started out as a silent film pianist in the mid-1980s but had never had the chance of playing the whole thing. A wonderful experience which I hope to replicate in the UK next year.

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Delighted to find out this month that The Big Broadcast – Snow has been nominated for Best Comedy with Live Audience in the Audio Drama Awards to be held in January. My current project for Radio Drama is an all-new adaptation of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde as part of a Stephenson season next year… and yes, it will be very different to Charlie Higson’s!

I took part in the Barbican’s Music weekend Sound Unbound, talking about the influence of Wagner on film soundtracks and I have to say, along with the BBC Radio 3/Wellcome Institute’s Why Music weekend in which I appeared in The Tingle Factor with musicologist and neurologist Lauren Stewart and Aldeburgh Music’s study day on Britten’s Turn of the Screw, I am more and more enjoying talking about the more nitty-gritty aspects of music in front of a live audience. People are genuinely interested in how music works and it has always been my ambition to de-mystify music so that it feels the province of everybody rather than the chosen few. Frightening music particularly interests people and the world of the supernatural is wonderful to investigate through music.

Indiana Oscar

This month I visited Indiana University at Bloomington to help promote the US Premiere of my Blackmail score which was performed by students of the Jacob School of Music under the baton of Joseph Stepic. They performed wonderfully to a full house in the University’s Cinema and I am indebted to Jon Vickers for all the work he did to create the event. That Oscar I’m holding is John Ford’s for How Green Was My Valley, part of the Ford collection at the Lilly Library on campus.

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