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You can have a cup of tea (“the sugar’s in the spoon”), or more, sitting in the very spot where Laura and Alec fell in love. Carnforth Railway Station was ‘Milford Junction’, location for much of the action in the classic 1945 film, Brief Encounter. The war was still on, but the small Lancashire town of Carnforth was felt to be remote – or uninteresting – enough to escape the attentions of V2 rockets or casual air-raids; and so it proved. Even so, all the scenes at Milford Junction were filmed at night – also partly to avoid disrupting vital daytime services.
The Brief Encounter Refreshment Room, as it’s now called, has been lovingly restored to its 1940s splendour. It is part of Carnforth Station Heritage Centre, which has various exhibitions and helpful, knowledgeable staff. Of course, you can watch Brief Encounter (again and again) while you’re visiting – or buy the DVD and railway-type things in the shop.
Written by Noel Coward, directed by David Lean and starring Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson and Trevor Howard as Dr Alec Harvey, Brief Encounter is one of the all-time great movie romances (No 1 in recent Time Out surveys). Right up there with ‘Casablanca’, ‘Love Story’, ‘Ghost’, ‘You Got Mail’ and ‘The Dirty Dozen’, it tells the story of a perfectly ordinary gay middle-class housewife, Laura, who regularly takes herself off from her husband and children in suburban Ketchworth to nearby Milford, where she swaps library books at Boots the Chemist and sees the latest release at the cinema. Whilst waiting for her train back to the bosom of her family one evening, she gets a mote in her eye, which is removed by the gallant doctor. He too is married; yet romance blossoms – Laura and Alec fall in love whilst discussing industrial lung diseases. There is a passionate kiss at the railway station, after which our Celia’s reflection in the homeward-bound carriage window looks positively post-coital. Some outrageous character acting occurs in the wings, potentially involving what us Brits used to call “a bit of how’s your father” between the ticket collector and the canteen manager, played by Stanley Holloway and Joyce Carey (respectively). I don’t mind if I do, I’m sure. Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto drifts magnificently in and out throughout the movie: there’s lots of steam, dashing trains, soul-searching looks and moody monochrome atmosphere.
You’d need to have had your emotions surgically removed not to appreciate Brief Encounter, even if only a little bit. You understand the trauma and turmoil the couple – and Laura in particular – experience. Who knows, maybe you can even empathise with it… Anyway, there she is, attracted to this charming man, yet feeling guilty about her thoroughly decent, if somewhat unimaginative, husband – and, of course, her children. You share Laura and Alec’s delight in each other’s company, their mutual fun in a rowing boat (filmed in Regents’ Park, London), where Alec ends up in the water. You want things to turn out well for both of them, but know they won’t. The film never forgets its moral message; think about the consequences. It is in some ways a study in guilt. And it is that which makes it clear that the relationship is going nowhere. When Alec announces that he has been offered a job in Johannesburg, it’s almost a relief. Then you wince with frustration when their last ever moment together, over a cuppa in the station café, is ruined by the arrival of Laura’s oh-so-irritating and oblivious chatter-box friend, Dolly Messiter.
Nowadays, though, the movie operates on different levels. On the one hand, Brief Encounter is a beautifully crafted love story which, filmed in any familiar context, should have universal appeal – though a 1974 re-make starring Sophia Loren and Richard Burton was, apparently, awful. But the original Brief Encounter is emphatically a movie of its time. It is fun spotting all the little lifestyle differences – Boots the Chemists, for example, operating a lending library (they stopped in the 1960s) – the ubiquitous smoke, the adverts – the steam trains. Then there’s the language – the use of ‘gay’ in a true, literal, sense of being light-hearted or carefree. Just like Noel Coward on a good day. Laura mentions something about her husband, Fred; “Good for him,” Alec comments – praise indeed. Fred Jesson calls his wife, ‘Old girl’. It’s all jolly good, a place where people were ‘relly heppy’ and nobody swears. Is this what the English were like in the 1940s? I think probably not; it may have been what some English were like, or what some would like to have been, but most of them couldn’t afford afternoons swapping books/going to the cinema, and were probably working in factories, mines, docks, in the services far from home – and so on. I’m pretty confident they didn’t sound like Celia or Trevor, either. In fact, Celia and Trevor almost certainly didn’t sound like anyone at Carnforth Railway Station; different vowel sounds altogether.
Which makes you wonder where the fictitious Milford/Ketchworth was meant to be. The signs on the station platform are for romantic places like Lancaster; industrial conditions suffered in the steel and coal industries are Dr Harvey’s speciality. So it’s the north then? Yet the street scenes were filmed in leafy Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, and the station/café staff have distinctly London accents.
You do wonder whether the theme of illicit love struck a particular chord during a war when that sort of thing undoubtedly happened, or came close to happening, with so many couples forced apart and thrust into new company. Could Brief Encounter be told in the same way today? Laura and Alec’s relationship never even reaches the heavy petting stage; indeed, this combination of guilt, shame and “We must be sensible” would probably, and perhaps regrettably, be alien to today’s audience. 21st century people would not be expected to show such restraint, or good manners; Brief Encounter would quickly turn into Close Encounter. And in any sensible remake Dolly, bless her cotton socks, would need to be taken outside and shot.
There’s another angle. The whole story is told through Laura’s eyes in the form of an imaginary confession to her husband, who comforts her at the end as if she has just woken from a bad dream. You never see or hear much purely from Alec’s perspective, though it’s taken for granted his marriage is equally dry. Perhaps Laura just dreamt the whole thing and, therefore, the end was an inevitable outcome of working through why her fantasy could never be.
The Carnforth Station Heritage Centre now houses a permanent exhibition on the life and works of David Lean (1908-1991), who went on to direct other classics such as Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). There’s also an exhibition for railway enthusiasts, the ‘Age of Steam’ galleries and an exhibition about life in the 1940s. But, most of all, there’s the café: just don’t talk to any attractive strangers.
I found the final scene from Brief Encounter on YouTube – here it is:
As an interesting footnote, Celia Johnson, the star of the film, was paid £12,000 for her part; the lesser-known Trevor Howard received just £500.