Have a brief encounter at a railway station

Brief Encounter, Carnforth, David Lean, LancashireYou 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.

Celia Johnson (1908-1982) and Trevor Howard (1913-1988) star in David Lean's 1945 classic, 'Brief Encounter'.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.

Brief Encounter film posterYou’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.

Brief Encounter, clock, Carnforth, David LeanNowadays, 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.

Carnforth Station Heritage CentreWhich 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.

The Brief Encounter experienceThere’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.

19 thoughts on “Have a brief encounter at a railway station

  1. Bill Nicholls

    A little updat efor you Mike. I was visiting a church on Sunday and was looking at a row of graves from the same family. One stuck out that of Ceila Johnson, I was looking at Laura’s grave but did not realise it till I got home to check some info on the Church. I’ll be writing a blog on the church in the comming weeks

  2. Cynthia

    I enjoyed your analysis of the film and also the photos of the train station. I’m going to have to watch the movie again. It’s been a long time!

  3. Blue Sky Scotland

    Enjoyed that. I’ve seen all the other films mentioned and most of the classics but only ever caught the end of Brief Encounter (around six times) usually at Christmas, probably exactly because of the stilted repressed manners and stiff upper lip but I might watch it now after your appraisal..
    Modern films that stick in my mind as very enjoyable and memorable but not so well known are Never Let Me Go… The Secret Life of Bees…Respiro (Italian) …Downfall (German) An Education….Captain Phillips… Dear Frankie…There will be blood….Juno…Salmon Fishing in the Yemen….The Dammed United… Changeling…Never Let Me go…Way Back home….Let the Right one in… Trans-siberian… Tamara Drewe….The Last Mimzy The Cider House Rules… No country for old men and just last week… Ex-Machina. The good ones are few and far between these days which is why I mention them.

  4. Jenny

    I’d never seen the film, although of course I’d heard about it. To be honest I had never wanted to see it before watching your clip of the last bit…. but having done so, I think it is great, and Celia Johnson is wonderful, too. When I see it on at the BFI or some other big screen I will watch it. As for the accents, I think people really did talk like that, or, at least, I’ve heard them speaking that way in voxpops of the period. Perfectly incredible to hear it now, isn’t it?

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      I think it was only your ‘RP’ speakers that spoke in those, wonderful (?), clipped tones. Having said that, vowel sounds in the south, where I come from, were markedly different even not long ago, when I was a boy 🙂 – I recall the accents of elderly relatives.

  5. Pondside

    I think I saw this in the 60’s, on a Saturday afternoon movie on TV. My mother loved these and would sit for the two hours with us. Those accents…..do people really say ‘veddy’?
    You still have train stations in England. We have a train station in each major city and in tourist spots, but it is impossible to count on making a trip by train over here. The last time my parents came out from Ontario by rail they had to get off and come by bus the last several hundred miles.

  6. The History Anorak

    We’ll be up there in about a month’s time and I’m planning on visiting the tea room at the station. I have fond memories of a rather yummy ham and mustard sandwich. (Beware – if you don’t really like mustard you’ll lose the top of your head!) The film is a classic of its time and terribly, terribly stiff-upper-lip, but it reminds me of Sunday afternoons when I was a kid.

    I’d watch this kind of film on TV with my mother while Dad was gardening. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Kid for Two Farthings, The Bridge of San Louis Rey, Wicked Lady, Whistle Down the Wind, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, etc., etc. (For gangster, war and western films I’d watch with Dad, and mother would go and have a long soak in the bath!)
    I have Brief Encounter on DVD. I feel a film fest coming on.

  7. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – brilliant to read this … I’ve just seen the film – put on by a railway enthusiast … who gave us some more insight – unfortunately I don’t remember much!! But I did love seeing the film. We’ve had The Titfield Thunderbolt, Oh! Mr Porter and next Tuesday the last will be The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery …

    Thanks for posting this – cheers Hilary

  8. Bill Nicholls

    Funny where they find to film scenes like that. I never even knew of the film let alone where it was made. Seeing the last bit make me want not bother as well as it seems so corny but typical of the time. Nice work there Mike

  9. Judy@CranberryMorning

    Although my days are just packed, I managed to squeeze in a viewing of Brief Encounter from Amazon cheap rental video. I loved all the RR platform and car scenes, especially the angles and very stark BnW of the opening scene, and later when Laura was gazing into the reflections, I kept expecting the witch from The Wizard of OZ to go cycling by. I thought it was a terrific movie, but felt guilty watching it.

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