Bo’ness Festival of Silent Cinema - Neil Brand interview
Screening highlights include films by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd
One imagines the two women who dreamed up The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema must have kept quiet about it until they launched it. Scotland’s first silent film festival in Scotland’s first purpose-built cinema? That idea’s so good it’s a wonder no one came up with it before now. But they didn’t. Not until Alison Strauss and Shona Thomson, respectively Director and Producer of the festival, got their heads together to envisage then organise a long weekend of silent film classics to be held in the Bo’ness Hippodrome, a beautiful old picture palace originally opened in 1912 and two years ago restored to its former glory through a £2 million renovation programme.
The venue’s Festival of Silent Cinema is book-ended by opening and closing night classics: It, which stars the original ‘it-girl’ and screen beauty Clara Bow, and Nosferatu, F W Murnau’s expressionist take on Dracula starring super creepy Max Schreck. In between there will be films featuring the silent era superstars Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, who’s vertiginous short Never Weaken will be introduced (via the medium of Transatlantic digital communication) by the daredevil comic’s grand-daughter Suzanne Lloyd. There will also be screenings of gems from the Scottish Screen Archive and a series of workshops in which participants can learn the art of slapstick comedy and create music scores.
That latter leads us neatly to a common misconception about silent cinema: it isn’t, in fact, silent. These films might not boast dialogue and sound effects, but they are always accompanied by music and, invariably, by audience laughter. And that brings us to Neil Brand.
Brand is the foremost practitioner of live and improvised piano accompaniment to silent films in the UK, if not the world. He’s also composed and recorded scores for silent films and written radio plays, and he partners Paul Merton in the Silent Clowns television series. What Brand most enjoys, however, is sitting between a film and its audience and tinkling the ivories, which is what he’s going to be doing all weekend at The Hippodome.
‘Silent cinema,’ Brand says, ‘is film and music and theatre and a live concert all in one. The beauty of it is the audience is aware of a special event. There’s a response from the audience that affects the music I play. I love that pregnant buzz that’s in the auditorium. There isn’t another experience like it.’
‘It’s the sound that makes it, ‘Brand continues. ‘That’s the curious thing. The great silent films tell their stories purely with pictures. That is a very direct, emotive way of telling a story. Once you add music to that, the emotion quadruples. All of the audience’s senses are heightened. People become lost in these films.’
And what does Brand think about the argument advanced by more than one fan and historian the silent era was the true golden age of cinema? ‘Silent cinema was creating a universal language,’ he says, ‘a style of shooting a film that, in itself, gave you a lot of information above and beyond what characters were saying to each other. The style of the film told you as much as the story did. That was the beauty of silent film. In the first few years of sound that was almost entirely lost, because film had to go back to being static – actors needed to stand near a microphone so their dialogue could be recorded. That is why there’s a feeling that silent film was the golden age of cinema.
‘Although,’ Brand adds, ‘it didn’t take long for film to recover. One of the greatest films ever made, King Kong, which was made in 1931, is a triumph of sound art as well as vision. I do wonder, though, what would have happened if sound hadn’t come in until the early 1930s, because by 1927 silent films were phenomenally good, clever, experimental, dangerous stuff. The best of Murnau and Hitchcock and the comedians; they were all at the top of their game. And then The Jazz Singer comes along and everything kind of stops. What would have happened if we’d had another few years of that wave? I believe we would have had even better cinema.’
Of being guest of honour at The Hippodrome, Brand says, ‘I’m delighted the festival happening and proud to be part of it,’ he says. ‘Starting from scratch with a silent film festival is a difficult challenge, and they’ve more than pulled it off. The Hippodrome is going to glow. It’s going to be playing the kind of material it was built for. It’s going to have that buzz I was talking about all weekend. Hope fully, it’s the start. Not a one-off; more to come…’
And, finally, is there any aspect of the festival Brand is most excited about? ‘I have great fun with the audience interaction,’ he replies without missing a beat. ‘For You’re Darn Tootin’, which is the Laurel and Hardy film in which they’re musicians and they’re so incompetent, there’s a fight scene in which Ollie punches Stan in the stomach and Stan kicks Ollie in the knee about 25 times. And then the fight escalates until there’s a bunch of about 40 men all pulling each others’ trousers off in the street.
‘On the night of the screening at The Hippodrome,’ Brand continues, ‘a couple of people will be invited to provide on the spot, non-rehearsed bangs and crashes for the fight scene. And then every member of the audience will have a piece of cloth, which they will rip when the trouser ripping starts. The trouser ripping goes on for about four minutes, so the audience sound effects will have to be staggered so there will the continual sound of trouser ripping for four long minutes. That’s going to be a little bit special.’
No doubt, it’ll be a(nother) fine mess.
Festival of Silent Cinema is at Hippodrome, Bo’Ness from Fri 18-Sun 20 Mar.