75 years ago, on the 26 November 1945, Noël Coward’s enduring masterpiece Brief Encounter was released to cinema audiences. A classic of post-war cinema, Brief Encounter came to symbolise the British restraint that had got the nation through the Second World War, its popularity enduring to this day.
In this special blog, using newspapers taken from the British Newspaper Archive, we will take a look at the contemporary reception of Coward’s film, and how it was received by cinema-goers across the country.
In case you are unfamiliar with the plot of Brief Encounter, it stars Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson, ‘a contented married woman fixed in her quiet domestic round,’ and Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey, a doctor at the local hospital. Their chance meeting at Milford Junction turns their lives upside down, as the review from The Tatler relates in December 1945:
After that these expeditions take on a new colour for both of them, and they realise they are in love. Laura, a conventional woman, is made miserable by this emotional experience, and finally she and Alec realise they must part, because they are both married.
Brief Encounter – World Premiere
The world premiere of Brief Encounter was a typically glittering affair, although it was admittedly in contrast to the film’s more muted and unglamorous tone. Held in aid of the Royal Naval War Libraries, it was attended by the Duchess of Kent in her role as Commandant of the W.R.N.S..
Jennifer, in her ‘Social Diary’ written for The Tatler, writes how the film ‘drew a well-dressed, fashionable audience.’ The Duchess of Kent was looking ‘very beautiful with her hair done in a simple ‘page-boy style,” whilst wearing a ‘purple dress under a mink coat.’
Unsurprisingly, Noël Coward was in attendance at the premiere of his film, the The Tatler giving the following description of his arrival:
Mrs Gladys Calthrop arrived with Mr Noël Coward, and created a flutter of admiration by her swathed turban trimmed with yellow paradise feathers, which she wore with a black velvet suit relieved by a yellow scarf and yellow suede gloves.
Not For You, Mrs Jones
Tomorrow night the red carpet will be down at London’s New Gallery Cinema. The photographers’ flash bulbs will be going off as the celebrities arrive for the premiere of Mr Noël Coward’s ‘Brief Encounter.’
The event promises to be ‘bright, and terribly exciting,’ but not, as Myers writes, ‘for you, Mrs Jones, of Ancoats, Manchester, or you Mrs Smith, of Jesmond, Newcastle, or you Mrs Robinson, of Sparkhill, Birmingham.’ But what reason does Myers have for this warning?
If you think it worth while to come down and mingle with the socialite friends of Mr Coward and applaud rather a dull film about a silly woman who ought to be spanked, don’t ask me to pay your fare.
Despite his painfully sexist objection to the behaviour of the character of Laura Jesson, Myers’s main complaint about Brief Encounter is how it purports to represent real life, when in fact, in his opinion, it misses the mark entirely.
Myers traces Noël Coward’s ascent from performances in London revues, his role in entertaining the troops during the Second World War, and his successful foray into film-making. Coward had seen success with war film ‘In Which We Serve,’ which saw him delve into the genre of realism:
Now he has tried to be a realist again – with unfortunate results. Quite rightly, he wants to give you Life on the screen. He knows the brilliant Mayfair of his social life won’t do. It no longer has any glitter. So Mr Coward decides to look in from his detached pinnacle, on what to him is the ordinary person – ‘like you or me’ – according to his publicity boys.
And Myers sees nothing of the ‘ordinary’ in Brief Encounter:
Only it isn’t you. Laura Jesson, Mr Coward’s ‘ordinary woman,’ hasn’t your problems of rationing, of making ends meet, of domestic worries.
But it seems the public, the ‘ordinary people’ which Denis Myers claims to represent, did not agree.
So Many Millions of Lauras
Elsewhere, the universality of the situation depicted in Brief Encounter, the pull between desire and duty, family and infidelity, was lauded. Whether Laura Jesson was privileged in her home life or not faded to the immaterial as people across the country felt they could identify with her dilemma.
The universality of its appeal, through its brilliant translation of everyday things, which might happen to any of us, should ensure a successful week for the new Noël Coward film, ‘Brief Encounter,’ which comes to the City and Picture House.
He goes on to highlight how the situation enacted by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard has ‘confronted so many millions of Lauras,’ whilst the Shipley Times and Express that same month notes how the brief encounter between the characters ‘is an experience which most of us have had.’ It is, at least according to this newspaper, ‘a very true to life drama and well worth seeing.’
And Brief Encounter’s popularity with its female audience bears this out. The Yorkshire Evening Post reports in June 1947 how the film has seen an ‘overwhelming response from women, many of whom write to say they have seen it several times with ever-growing admiration.’
A Lot of Running to Catch Trains
Whilst Denis Myers’s claims that Brief Encounter lacked appeal to its ‘ordinary’ audiences appears to be refuted by contemporary press, that was not his only criticism of the film. His other gripe is how ‘nothing really happens. Just Laura’s lies to cover up her meetings. Just two kisses and a lot of running to catch trains.’
It is worth pointing out, however, that Myers deems these trains ‘delightful.’
What, you say, nothing happens? No stolen night together? No week-end in Paris? No convenient death for the superfluous partner? No, my eager friend. Nothing happens…The virtue of the film is that this decision is wholly in character, and is probably exactly what would happen in real life.
Again, the nature of the ending is rooted in the realism of the picture. This is no far-fetched romance, and probably something enacted throughout towns and cities everywhere. The Thanet Advertiser bears this out in March 1946, as Brief Encounter was set to be shown in the local Odeon:
This is a story in which the happenings are life-like and not conventional film script.
And so Myers’s review of Brief Encounter seems to be something of an outlier. The Banbury Advertiser labels it in March 1946 ‘Another Noël Coward masterpiece,’ whilst the Leicester Chronicle goes one further, labelling it ‘as Noël Coward’s best film, and as one of the finest films ever made in this country.’
A great part of the success of Brief Encounter lies in the acting partnership of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, as well as the supporting cast, who injected a little light humour into the perfomance. C.A. Lejeune for The Sketch writes how:
…the film [is] quite beautifully acted by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, and directed with a grave sensibility by David Lean, has a quality of human understanding that is very rare in pictures…
Meanwhile Maud M. Miller for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle notes the ‘fine, sensitive performances’ of the cast members, with Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey and Evelyn Gregg as ‘outstanding minor characters.’
Indeed, the interpretation of Laura Jesson by Celia Johnnson is what made her character and the situation in which she finds herself so very relatable. In a critique of Brief Encounter submitted to the Yorkshire Evening Post, Florence Blades, 18, from Leeds, notes how ‘Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson is the exquisite pearl of the whole setting.’
Blades praises Johnson’s ‘interpretation of a warm, frank, highly-sensitive woman, torn with the devastation of her illicit love, battling with her own rectitude and her loyalty to her husband and children, pained, bewildered and shamed with all the sham, the deceit and the lies that the association entails.’
Celia Johnson’s performance would win her a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actress, although she lost out to Olivia de Havilland. But the Western Mail reports how Johnson went won the ‘Best Actress’ New York Film Critics award.
Meanwhile Brief Encounter was nominated in two other categories in the 1947 Oscars – Best Picture and Best Director – losing out on both. But director David Lean was ‘highly commended’ for his work on the film.
And if the success of Brief Encounter was not yet secured, it was even influencing fashion. According to the Leicester Chronicle you could buy the Brief Encounter hat ‘as worn by Celia Johnson’ for 66’6, which was ‘available in a fine quality fur felt in brown, black, navy, tan, grey, cherry, red or green.’
There is little doubt about it, then, that Brief Encounter is a classic of British cinema. Indeed, the British Film Institute dubbed in the second greatest British film of all time. But why was this?
Emerging just months after the end of the long-fought Second World War, Brief Encounter was devoid of glamour, precisely like the Britain that it was screened to. Bomb sites scarred cities and towns across the country, conscription and evacuation had impacted the whole population in one sense or another. The country had faced rationing, the threat of invasion, and to overcome this threat six whole years from 1939 to 1945 were marked by a nation’s self-sacrifice.
And self-sacrifice, in the name of something higher, in this case family, is precisely what Brief Encounter is about, so no wonder its appeal was universal. It talked to the national mood, and to the nation’s enduring identity of duty and the stiff-upper lip, indeed, Brief Encounter perhaps helped to perpetuate this image, for better or for worse.