January 2013 saw the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the London Underground. To celebrate one of the oldest transport systems in the world the BFI have released their brand new restoration of the superb British silent film, Underground (1928).
On Saturday 13th April the Curzon Community Cinema, Clevedon will be screening Anthony Asquith’s masterpiece with a newly recorded score by Neil Brand. In the past we’ve discussed the silent film work of Anthony Asquith including A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), but we have rarely mentioned Underground.
For this occasion we thought it best to leave the discussion of the importance of Underground to the one man who knows the film far better than many of us, writer, composer and silent film accompanist Neil Brand.
Underground is the first film that the 26-year-old son of Britain’s wartime prime minister directed on his own. The Hon. Anthony Asquith, (‘Puffin’ to those who knew him), had visited Hollywood in 1926 to see how it functioned and returned to London determined to direct. Over the ensuing years he was to shuttle between Hollywood and Britain again and again, directing such legends as Olivier, Edith Evans, Michael Redgrave, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, creating the greatest film adaptations of the works of Rattigan and Wilde and winning George Bernard Shaw an Oscar.
His career ranks with Hitchcock, Lean and Carol Reed in the pantheon of British directors – but he never again made anything as bold as Underground.
The movie begins with a quote from Shakespeare, continues with comic vignettes, London locations, romantic complications and then… it snaps. A shopgirl becomes an avenging, black-leather clad angel, sexual obsession becomes madness and ghastly murder, German expressionist techniques invade the film’s quotidian, working-class world and Underground climaxes with a punishing chase which would do justice to any movie of the last five years, let alone the past eighty-five.
It is bold, joyous, enthralling storytelling; undeniably a young man’s film.
I waited 22 years to see Underground properly, let alone work with it – while its charms were apparent from the viewing copy I first came across at a BFI Education summer school in 1989, there was a major problem with the print. The final chase, violent and magnificently shot over vertiginous drops and through murky tunnels, was almost obliterated by nitrate damage on the negative. There were rumours of another print in Brussels but that was thought to be a dupe of the BFI’s original.
Underground couldn’t really take its place as one of the greatest British silent films without our seeing the chase clean – and, miraculously, the Belgian copy was indeed clear of nitrate damage. The whole film was then given a gorgeous restoration by the BFI National Archive which made it look, as Matthew Sweet commented ‘as if someone had turned the lights on’. Underground now glows with a pulsing, electrical energy, even in its darkest places, real and imagined.
At the 2010 storming BBCSO performance of my ‘Blackmail’ score I was struck by the obvious delight the orchestra took in ‘playing out’ a film score. Orchestra members commented that in today’s scoring sessions the players are often told to ‘hold back’ because of dialogue or other soundtrack requirements – but with a concert presentation of a silent film, the music has all the room it needs to breathe and the players can really perform. When I was fortunate enough to be commissioned by the orchestra and the Barbican to score another silent film, I took that lesson to heart.
This score is, I hope, sensitive to the emotional needs of the film, but it is not discreet. It attempts to be as bold with the visuals as the young Asquith was, and above all to be a celebration of music put to work with film. While the dark, edgy noir harmonics of Herrmann and Rozsa are again to the fore, they are leavened, like the film, by quirky comedy, wry observation and soaring, joyous romance.
In those moments I have dragged others of my composition heroes into the frame and you will hear echoes of Malcolm Arnold, with his playful, unapologetic use of popular tunes in orchestral guise, Richard Rodney Bennett’s jazz-tinged menace and soaring, theatrical love themes – even John Barry’s pounding brass writing and full-tilt percussion in the final chase.
I have tried to make the score perform one other major function. Underground is the first feature film to utilise the tube system itself as a location, filming extensively at Waterloo station and Lots Road power station with the full co-operation of company chairman Lord Ashfield – however in 1928 the tube network was still years away from becoming what we know today –no London Transport, no roundels, no Harry Beck Tube Map (check out the stunted, stringy Northern Line map on the carriage wall), no Metroland and less than half of the network we now use.
But the film carries a fascination with (and a pride in) the Tube, its frustrations and unlikely meetings, its surging crowds and quiet corners. It becomes a template for the contemplation of London itself, the city as anthill within which we get to follow some of the ants onto trains and buses, down escalators, out of pubs and into Power Stations. These workaday locations are no longer mundane but transformed through lighting and superb art direction into theatrical spaces for the twists and turns of story and character. The effect is one of magical realism, as if the city itself is transformed by the emotional energy of its inhabitants and I have tried to make the music reflect that transformation. In my score, this Underground is a magical world where anything can happen, where love and madness could be just around the corner, and there is no such thing as the commonplace.
And as before, none of my work would have been possible without the extraordinary talents and generous support of maestro Timothy Brock who is the collaborator of anybody’s dreams, the trust and support of the Barbican and the BBCSO – and the phenomenal players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
And so… let the journey begin…
Our thanks to Neil for his words, we would like to also thank the BFI for their continuous support and many thanks to the great Curzon Community Cinema, Clevedon for putting on this gem of British Cinema. Hope to see you all at the event on Saturday 13th April at 14:00hrs