The phrase ‘brief encounter’ had been in very modest use since the 1860s,
according to one source, but in the same source’s graphing of the usage it
was seen to soar from the mid 1940s, reaching another high peak as late as
2010. Not just in the UK, but the US, Australia and even Hong Kong have
drawn on the resonant title for TV items. Numerous minor variants of the
title, such as A Brief Encounter and Brief Encounters, indicate the
prolificacy of this particular phenomenon. It seems unlikely that any other
film title has given rise to such seemingly endless repetition, albeit in
often punning titles. Some of the episodes make comic capital from their
references to Lean’s film, recalling its central narrative as well as its
By ‘quoting’ from the film is meant that scenes from the 1945 black-and-white
classic are inserted into the films’ narratives or, in the case of The
History Boys, the last moments of Brief Encounter are acted out by some
film-mad schoolboys. When Lean’s film is being quoted, there is discussion
about which excerpts are inserted into the new film – and just how the
chosen excerpt bears on the rest of the film. This chapter considers the
specific episodes ‘quoted’ in the relevant films, the point in the narrative
of the film concerned at which such episodes are glimpsed on screens large
or small, and how this quotation reflects on the moments of its insertion.
It can even be used for comedy, as in The History Boys or the TV series
There seems to be no slowing-down in the unceasing instances of the film as a
point of reference, in matters of varied significance. The film clearly
touched on matters of human significance in such ways as account for the
longevity of its place in the culture. It is not just a matter of nostalgia;
and it’s not just because of its moral stance, crucial as that is. It is
also, finally, a superbly crafted piece of filmmaking with some
unforgettable performances and moments of visual and aural power.
Railway stations provide the setting for meetings and departures. Trains
roaring through contrast with the bleakness of an empty platform after
farewells have been made. Several UK stations have drawn on Brief Encounter
as a name for refreshment rooms. Carnforth Station, now described as ‘The
Home of Brief Encounter’, has made a major tourist attraction out of its
contact with the actual filming of the night scenes there. It replicates the
film’s tea room, screens the film daily, and has a shop full of souvenir
artefacts of the film.
The hierarchy in 'B' film-making is partly explained in terms of studios and companies, partly in terms of a distinction made between 'second features' and 'co-features', on the basis of cost, concept, length and billing. Most British 'B' films did not look like even modest 'A's, though a couple of Lance Comfort's do fall within this description. It was more common, drawing again on Picturegoer, to find much more characteristic British double-bills advertised. The most unusual of Comfort's co-features is Bang! You're Dead, the title of which is taken from a record played constantly by a simple-minded boy Willy on a gramophone. He has salvaged from a former wartime US army base in Southern England. One of the recurring characteristics of Comfort's later films is his use of the popular music of the day, because he felt it helped to make co-features more acceptable to wider audiences.
The period of Lance Comfort's most sustained achievement, when he comes nearest to being an autonomous cultural producer, begins with Great Day in 1945 and cuts off sharply with the commercial failure of Portrait of Clare in 1950. These two and the four intervening films, Bedelia, Temptation Harbour, Daughter of Darkness, and Silent Dust are all melodramas of one kind or other. Great Day is a film which belongs on the cusp of peacetime British cinema. If Great Day is only melodrama in part of its action, two further pieces centred on the activities of 'wicked women', Bedelia and Daughter of Darkness, epitomise the mode in full cry, their protagonists exemplifying Comfort's interest in the melodrama of obsession. Like Daughter of Darkness, The Silent Dust is based on a play on which it considerably improves: The Paragon, by Roland and Michael Pertwee, first produced in London in 1948.
Lance Comfort's reputation as a feature's director seemed to be made when Hatter's Castle, made by Paramount's British operation, opened at the Plaza, Piccadilly Circus, after a well-publicised charity première attended by the Duchess of Kent and luminaries like Noel Coward. The first name to appear on the screen after the Paramount logo and the film's title, and in appropriately Gothic script, is that of A. J. Cronin, author of the novel on which the film is based. The film is a passionate melodrama, polarising tyrant and victims. While the film was in production, there was a steady stream of press releases stressing that Hatter's Castle was to be an important production. As for Comfort himself, his reputation as a feature director should have been made by the film's general success with critics and public alike.
Lance Comfort had been in the film business for twenty years when, in 1946, he directed Margaret Lockwood in Bedelia. The dominant positions, in terms of either economic or symbolic capital, in the field of cultural production, as it obtained in British cinema in the 1940s, just managed to elude Comfort. During the war, Comfort ventured into historical drama, regional comedy and spy thrillers, but did not again attempt full blooded melodrama during the period of Gainsborough's commercial ascendancy. Comfort's melodramas, including Temptation Harbour, Daughter of Darkness, Silent Dust and Portrait of Clare, were all perhaps too sombre for popular taste. The field of cultural production is not of course governed purely by critical or audience reception, and in the case of cinema the conditions of film production, distribution and exhibition all play their influential roles.
This chapter presents a contemporary production reports and reviews of Lance Comfort's films. Sight and Sound in its round-up of British directors in 1959, claimed that Comfort 'became animator and cameraman on medical research films in 1928'. Dallas Bower recalls how Comfort came, in the early 1930s, to join his staff at Cricklewood where Bower, 'fed up with BIP (British International Pictures)' had gone to take charge of the sound department for Stoll Picture Productions. Towards the end of his apprenticeship, in 1938-39, he directed several short films for children. Comfort's film may be seen as urging America to fulfil its function as the most powerful nation of 'the free world'. Comfort was one of those comparatively rare English directors who were prepared to let the camera do a great deal of a film's narration.