Brief Encounter is one of the greatest British movies of all time. Filmed at Carnforth Railway Station, a new exhibition there looks at the career of the film’s director David Lean. Heritage Centre Manager John Adams explains the history of the film, with some exclusive photographs
Brief Encounter was originally a half-hour stage play, called ‘Still Life’, written by Noel Coward but, under the direction of Sir David Lean, it was rewritten, renamed and, starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, filmed for cinema release.
By 1944, the main air raid danger to London came from V1 and V2 rockets, which had no particular targets but were just aimed generally at London.
In July 1944, a mass evacuation had been ordered and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company moved its office staff. The Brief Encounter production had originally been assigned a London Station to film at, but Carnforth was considered to be safer.
The Ministry of War Transport considered Carnforth to be sufficiently far from London to be safe from attack, even with all the film lights.
Sources report that David Lean favoured Carnforth as a location because of the sloping subways on to the platforms, which allowed the actors to run up and down. Lean commented that Celia Johnson would not have looked as good running up and down steps.
Lean is also reported as saying that Carnforth was chosen because, “The war was still on and the railway people said ‘ there may be an air raid at any time and you’ll have to put out the lights in that remote part up in the North. We’ll know when the planes are coming’. We were a blaze of lights from filming.”
In all probability, the Ministry of War Transport offered Cineguild / David Lean a number of possible stations, where they would be happy for filming to take place and Carnforth was chosen as the most suitable.
The London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company was more than happy for the production to use Carnforth Station and allowed them to use it without charge.
Perhaps as part of the deal, or perhaps as a way of saying thank you, Cineguild allowed a number of LMS posters and logos to be seen behind the action.
Brief Encounter was filmed between February and May 1945, the Carnforth element being in February 1945.
At least some of the film equipment travelled from London Euston to Carnforth on the weekend of February 3 and 4, and the filming started on the evening of February 5 1945. Filming continued until Friday February 16 and two days later sound effects of the steam engine and train were recorded, with the train moving about and through the station.
Each night work on the film started late in the evening after the last local train had departed and finished early morning when the first local trains started to arrive at the station.
Celia Johnson was not looking forward to the filming on Carnforth Station, and in a letter described it as ‘we have to go up north for four weeks location on some horrible railway station. I don’t yet know where.’
She was soon to change her mind, and in a letter of February 11 Celia describes how the atmosphere among the film crew was good and that they were having a good time.
In between takes she would play poker, or sit and do the newspaper crosswords. She was very impressed with the station master, who she describes as an old fashioned gentleman, who raised his hat every time he saw her, and allowed them to warm themselves in front of the fire in his office between takes.
The winter of 1944 / 1945 was bitterly cold. Every night at 01.30 the cast and crew would break for a meal, and this was taken in two dining cars, which were shunted into the Morecambe Bay platform. The cast and senior production people going into one dining car and the technicians and extras into the other.
Celia Johnson did not enjoy the food much, but the local extras thought it very good. Sweets and chocolate were handed out by the Brief Encounter production team during shooting and local people thought this amazing, these luxuries having been rationed for years during the war.
The filming is remembered in a new permanent exhibition at Carnforth Railway Station looking at the career of the film’s director Sir David Lean.
Sir David Lean, Life and Works charts the celebrated director’s career and features rare images from Brief Encounter and his other famous films, including The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Ryan’s Daughter and Doctor Zhivago.
Starring Trevor Howard as Dr Alec Harvey, and Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson, Brief Encounter tells the story of how these two people, each married to someone else, meet on a lonely English railway station while waiting for their trains.
A romance briefly flutters. But, even as they are beginning to make plans, each of them knows that it is doomed.
Brief Encounter has become a symbol of a society long since gone and is so well known that its stiff-upper-lipped politeness, the grey and cold station, the flashing lights of trains which pass in the night and the heart-breaking romance have been used in everything from adverts to comedy sketches.
For his part, Sir David had a fascination with steam trains stemming from his youth and it is a theme which runs through many of his most famous movies.
He is quoted as saying: “I loved those steam trains and that’s probably why I put them in my films.
“When I made Brief Encounter we used Carnforth railway station as a location for the film. It was quite a big station and the Royal Scot used to go through every night at 1.15am.
“I used to stand on the edge of the platform shaking with excitement, holding Celia’s arm as the thing roared within six feet of us. Just wonderful.”
Famously, Noël Coward makes the announcements in the film at the fictional Milford Station.
l The Life and Works of Sir David Lean CBE is on display in the Bateman Gallery, Carnforth Station Heritage Centre, and admission is free. The permanent exhibition draws together information, photographs and film documentaries from the David Lean Foundation, the British Film Institute, the BBC and, most importantly, David Lean’s son Peter, grandson Nick and Margaret Barton, who played Beryl in Brief Encounter.