Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Category: Entertainers

A Brief Encounter with Laura, Alec, Helen and Sofie

The promise of “an immersive theatrical event” lured me to The Mill at Sonning. The theatre’s Waterwheel Bar had been transformed into the refreshment room at Milford Junction  in 1936, and as we finished our supper at a table in the bar we witnessed the first encounter between Laura and Alec in Noel Coward’s Still Life. After he had removed the grit from her eye they occupied the next table and their repressed romance took its course with a magnificent supporting cast of steam train effects, Banbury cakes dropped on the floor and returned to their plate on the buffet counter, and curling cheese sandwiches on sliced white, the latter carefully preserved under clingfilm at the end of the evening for future use. It was an unforgettable piece of theatre.

Before this I had been more familiar with Brief Encounter, David Lean’s 1945 adaptation of the play with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Of all the wonderful black and white films of the forties it is the one I love most. It engenders nostalgia with steam trains, the station buffet, Boots circulating library, the Kardomah coffee house, a service flat, Laura’s tailored suits, Alec’s trilby and a phone call made from the tobacconist,  all wrapped up in the swelling Rachmaninov score, the swirling fog, and the pent-up passion. Ultimately of course Nothing Happens, and it is hard today not to smile at the cut glass accents and the stultifying morality as the deeply conventional middle-class housewife and the married doctor battle with their intense emotions before parting, he to a new life in S. Africa, she to her home and husband. Alan Bennett satirised the film affectionately  in The History Boys where Posner and Scripps in one of the most delightful scenes in the play re-enact an emotionally charged exchange between Laura and her husband, Fred.

And yet…while others finding themselves in north Lancashire may head for the Lake District, my own footsteps always tend towards  Carnforth. For Carnforth is the real-life Milford Junction on whose platforms David Lean shot his film  when it was impossible to film night scenes around London because of the blackout. And Carnforth celebrates the association: in summer months flowers blossom extravagantly amongst the  vintage suitcases and trunks which decorate the platform  along with railway posters and porters’ trolleys beneath the famous clock. The refreshment room serves tea and Brief Encounter Cakes, and the railway museum offers a mini-cinema with tip-up seats showing the film on a loop.

The refreshment room at Carnforth

Such is the seductive power of the film that I can barely distinguish between Laura and Celia, Alec and Trevor. So, when I found  Celia Johnson’s grave in the trim churchyard of St. Bartholomew’s,  Nettlebed, in the heart of rural Oxfordshire, next to that of her husband, Peter Fleming, and surrounded by older headstones, many commemorating other members of the Fleming family, I was not at all surprised. It was just where I would have expected to find Laura. Her Wikipedia entry records that  after the war Celia Johnson focused on family life, just as Laura did, and died after collapsing with a stroke while playing bridge – just how Laura would have gone. And Nettlebed itself, quaint, sleepy, and manicured, a village so ridiculously pretty with its handsome houses, thatched cottages, and charming gardens that it regularly stars in Midsomer Murders, is just where Laura would have lived.

Grave of Celia Johnson
Grave of Peter Fleming

To find Trevor Howard/Dr. Alec Harvey then I should have boarded a Union Castle liner from Southampton, or at least a BOAC aeroplane from Croydon stopping to refuel every few hundred miles, to S. Africa. There I should have found him in some dusty, neglected graveyard outside Johannesburg, beneath a stone extolling the compassion and selfless dedication of a caring doctor. The reality was a little different: I travelled to the end of the Northern Line at High Barnet and after negotiating the roadworks, caught the number 107 bus to Arkley. There  behind the austere, brick, Victorian church of St. Peter I located a few stone slabs resting against the wall bearing  stark lists of those interred. But no graveyard ever disappoints for long, and beside the stone bearing Trevor Howard’s name there was a card with red roses from Helen and Sofie. The ink a little smudged by the rain despite a careful plastic covering, it read,

Dearest Trevor,

Thank you so much for all the happiness

you have brought to us with your

excellent performances.

One of the greatest actors that ever lived.

Thinking of you with lots of love.

xxx      Helen and Sofie     xxx


St. Peter, Arkley, memorial stones.
Stone bearing Trevor Howard’s name
Trevor Howard 1913-1988
Tribute from Helen and Sofie

I would have travelled the length of the Northern line a hundred times for the pleasure of meeting Helen and Sofie. I imagine them on a raw winter’s evening, drawing the curtains against the damp, grey nightfall, settling down on the sofa with a glass of red, and selecting a DVD starring their favourite actor. And when the choice falls on Brief Encounter, I’ll join them in raising a glass to Trevor and Celia.


Edgar Wallace

My mother loved the cinema, and it was our weekly treat in the sixties to spend Friday evenings at the pictures followed by six penn’orth of chips, hot, greasy, and wrapped in several layers of newspaper, on the way home. In those days there were five cinemas in Chester: the Gaumont was  the smartest with a huge glittering art deco foyer, magnificent auditorium,  and elegant restaurant; the Regal and the Odeon, which we most commonly frequented, had standard thirties cinema architecture; the tiny Classic, squashed between a sweet shop and a pub, favoured  foreign and X-rated films (we seldom went there); and the Music Hall’s name indicated its previous incarnation.

For 3/6d adults, 1/9d children,  we could enjoy a  programme of main feature, Pearl and Dean advertisements,  Pathe News and second feature, running continuously, and it was possible to enter at any point and remain as long as we liked. Some patrons sat or slept through several performances. Others  would suddenly leap to their feet and announcing  “we came in here” begin to collect their coats and umbrellas as they edged their way out apologising as they brushed past our knees blocking the screen at critical moments in the drama.

The permanent darkness gave the auditorium a  mysterious romance as usherettes guided us by the beam of their torches to vacant red plush seats. Between us and the screen hung a thick, blue fug of cigarette smoke and the pungent scent of tobacco and nicotine was occasionally joined by the flare and acrid fumes of a struck match. During the intermission, the Kia-Ora lady would make her way backwards down the aisle with a spotlight shining on her and a  heavy tray suspended around her neck  containing orange squash, Butterkist popcorn, salted nuts and choc ices.

When the second feature was an Edgar Wallace Mystery I was especially delighted. Born in 1875, Wallace had left school at twelve and variously worked selling newspapers, delivering milk, in a rubber factory, as ship’s cook, and as a war correspondent in the second Boer War, until he turned, very successfully, to writing. He dictated his prolific output of journalism,  poetry, historical works, plays, novels, short stories, songs, and film scripts, including the screenplay for King Kong, onto wax cylinders which his secretaries  typed up. The Edgar Wallace Mysteries were film adaptations of his crime fiction, based on the popular detective stories which he had written in the 1920s but which the studio updated and set in contemporary London. The mood for the convoluted tales of murder, blackmail, and burglary,  was set as the spookily lit bust of Wallace himself rotated slowly on the screen surrounded by swirling fog,  to the mournful, eerie sound of the theme tune, Man of Mystery. I lost myself in  the black and white thrillers which unfolded on the screen, wistfully identifying with the high heeled, pencil skirted heroine,  following  the trench coated,  trilby wearing detective as he  navigated  the London streets and nightclubs, the smoke from his cigarette mingling imperceptibly with that rising from the cinema audience. It was all satisfyingly louche, and of course the heroic detective could be relied upon to bring the disreputable villains to brook.

Disappointingly, Edgar Wallace’s final resting place is a world away from the seedy criminals and rakish detectives whom I watched enthralled on the screen; he lies in the decorous surroundings of Little Marlow cemetery in Buckinghamshire, near the country home at Chalklands which he bought with the proceeds of his seamy tales, in the most respectable and conventional of graves, with not an unsavoury villain in sight.

Edgar Wallace 1875-1932


Growing up in a provincial town in the northwest in the 1960s we felt about as far away from Swinging London as it was possible to be. A strictly enforced school uniform of navy-blue serge skirts, hemlines below the knee, and pudding basin hats above scraped back hair did not help. King’s Road and Carnaby Street, Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks existed in a parallel universe to which we did not have the key. Just a hop, skip and two short train rides away however was Liverpool, home of the Merseybeat, the city where our mothers occasionally took us shopping. We were familiar with the “ferry cross the Mersey” and the “statue exceedingly bare,” knew the whereabouts of Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane. The Cavern however remained as mysterious to us as Ronnie Scott’s or The Marquee, being a bit too young and our parents a bit too strict to allow us ever to penetrate its alluring, murky depths. Instead on Saturday afternoons my friends and I donned our miniskirts, carefully applied our white lipstick, matching white kinky boots if we were incredibly lucky, combed our long straight hair carefully, we imagined seductively, over one eye and congregated in someone’s bedroom to play the latest singles. We were loyal to the local sound and The Beatles featured heavily, indeed it was essential to have a favourite Beatle (mine was George), along with Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Searchers, but the one we all liked best was Cilla. We loved her for her talent, her smile, for being a girl standing up alone on stage confidently belting out her songs and most of all because we really could believe that she was the girl next door, someone’s older sister, a more sophisticated version of ourselves who might irritate us immensely by referring to us as kids but who would always be on hand to help out when the eyeliner went wonky.

So, on a recent visit to Liverpool, I took a bus to Allerton Cemetery and sought her out. Allerton is a large municipal cemetery, and it houses some imposing graves but true to form Cilla was tucked up, near her mam and dad, beneath a very ordinary black stone. Well, not quite ordinary for the gold script bore familiar lyrics: extracts from Step Inside Love, Alfie, and You’re My World

I read them, I smiled, I was transported back to those Saturday afternoons when my friends and I sang along with more enthusiasm than tunefulness – always careful not to let our emotions get the better of our mascara. And I have no doubt that when darkness falls and the cemetery gates are locked for the night Cilla’s voice rings out leading her fellow residents in a hearty chorus of “You’re my world, You’re every breath I take, You’re my world you’re every move I make” bringing smiles to their faces as she did to ours more than half a century ago. Thanks, Cilla.

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