In the flurry of tributes to the British writer and comedian Victoria Woods, who died recently, someone posted a video of her spoof of Brief Encounter.
It is a great piece, not so much for the end – I think on the whole Wood’s talent was brilliant middles – but for the way she nailed the dialogue of the piece, very much of its time, and mined it mercilessly for comic effect.
I love Brief Encounter. I can confirm that because after watching the Wood parody a number of times last week, I found that some lovely person had uploaded it to the Internet and so I sat and watched it again last night.
The first time I saw it was many years ago. I was single then and had a TV and VCR (yes, that long ago) in the bedroom of my flat. I could have one in the bedroom because there were no men about, with the exception of my cat, Withnail, and I knew he was not a fan of televised sport so I was safe. A friend had rung me on the Sunday evening to alert me to it being on TV. People complain these days about those who tweet while watching programs on TV at home, but actually now I think about it, we would quite often be chatting in those pre internet days, watching a program in our own houses, and discussing it over the phone. Not this one, though, Brief Encounter was due to air at midnight and it was a Sunday. She rang me to remind me to set my VCR to make sure I recorded the film – an absolute classic, she assured me.
I humoured her – she was a good decade older then me – and told her I would, but was seriously doubting how much some drippy romance in black and white would really interest me. I set my VCR and lay in bed watching TV for a while.
As it happened I was still awake when my VCR kicked into action and started recording. I decided to watch the first five minutes before turning off the light and settling down for the night. An hour later I was still watching and although a little concerned about how I would get through a full teaching load the next day on minimum sleep, was finding it very difficult to turn the TV off. I ended up watching it through to the end.
The language is terrifically clipped, the English accents like cut glass – I guess it could lend itself to parody quite easily, but the story about a silly, minor encounter which occurs quite by chance between a woman and a man – told from the point of view of the woman, who has a charming, caring if a little boring husband, is perfect. I think it illustrates so beautifully that thing about love: people think it is such a huge thing – and it can be – but it is the tiniest things that make you fall in love with someone. It is not the fact that they are doing pioneering surgery, it is the way that they put their socks and shoes on before their trousers, or something similar.
Noel Coward captures this perfectly. The two main characters meet a couple of times and everything is so lovely and formal one could not possibly imagine anything other than polite conversation happening, until all of a sudden, before you know it, hearts are smashed. The backdrop is the Second World War, where equally everyday business is continuing, petty frustrations being thrashed out, tiny domestic policies enforced while meanwhile young men are being slaughtered, like the hearts of the protagonists. It is a beautiful film, at once light and – to use an old fashioned word with its old fashioned meaning – gay and also dark and brooding.
I am English, so perhaps lend myself to this more readily than others might, but for my money it is a masterclass in dialogue. The whole film travels at such tremendous pace that you find yourself at the end before you are ready and left alone, like Celia Johnson in that dratted tea room, torn between her steady, safe existence and a leap of faith she could not make.