Brief Encounter Revisited

by Maggie B Dickinson

The daddy of all time pieces, in film-going terms, is probably the gem on Virgin’s West Coast Line at Carnforth in Lancashire, UK.  The clock (as The Clock) supported the main characters Celia Johnson (as Laura Jesson) and Trevor Howard (as Dr Alec Harvey), as they headed dangerously and deliciously towards hanky panky, yet bravely managed to walk away from the chemistry as it reached parts that the 10d brandies in Milford Junction Refreshment Room never reached.

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Carnforth Railway Station, Lancashire and The Clock

On October 17th 2003 the Brief Encounter Refreshment Rooms and Visitor & Heritage Centre started business at Carnforth Station after a programme of rejuvenation lasting almost three years.  It was officially opened by Margaret Barton who starred in the film as Beryl, assistant to the Refreshment Room barmaid Myrtle (played by Joyce Carey).

The popularity of the film Brief Encounter has never waned since it was made in the 1940s.  Its theme of thwarted love will always be around.  So will nostalgia, which is why the refreshment room follows closely on the lines of the original with its old-fashioned tea urn and cash register.  More of this and the rock cakes later.

Brief Encounter relegated Celia and Trevor to mega star status for their portrayal of middle-class middle-aged righteous folk that become prey (and almost succumb) to their feelings.  It’s a film for romantics, star-crossed lovers, and folk who can still manage to see the screen via wall-to-wall tears.  Not surprisingly it was nominated for three Academy awards (including best actress for Dame Celia) and also won an award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Weaving its way through the poignant scenes is an oft-loud and dramatic rendering of Rachmaninov’s piano concerto in C Minor (2nd movement, Opus 18), played by Eileen Joyce and the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Muir Matheson.  The renderings, especially when used to drive home a salient point, could crack glass at fifty paces.

Nöel Coward, who adapted Brief Encounter from his play Still Life, insisted on this piece of music and it works perfectly by emphasising the drama of their growing and frustrated relationship.  Nor does it escape notice that there are several Freudian appearances of the puffer trains, accompanied by Rachmaninov, steamily racing in opposite directions through the railway station.

Celia Johnson had worked mainly in the theatre before the making of Brief Encounter but was better known for her film roles than was Trevor Howard, who was several years her juniorIt is said that Trevor never knew his lines in advance but when he went on set he was quickly word perfect.  He could deliver them beautifully too, as in that throaty testosterone-loaded gem, “Please, please.  Next Thursday.  The same time,” when he was desperate to see her again.

Their cause is hopeless, which we know from the onset of the film since it is told in flashbacks, although the rewinding of their story was gripping stuff back then.  The bonds and sanctity of marriage, and indeed the concept of marriage itself, were of a different status.  Yet despite their attempts at physical control they yo-yo between the elation of a forbidden love and painful agonising over their feelings for each other, to the ultimate unbearable parting without the union having been consummated.  It was indeed gut wrenching, and still is once you’ve got past the received pronunciation.

Despite the more rigid style of production and direction all those years ago, the quality of Celia Johnson’s performance is very much on a par with that of Meryl Streep in Bridges of Madison County and Falling in Love.  The ability of such actresses to portray extreme feelings within a doomed romance, with their swings of mood from sheer ecstasy to utter despair, makes the story so much more plausible and convincing.

I was eight years old when I first saw the film but despite a naive understanding of its implications I was impressed by Celia Johnson’s sensitive portrayal of Laura, whose inner conflict and torment took her on a hiding to nothing.  It’s the eyes.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an actress with eyes that tell a tale better than hers, particularly in that tender scene where you can actually see her falling in love with Alec whilst he explains his interest in diseases of the lungs.

November 2020 will see the 75th anniversary of Brief Encounter’s release which takes us back to an England that was emerging from the dark years of World War II.  The population had run the gamut of emotions through partings, great loss and every feeling known to humanity.  And it is through intensity of feelings that the film continues to appeal, simply because the main theme will never die – whatever the time and place.  According to royal butler Paul Burrell it was one of Princess Diana’s favourite movies, and in Japan it is said that one cinema plays it back to back 24/7.

The couple meet by chance in a station refreshment room whilst waiting for trains that take them in opposite directions to the fictitious destinations of Churley and Ketchworth.  Laura gets grit in her eye from a passing steam train.  After pouring a glass of water in it, which leaves her face perfectly dry, Alec comes onto the scene.  With his “Trust me, I’m a doctor” routine he whips out his own mucky hanky and pokes it at her eyeball – as you did – because the Health & Safety Act hadn’t been invented. Amazingly Laura doesn’t get conjunctivitis.

Their paths cross weekly, over a period of a month, and on each occasion they are drawn together by a natural rapport that develops and grows stronger, more revealing, and increasingly irresistible with each contact.

There are some wonderful classic lines that have never dated and followers of the film all have their favourite quotes.  Many know exactly what she was saying with ‘It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly.  So very easy and so very degrading.’  Perhaps the saddest one is (and I choke as I write) ‘I want to remember every minute, always, always, to the end of my days.’

Even though the accents throw you off the scent, Milford Junction is actually Carnforth in Lancashire and if you watch keenly for station destination signboards you’ll spot not only the county city of Lancaster on one of them, but also the Yorkshire destinations of Skipton, Leeds, Hellifield and Keighley.

The award-winning Carnforth Station and Visitor Centre

Actors with regional accents were always delegated the roles of manual low-paid workers. In this case, however, we didn’t fail to notice that Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey and Margaret Barton were southerners, if not cockneys, and that not one northern accent darkened the screen, despite them using our very own station.

In order to shoot the film a massive lighting system was needed but, unlike the southern stations like Watford Junction, where the blackout was still in force, the North West was much further away from the channel and it had been lifted.  The film-maker’s fragile reasoning was that if German planes started to cross this stretch of water there was time to ring Carnforth and ask them to switch off the lights.

It was between February and May 1945, with the end of the war in sight, that Carnforth got its five weeks of filming glory as the cast and crew descended on the town to film the railway scenes.  For practical reasons these were shot during the night when fewer trains were passing through and there were no army personnel arriving on leave or returning to their unitsThe cloak of darkness and monochrome film adds wonderfully to the despair and hopelessness of the tale.

The renovated station is very much a tribute to the film’s director David Lean.  Perhaps his ghost lingers on the platform where he and Celia Johnson found it thrilling to be on the edge of the platform in the dead of night as the Royal Scot steamed through at breakneck speed.  When filming finished the following morning she and Trevor Howard would head further north by taxi to Cumbria’s Lake District and their accommodation at the Low Wood Hotel which is situated on the shores of Windermere at Troutbeck.

5* Low Wood Bay Resort & Spa, Lake District Hotel, Cumbria

Across the water is a fantastic distant view of the magnificent Langdale Pikes.

Elterwater Village in the Langdale Valley with the pikes of Harrison Stickle and Pike o’Stickle

Tucked under these mountains is Middlefell Farm packhorse bridge which features in the film and draws many visitors who are tracking down the film’s locations.

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Middlefell Place Farm bridge, Little Langdale, Cumbria. A location for Brief Encounter.

That day a local lad of sixteen years, Hugh Parker, was shearing sheep at the farm –  a remote and quiet area in 1945, which still has more sheep than people.  Suddenly a glamorous couple appear on the bridge, wearing hitherto unseen fashionable city clothes, with Trevor sporting a trilby and overcoat.  The lad, who had no idea of their identity, was awestruck and mesmerised.  ‘Hey,’ shouts his boss Johnny Youdale, at Hugh’s motionless form, ‘Thee get on with thy clipping.”

The town of Milford, where Laura goes shopping on Thursdays, is Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, as the main scenes of the film were being shot at Denham Studios.  It is here that she changes her library book at Boots and takes lunch at the Kardomah in a haze of cigarette smoke through which Irene Handl plays the piano.

During the trip to town Laura does her weekly greengrocery shopping which, along with books, sits surprisingly lightly in her half-empty wicker basket as she swings it back and forth up the station ramp towards the clock.  Sometimes the continuity folk have forgotten all about the shopping and she hasn’t even taken her basket.

Clearly Laura is a lady of leisure without any great commitment in life, the benefit of hired help, and a Bunsen burner contraption that makes coffee.  But Laura is a woman with a killer conscience that bothers her considerably when she arrives home to her kindly mundane husband who finishes work remarkably early and does The Times crossword on a loop.

This sophistication was in stark contrast to the role of the cinema-going labour force of women in Lancashire’s cotton industry.  The early morning sound of their hurrying clogs drumming on the cobbles under my bedroom window has stayed with me.  For those women, and children like me, Laura and her enviable way of life fell headlong into the category of a film that “took you out of yourself” to the alien and enviable world of the middle classes.

It is believed that the clock has lived on Carnforth station since the 1890s.  Created by Joyce of Whitchurch, the timepiece is looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed these days after a chequered career.  Once its fame had subsided it led a lonely life, especially during the 1970s, despite a new face and electrical mechanism.  At this point Carnforth station went into a decline.  It was unmanned and unloved – except for those of us who still stopped off occasionally out of sheer sentiment to worship at the shrine.  By the mid ‘80s the clock’s mechanism had stopped altogether.

Thanks to the tenacity of Carnforth Station & Railway Trust Ltd (along with the Friends of Carnforth Station who were formed to support the group) the rejuvenated station, with its visitor centre and small range of shops, is enjoying deserved popularity.

There are fascinating artefacts and memorabilia which relate to railway history and wartime Carnforth and the Brief Encounter Refreshment Room and The Clock attract equal attention.  There’s plenty of delicious cakes and a selection of light meals to be had in an ambience that is guaranteed to transport you back in time.

Brief Encounter Tea Room

Posing for photographs under the clock is mandatory but getting grit in your eye in the hope of finding a stray doctor with whom to fall in love is optional.

Brief Encounter Clock
Brief Encounter Clock

Their website at gives details of opening times and historic details of the station.




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