We are very much looking forward to Mr Neil Brand’s visit to The Elgiva. In fact, to describe us as ‘positively giddy’ would be apt. One of the world’s foremost experts on the advent and importance of silent film, Neil is an extraordinary mine of information and enthusiasm. We were delighted to go full-on fangirl and find out more about the show and his motivation for sharing Laurel & Hardy with a wider audience – the Silent Pianist speaks to The Elgiva, as it were!
Neil Brand’s show is packed with clips and anecdotes, and two shorts (Big Business and Liberty), which are, he says, amongst the greatest comedy films ever made – silent or sound, feature or short.
Talking to Neil about the show, it is evident to see why he does it – his love for silent comedy shines out like a beacon. Neil is open that laughter is a key motivator for him.
“What’s great about this show is that we all really need a laugh right now,” says Neil, adding that this is as true for him as for the audience.
“This year has been quite a tough year, and this show is the simplest form of laughter maker,” says Neil, adding that the comedy is accessible to everybody.
“Anybody will laugh at what Laurel and Hardy do and how they interact with each other, irrespective of age. The comedy is incredibly inclusive, and the actual show is like two hours of joy. You have this wonderful sense of people.”
In some cases, Neil says, people just lose it completely during the show because they just cannot stop laughing at what they’re watching.
“I feel like I’m kind of a ringmaster in a circus with the two best clowns in the world. It’s a real privilege to play the piano for them, to introduce them and to bring them back to the big screen.”
Of course, the world of silent film seems distant from the fast-paced world of 15-second reels and bite-sized snippets on TikTok – but it’s a world that can still be relevant today, as Neil explains.
“The main thing that silent film offers – whether it’s a comedy, drama or documentary – is that it envelops us, it’s very immersive; there’s no soundtrack, so as soon as it starts, you go straight into the screen, in a way. And if the music that is with that visual side of things is good, and if it helps you to lose yourself in what you’re watching, it’s actually a really deeply emotional process.”
Silent film is made to be understood just from what you can see, with all sorts of extra details and things going on – perhaps some of the earliest Easter Eggs in films.
“These extras are things you won’t get with a lot of other films, for instance, body language or shooting style,” explains Neil. “The way that particular gags are built and built and built with comedians – and it all has to be visual because there is something much more conducive to laughter about watching visual gags.”
Neil cites Mr Bean and Tom and Jerry as examples, where the build-up to a gag is exquisite, unspoken understanding between gag-writer and audience, with the latter not quite believing the gag will go where they think it might, but squirming with the anticipation of the pay-off.
“This purely visual humour is a different world,” says Neil. “The comedy invites you into a kind of Garden of Eden, a kind of dream world in which amazing comics, gorgeous actors and actresses and a whole world of time gone by is still having an incredibly potent effect.”
And even though Neil has been a silent film pianist for nearly forty years, he still delights in each audience’s reaction.
“People still come up to me to tell me how incredible the film was, and that’s just brilliant. That’s another person who now gets it!”
Neil Brand feels it’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t actually sat through a silent film, and that some people are put off by a perceived datedness.
“Silent films do rather come with a built-in ‘nah factor’ or ‘meh factor’,” says Neil, explaining people question the point of watching a silent film.
“They say: ‘There’s not going to be anything there for me – it’s one hundred years old, it’s in black and white, it’s got no sound…’. But, if you’ve just experienced it, once you do get that this is, actually, not a trip around a museum or a mausoleum for that matter, you realise a silent film is actually an absolutely thriving and working work of art, which you kind of step into. And it just holds you, embraces you. That’s what they were built to do – to hook audiences sitting there in the dark.”
And Neil’s audience ride on his musical accompaniment, meaning they experience cinema, theatre and a concert – all three happening at once.
Neil’s music bridges the gap between our now and the then of the films, and he is aware that with great bridging, also comes great responsibility.
“What I’ve always tried to do was try and glean from what’s on screen what the director might have wanted me to do.” But there is freedom, too.
“I make a joke out of the fact that I score a lot of the silent films for full orchestra because the director is dead – I can just do what I want! There’s no one telling me what I’ve got to play or what I’ve got to write.”
Neil describes the process as going as far into the film as he can, and his past as an actor helps him in his creative process.
“I have an actor’s sensibility about how a story works, about how a performance works, about what an actor or actress is trying to get out of the character they’re playing,” he says. “Then I try to play the film from the inside out, so as not to impose music on the screen, but let what’s on the screen draw out the music in me to create something that feels like it’s coming out of the screen.”
What is also important to Neil is to play music that people recognise as film music.
“I’m not playing 1920s music or Edwardian music, because that really would just calcify these films,” he says, explaining that instead he tries to play music that makes the audience feel exactly what the characters on screen are feeling.
Stan and Ollie are unique to play for, especially as comedians, because Neil is attuned to a different kind of speed.
“With Keaton, for example, I’m playing flat out, because he’s going flat out – I’m trying to play at the same speed as he runs! But with Laurel & Hardy, I am trying to play at the same speed they think, so I am going incredibly slowly sometimes, because I can tell, and the audience can tell, that light hasn’t come on yet.”
In fact, even when the light does go on, still nobody’s at home, so Neil matches that musically, sometimes with Ragtime, sometimes with Blues.
As well as accompanying film clips and shorts, Neil will be exploring the genius of Laurel & Hardy and delving into both their on-screen and off-screen relationship.
This begins with the acknowledgment that they were two very different men, who in real life were slightly at odds with the characters they became. Ollie was large, shy and incredibly nimble and he stares out the screen, inviting us to share the joke or share his shame. Stan was as Neil explains, by no means the slow thinker he plays on screen.
“Stan was an absolutely driven workaholic who spent most of his time actually behind the camera and editing in the evenings; he would do shot after shot after shot, desperate to get a perfect film. So he was a film-maker and a perfectionist and a writer – and a truly great gag-man as well.”
Neil tries to make music that allows for the changing characters of Laurel & Hardy. But this doesn’t mean trying to get laughs with the piano.
“You can’t do funny music with comedians. It will just die, like when someone bangs on about how funny something is the result is it becomes far less funny. Instead, the music tries to embrace those characters – and they’re slightly different in every film they do.”
Stan and Ollie spend a considerable amount of time in their films in what appears to be genuine jeopardy, and Neil matches his music to the situation, second-by-second, keeping pace with every movement.
“Playing music that suggests our heroes are actually about to die just makes it so much funnier. And the laughter that comes from the audience is all laughs of relief, and it’s gorgeous.”
Playing for silent film is, as Neil describes it, very much cooking it up on the spot, and he honed his improv skills on tour with Paul Merton.
“Paul did a weekly workout at the Comedy Store; he turned out every week for the simple reason that he had no idea what the next bit of comedy that he would have to come up with would be – but he knew he would have to come up with it quickly. Playing for Laurel & Hardy is similar, it’s a workout for me, and although there are a few little ideas that I use regularly, I can’t remember exactly what I did last time, or the time before that, or the time before that!”
Neil says he is very much aware of and guided by each individual audience.
“If the audience is taking a while to get into the film, then I’ll make the music much more of a simple, direct statement to them; whereas, if the audience is already falling about with laughter, then I can relax a little as the film is doing its job. My job then is to cruise alongside the film musically and ensure I don’t get in the way.”
Every performance is different for Neil; as well as different audiences, the films and clips reveal new things to him constantly.
“I see new stuff in them all the time,” he says. “It might only be an eyebrow raise or a little nod, but it’s wonderful. There is always so much to find in these films”
While the newly-discovered gems delight Neil, he also takes a great deal of pleasure in anticipating the audience’s reaction to gags he knows are coming.
“Those are fantastic moments that you know are going to crease up an audience, when you just think, oh, they are so going to lose it when that happens. Quite often, it’s one movement or an inter-title, or one little thing that either of them does, and you just know the laughs are going to be massive.”
And while Neil finds it delightful to be a part of that experience, it goes deeper as well.
“It’s been therapy for me,” he says. “It’s been quite a tough year for me, and being able to go and do this, standing up on stage with Laurel & Hardy, is the best therapy you could possibly have. In a funny sort of way, they still still have to work their magic on me for me to be able to create good music to accompany them – so, I’m still an audience member.”
Neil explains that he gets as much out of Stan and Ollie’s comedy as the audience who turn up to see the show on any given night. So much so, that it can get rather tricky.
“There are plenty of moments where I laugh out loud – and that can be a problem because I’m wearing a mic. I’m not supposed to laugh at these things in the same way that comedians aren’t supposed to laugh at their own jokes – but that never hurt Billy Connolly!”
Stan and Ollie’s films are packed with gags that develop and humour that evolves throughout the narrative, and this echoes the evolving relationship between the comics, something that Neil strives to demonstrate to his audiences, showing Laurel and Hardy as individuals before they started working together.
“I show them in films where they were just characters themselves, and then I show the first Laurel and Hardy films where they were trying to get a sense of what their comedy partnership was about,” says Neil, explaining that there is a point at which it kind of clicks in and the audience can feel it.
“The audience realises the point at which the two of them have a sort of ease with each other – suddenly the magic is there, it’s working, and then, you know, we’re off.”
Of course, with an on-screen partnership lasting three decades, there is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to picking clips to include in the show. And, it’s rather like picking your favourite child – impossible.
For Neil it boiled down to what made him laugh the most out of the pre-sound titles, but it wasn’t easy.
“I keep finding new things that they’ve done, things I’ve not seen before – there is so much amazing stuff out there.”
Neil is conscious of the way the show needs to hang together as a whole. “Compiling it, I was thinking how much comedy the audience will need at any given point – more here, less there. And you have to have context and narrative, to take the audience on the journey.
“There is a wealth of joy out there – I could, theoretically, do “Laurel & Hardy 2: This Time It’s Personal”, with a whole load of different clips and two other shorts!”
We can only hope that’s in the offing.
Check out a review of this show by Helen Myers on Blogger!