Those passing through central London early this evening would have heard the unexpected tones of a piano being played in the middle of Trafalgar Square. There, in the chill October air, beneath Nelson’s Column was a huge screen, and beside it beneath a canopy, elegantly accoutred in black tie and pounding said piano for all he was worth, the one and only Neil Brand. He was accompanying screenings of Blue Bottles (1928), a comedy made by Ivor Montagu, starring Elsa Lanchester, and based on an idea by H.G. Wells (allegedly he wrote just the single line: “Elsa blows a whistle”, and the rest of the action just followed), and the silent version of Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929). Crowds sat on the steps, stood beside the fountains, stopped by on their way home to look this curiousness, or just walked on by, oblivious or bewildered. It was a rather magical experience.
Neil was on top form, naturally, and Neil watchers should be aware that he is going to be seen or heard in the next few days displaying his talents as musician, writer and actor. His tour with Paul Merton for their Silent Clowns show is taking silent comedy films around the UK, from 10 November to 9 December. In a few weeks’ time, his new radio play, Seeing it Through, on the covert First World War British propaganda outfit (whose outputs included film), Wellington House, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3. More on that nearer the time. And tomorrow, he appears at the Canterbury Festival as Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Kier Hardie, Edward Burne-Jones and several others in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, a multi-faceted entertainment written and presented by yours truly.