The original Neil Brand

Neil Brand is a silent film pianist. That much is known by most enthusiasts for silent film in the UK, and by a good many around the world as well. It may not always be realised that Neil is also a writer, composer, actor and scholar, one whose prodigious energies and superabundant talent make him not far short of a national treasure. Hmm, why that note of qualification? – he is a national treasure. And now, as if accompanying silents live and on DVD, writing radio scripts and musical comedies, acting on film and TV, writing books and educating students were not enough, now he has turned online archivist with his latest venture, The Originals.

The Originals is a new section of Neil’s personal site which brings together original materials relating to the performance of music to film in the silent era. For some while now Neil has been collecting articles, scores, interviews, memoirs and eye-witness accounts which document the experience of seeing or performing to films in the 1910s and 1920s. He has now started to put some of this material online.

The site is in three sections: Interviews, Archive and Memories. Interviews features a small collection (so far) of interviews and articles which give the point of view of musicians who were employed in cinemas during the silent era. These include a transcription of a 1988 interview with the 94–year-old Ella Mallett, former silent movie musician (carried out as part of the BECTU History Project which records interviews with veterans of the British film and television industries); an extract from Maurice Lindsay’s memoir of Glasgow life, As I Remember; an extract from New Zealander Henry Shirley’s memoir Just a Bloody Piano Player; and a highly evocative piece from novelist Ursula Bloom about her experiences as a teenage silent film pianist in St Albans (contributed by yours truly).

Archive is the section that is going to attract the most interest. This offers PDF copies of various original documents relating to silent film music, including extracts from original music that would have been performed with various films. The jewel here is selected pages from the score for The Flag Lieutenant, compiled by Albert Cazabon, and the only surviving full score for a British silent fiction film in existence. You’ll also find music for the Douglas Fairbanks picture The Black Pirate, an eyebrow-raisingly dismissive article on the profession of silent film pianist, cue sheets for Hell’s Heroes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, and more.

The third section, Memories, presents extracts from the 1927-1930 diaries of Gwen Berry, who played ‘cello in the orchestra pit of the Grand Cinema, Alum Rock Road, Saltley. The extracts, from 1929, show Gwen’s apprehension at the arrival of the “terrible talkie pictures” which were going to throw so many musicians such as her out of work. The diary is presented in a elegant turn-the-pages digital form, which does require that you install a plug-in for DNL ebook software.

All in all, The Originals is an excellent idea, and one that The Bioscope hopes will grow and grow, not least if those interested are able to send relevant materials to Neil so that they might be shared by all.

Meanwhile, here’s a handy survey of other things NeilBrandian…

Bravo, Neil.