S&H Film with Orchestra

CHAPLIN Modern Times BBC Concert Orchestra/Timothy Brock Royal Festival Hall, 17 March 2001

Gerard Hoffnung website

It has taken Charles Chaplin to break Carl Davis's virtual monopoly of the lucrative field of silent film with live orchestra. His refurbished original score for Modern Times is delightfully unpretentious and perfectly apt for this treasured film. The only slight snag is that the music is quite often drowned by gales of laughter during factory scenes so funny that it hurts.

I had forgotten how superb is the whole thing, a homely family entertainment (lots of small kids in the nearly full Festival Hall) and yet it is too a telling political statement about exploitation in the '30s. Chaplin anticipates repetitive strain injury becoming 50 years on a cause for costly compensation claims, and recent times when the best endeavours to work for an honest living have been thwarted by crippling taxation realities; life in prison a preferable and far more comfortable option to urban homelessness.

Charlie Chaplin is surely at the peak of invention, and of his astonishing balletic and acrobatic skills. What is more surprising is that high claims made for his musical accompaniment to the film (he was a self-taught instrumentalist who never learned to read music) prove amply justified. Orchestrated originally by Raskin and Powell, Chaplin himself kept a close eye on the music at all stages. Timothy Brock's reconstruction of the original score has been toured internationally to acclaim and the BBC Concert Orchestra gave it everything.

There is a marvellous moment when the original sound track (there are only ten lines of dialogue in the ninety-minute film) is allowed to take over, and Charlie himself sings in spoof-esperanto. The musical construction is impeccable and the version heard in 1935 was 'merely the surface of a great score - the most strong, complex and innovative' that Chaplin ever created. The hilarity is balanced with gentle pathos which never becomes mawkish and the young Paulette Godard excels as his equally impecunious partner, with whom he leaves down the lonely road, the couple ready to face together whatever the future might bring.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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