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3 Oct 2014
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Charlie Chaplin Sound Job
by Torin Douglas
If you were compiling a list of jobs that were totally redundant in the 21st Century, that of "silent film pianist" would be near the top.

Yet some musicians still make a healthy living playing along to old movies at festivals round the UK - and indeed the world.

The National Film Theatre regularly shows silent films and as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, it's holding an evening marking the pianists' contribution. Torin Douglas has been talking to one of them, Neil Brand.

To modern audiences the work of a silent-film pianist is often seen (or rather heard) as musical cliche. Often there's no need to explain what sort of film is on, the music tells us this is a Biblical epic, this is a chase.

Neil Brand is the doyen of silent film pianists, playing at film festivals all over the world. And he says the original silent film music was much better than it's given credit for. However good strong music was played, with some cinemas running to 30-piece orchestras

At the National Film Theatre, they show four silent films a month, using five pianists, who've been auditioned and trained at the NFT. Brand reckons there are 50 such pianists in the world - and he says demand is growing, because a new younger audience appreciates silent films in a way their parents and grandparents didn't.

Neil Brand claims that there's nothing better than playing a cinema full of students as the response you get back is tremendous.

Often he doesn't see a film before it's put on the projector, and sometimes he doesn't even know the plot. Often he is forced to improvise while watching, helped, of course, by that staple ingredient of the silent film, the on-screen captions.

While the film pianists provided a live accompaniment it wasn't enough to resist the thrill of the talkies. With the release of The Jazz Singer the audiences were absolutely gobsmacked, thinking 'what does our favourite film star sound like?' A situation famously mocked in Singin' in the Rain.

Overnight, he says, an industry - and an art form - disappeared as thousands of highly talented musicians were fired. In America alone, 55,000 musicians were redundant, and there was nowhere else to go.

The National Film Theatre screened an evening of silent films, accompanied by the composer Michael Nyman, on Saturday 12th October.


National Film Theatre

Charlie Chaplin and Jack Coogan in The Kid
Charlie Chaplin and Jack Coogan in The Kid
Listen - Report in full. (11/10/2002)
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