My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1964)

Audrey Hepburn

My Fair Lady has one of the greatest scores of any musical, by Lerner and Loewe, with many songs which have become standards, such as With a Little Bit of Luck, Wouldn’t It Be Loverly and On the Street Where You Live. It is also one of the most gorgeous musicals to look at, making full use of Super Panavision, with its dazzling Cecil Beaton costumes and colourful sets. It wasn’t filmed on location in London, but Covent Garden flower market and the dingy back streets look convincing enough to me, while scenes like the Embassy ball and Ascot have all the visual flamboyance you’d expect from director George Cukor, aided by art director Gene Allen. Yet this celebrated film was allowed to deteriorate into a sorry state and needed full-scale restoration by the mid-1990s. The DVD I have, part of an Audrey Hepburn box set, features the restored print, looking great, plus several special features – and there are also a couple of different two-disc special editions available, as well as a region 1 Blu-ray. But what I’d really like would be to see this on the big screen some day.

This was one of the first musicals that I came to love, as a child of the 1960s. But the version I knew back then was the soundtrack of the Broadway show, starring Julie Andrews as Shaw’s Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, whose life is transformed when eccentric phonetics expert Henry Higgins decides to teach her to speak “like a lady”. My mother had a copy of the LP which someone had brought back for her from America (it wasn’t allowed to be sold in the UK at that time, presumably for copyright reasons), and we listened to it endlessly. So when I hear anyone else singing those songs, I still always have Julie’s voice in the back of my head somewhere.

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Brief Encounter (1945)

Although I’d never seen Brief Encounter in full, I thought I knew what it would be like. I’d seen various short clips, and gained an impression of the impossibly posh, clipped voices, the emotional repression and the strained nobility of behaviour. I’d also seen the scene in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys   which gently mocks the poignant final moments.

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard
Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard

However, none of this gets anywhere near the experience of watching the film as a whole. This year I went on a visit to Carnforth in Lancashire, where the famous railway scenes were filmed. I  saw the opening scenes of the film on a large screen in the waiting room at the museum there, where it  seems to be shown on a loop – and, getting hooked on the story within minutes, quickly realised it was very different from the impression of it I’d acquired.  I now have the DVD (the region 2 version which sadly doesn’t have a commentary, though it does have a featurette going behind the scenes), have watched it in full a couple of times, and am full of admiration.

David Lean’s direction and Noel Coward’s script, adapted from his play Still Life, are both great, and the dark, austere scenes, always full of the wartime atmosphere though the war is never mentioned, linger in the memory long after watching.

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