Silent movie star honoured

10 July 2013

Neil Brand receiving his Fellowship from Vice-President Mrs Elizabeth France CBE
Neil Brand receiving his Fellowship from Vice-President Mrs Elizabeth France CBE

‘The Doyen of silent film accompanists’ Neil Brand has been presented as Fellow of Aberystwyth University today, Wednesday 10 July.

Neil, who graduated in English and Drama from Aberystwyth, was presented by Professor Robert Meyrick, Head of the School of Art.

Described by the BBC’s Torin Douglas as ‘the Doyen of silent film accompanists’, Neil is a composer and a regular contributor to BBC radio and television.

Neil has presented the Radio 2 arts programme, is a regular contributor on Radio 4’s The Film Programme.

He is a director of the British Silent Film Festival, a visiting professor at the Royal College of Music, and is considered one of the finest exponents of improvised silent film accompaniment in the world.

He has been accompanying silent films for nearly 30 years, regularly in London at the Barbican and National Film Theatre, throughout the UK, and at film festivals globally.

Presentation of Neil Brand by Professor Robert Meyrick

Is-Llywydd, braint a phleser yw cyflwyno Neil Brand yn gymrawd o Brifysgol Aberystwyth

Vice-President, it is my privilege and pleasure to present Neil Brand as a Fellow of Aberystwyth University.

Neil is a composer for film, television and radio. He is a dramatist for BBC radio and television as well as a regular broadcaster. Torin Douglas on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme has described him as the ‘doyen of silent film accompanists’ - one of the finest improvising pianists for silent film in the world. And what is more, he is a graduate of Aberystwyth University where he studied English and Drama.

Picture it. Aberystwyth 1982. The Arts Centre summer season. The Wizard of Oz.  The orchestra? Well that would pretty much be Neil at the piano. I recall a drum accompaniment – though there was no budget in those days, I think it was a lad with biscuit tins and a couple of sticks. However, I am very proud to be able to say that I was there for Neil’s first big proper public engagement. And I still treasure the cast album, such as it was on one of these new-fangled cassette tapes. It was Neil’s first musical release.

And now look at him. As silent film pianist, he has performed quite literally all around the globe. From Australia and New Zealand to the Middle Eastern International Film Festival, Finland’s ‘Midnight Sun’ Festival, and venues around the USA. This time last week he was performing in the Czech Republic. Just this weekend he played the Bologna Film Festival. You just don’t know where he’s going to pop up next.  When I took a group of my students on a field trip to Berlin galleries, guess who was in town that week?  Neil. At the Babylon Cinema, where he is a regular. I was pleased to be able to take along a party to appreciate Neil’s accompaniment of Harold Lloyd’s wonderfully funny Grandma’s Boy.

And I am delighted that Neil has been able to break a busy schedule to be with us today. I have to say that we were pushing against an open door getting him back to Aber. He returns with his family each year on vacation … and to work too. He has played piano here at the Arts Centre is a regular performer at the nearby National Library: Hitchock’s 1927 silent The Ring, a double bill featuring that dashing Welsh actor Ivor Novello in The Lodger and The Rat, and the newly-discovered 1918 film The Life and Times of David Lloyd George. When the only extant print of this long lost epic turned up in a north Wales garage, the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales commissioned Neil to score its digitally remastered DVD release.

In fact, Neil has written dozens of scores for DVD releases - many for the British Film Institute. He has been accompanying silent films for nearly 30 years, regularly in London at the Barbican and National Film Theatre, often working closely with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. And these were not in buck and a quarter art-house cinemas. His acclaimed orchestral score for Hitchcock’s silent Blackmail received its UK premiere at the Barbican Concert Hall. He has also played outdoors in Trafalgar Square. In 2004, his score for Piccadilly was performed with a 60-piece orchestra in the Piazza Maggiore, Bologna to an audience of 5,000.

Neil has also done much to share his enthusiasm for silent film and stimulate public interest in the medium:
as a regular contributor to Radio 4’s The Film Programme
as a director of the British Silent Film Festival
as a visiting professor at the Royal College of Music
through his one-man-show, The Silent Pianist Speaks which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe
and appearing with Paul Merton in the BBC television series Silent Clowns

In the autumn, BBC television airs Neil’s new series called Sound Track. Ooh, I think that was still meant to be a secret – not even the BBC have announced that yet.

I intend to keep my introduction brief to allow you time to enjoy some of Neil’s work on the big screen. I have brought together a few highlights – a kind of Oscar-award ceremony montage. Before starting the show reel, however, I would like to say a few words about Neil’s work as dramatist for radio and television. All Neil’s dozen or so plays have been written for the BBC. As you might expect, some take their themes from the early years of cinema while others draw on such diverse subjects as the relationship between Dickens and Thackeray at their supper club; the tale of three 11th-century monks who stumble upon the concept of close-harmony singing; and naughty postcard king Donald McGill’s trial for obscenity in 1953. A six-part comedy series Sneakiepeeks, about a covert surveillance team, was a collaboration between Neil and Harry Venning, another Aberystwyth alumnus, whom you may know as creator of The Guardian and BBC4’s Clare in the Community.

Well, enough of me, let Neil’s work now speak for itself.

Montage
1. Anthony Asquith’s 1928 silent classic Underground with Neil’s orchestral score for the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
2. Then the highly acclaimed jazz score for the 1927 E A Dupont film Piccadilly with the adorable Anna Mae Wong on the dance floor and a young Charles Laughton as a disgruntled diner. It premiered live at the New York’s Lincoln Centre and in London to a sell-out performance at the 2000-seat Barbican Concert Hall.
3. Menschen am Sonntag, which uses real-life footage, providing a rare glimpse into leisure time in Berlin during the Weimar Republic. Here we actually get to see Neil at the piano.
4. Next, his acclaimed orchestral score for Hitchcock’s silent Blackmail.
5. And finally we observe Neil as television dramatist in Stan, a play about Stan Laurel’s last meeting with stroke victim Oliver Hardy. It started as a radio play starring Tom Courtenay as Stan Laurel. This received a Sony Award nomination. Subsequently, Neil adapted his script for BBC television.

The montage can be viewed at http://youtu.be/vl_qtCVEkKA 

Vice-President, Vice-Chancellor, it is a pleasure and honour to present Neil Brand as Fellow of Aberystwyth University.

AU24413



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Arthur Dafis
Communications and Public Affairs
01970 621763 / 07841 979 452
aid@aber.ac.uk