Scott of the Antarctic (1948)
Directed by Charles Frend
Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Presented by Big Screen Live
Kate Trethewey (soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 11 November 2022
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s birth concluding this evening in a showing, with live orchestral accompaniment, of Scott of the Antarctic which proved to be the composer’s most ambitious cinema project.
Directed by Charles Frend (who presided over several UK films in the 1940s and ‘50s, before having an equally prominent role in television) and released in November 1948, the film was a commercial success not least owing to the expressive scope and richness of its music. This extended to some 80 minutes, but Vaughan Williams was more than happy for it to be edited as required and was so in accord with Ernest Irving (director of music at Ealing Studios) that he dedicated to him his Sinfonia Antartica, evolved from the original score, four years later.
It was this close synchronization between image and music that Tommy Pearson (director of Big Screen Live) was intent on capturing when he prepared the film for concert presentation (and the background to which was described in entertaining detail in the programme for these concerts). Suffice to add while the overhauled soundtrack, consisting of dialogue and sound-effects, was all too evidently recorded in mono so that it is easily obscured by the music, the visual component has an opulence and immediacy as transcends its more than seven decades.
Occupying a space equivalent to the lower half of the organ in Symphony Hall, the screen was less dominant in a venue of this size than it would have been even in larger cinemas, but any wider or wrap-round treatment would doubtless have raised many technical obstacles and the print had, in any case, a clarity evident from the rear of the stalls. Much the same could also be said of the orchestra’s contribution, even if its seating on a level platform meant certain of those more intricate details and textures seemed less prominent than under concert conditions.
There can be little but praise for Martyn Brabbins’s direction. A Vaughan Williams exponent of stature (the latest instalment in his traversal of the symphonies has recently been issued on Hyperion), he has an instinctive feel for the emotional highs and lows of this music along with its myriad instrumental subtleties. That divide between what was retained for the soundtrack and what became the composer’s Seventh Symphony is greater than is often supposed, yet the degree to which the former effects and enhances one’s experience of the film is considerable.
This is not the place for any detailed overview of the film itself, though it is notable just how restrained and even absent is the music from the latter stages when Robert Scott and his team head towards oblivion the further they seem to be heading on their return journey. This might have been more to do with Frend or even Irving, but the resulting psychological dimension – beholden neither to inter-war expressionism nor wartime realism – was ostensibly new in a cinematic epic of this kind and makes the film historically as well as artistically significant.
The singing of Katie Tretheway and the CBSO Youth Chorus left nothing to be desired, but many attendees having stocked up on liquid refreshment beforehand saw a steady coming and going over much of the two hours: something that would not be tolerated in a concert, so why here?