Reimagining the experience of 1918, At Home, At War

Arts Ambassador and 3rd year BA English Gabriela Gurycz reflects on Silent Film Fortnight’s final event and her first time at  Turner Sims. Image: Guns of the Loos. 

As part of Silent Film Fortnight I went with fellow Arts Ambassador Nicole to see Neil Brand’s 1918 At Home, At War at Turner Sims concert hall.

Arts Ambassador Gabi Gurycz

While discussing what we thought the show might consist of while picking up the tickets, we were relieved to hear from the box office staff that the event wasn’t going to be simply a 2.5 hour silent film with piano accompaniment we had originally thought.

Instead, we were to be taken on an emotional historical experience. Neil Brand, composer, writer and broadcaster presented to us various excerpts of films from the war, discussing each one and explaining the context behind them. Neil played alongside the film, whilst two student actors read out selected letters and correspondence from the war.

Taking our seats, the venue seemed full of contrasts: a shining grand piano centre stage, a PowerPoint presentation on the wall, bright lights and microphones, a man sitting back with a pint a few rows in front of us. Before the show started the venue seemed a little bit like a lecture theatre, familiar territory for students, if one doesn’t take in the amazing depth of the ceiling. It has a perfect mixture of concert hall grandeur and a familiar University space. Waiting for the show to start I felt the excitement and that big and impressive venues can bring, but I didn’t feel at all intimidated or out of place.

It’s very easy to underestimate what a man with a piano can do. Neil Brand’s music was emotive yet subtle, working in unison with the film and voices of the actors. The show exposed what a significant role music plays in how we interpret film. Hearing Neil play alongside film clips made the experience so intimate and immediate and made me think about the skill that must go into choosing and knowing what the right tune to play at a given moment is. The show was an absolute treat as music, film and the heartfelt words of soldiers and their loved ones overwhelmed the senses.

What I loved about the show that it wasn’t a mournful memorial service, but showed the different ways people kept going and the role cinema played in that, through comedic propaganda films to the Splinters cross-dressing, travelling show to entertain the troops. This all gave Britain at war much more vibrancy.

The experience was even more fulfilling because the audience could understand what they were feeling and knew how the films were conceived. The information Neil provided was insightful, entertaining and evidently expertly researched. The excerpts of letters were interesting, often incredibly upsetting, often smart and funny and always endearingly human. It was very powerful to hear the voices of the past brought to life and celebrated in this way. In the following discussion, it was fascinating to hear the history of the depiction of the war in film and the responses to it throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

1918, At Home, At War, Turner Sims, 22 February 2018

Silent Film Fortnight is part of the University of Southampton’s Great War: Unknown War series of events marking the lead-up to the anniversary of World War I’s ending in November 2018. The Fortnight is produced by Turner Sims in partnership with the University’s Film and Music departments and Faculty of Health Sciences, the British Film Institute, the Gateways to the First World War centre (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council), City Eye and the Cavell Nurses’ Trust.

Arts Ambassadors is a paid opportunity, supported by the Careers and Employability Service’s Excel Southampton Internship programme, University of Southampton.

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