Recent films such as The Artist have brought a fresh sense of relevance to the old silent movies. Alexandre Desplat’s finely crafted score contained more than a nod to the music of the golden era of silent films, and went a long way towards telling the film’s story. Since then, in venues across London, there have been a number of concerts in which films have been played to a live orchestral soundtrack.

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin

One such series of concerts is running at the Barbican, and this particular concert focused on the films of Charlie Chaplin. Most people know Chaplin as the moustachioed king of slapstick comedy; in fact, he was also a prolific director and, as Neil Brand explained in his introductory speech, he had a good ear for music despite not being able to write it down. Chaplin’s music was used in a number of his films, one of which rounded off this highly engaging performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Timothy Brock.

Hanging above the orchestra was the Barbican’s large cinema screen, on which the films played; that considerable work had gone into restoring these films, which were all released between 1914 and 1918, was very apparent. The first film shown was Kid Auto Races, a high-energy, ten-minute cinematic farce. Charlie Chaplin appears for the first time as Little Tramp, the persistent, bowler-hatted character with his put-on airs and graces. Filmed at a real-life children’s baby-cart (think soapbox) race in Venice, California, the audience’s reactions are genuine and turn from annoyance to outright amusement as Little Tramp constantly plays in front of the camera. It is a deliciously simple idea, and one which Timothy Brock’s new score, commissioned by Cinoteca di Bologna, helps to narrate as much as being able to see the on-screen action. Delivered with impeccable timing, the crescendi and sudden bursts of musical action when Chaplin waddles out in front of the cars or turns and makes faces at the camera made this funny old film truly laugh-a-minute.

We were next treated to Easy Street, another short film of around 20 minutes, in which Chaplin’s Little Tramp character enters a mission building and leaves a short while later, apparently reformed by the power of the pretty lady playing the piano. In nearby Easy Street, lawless behaviour abounds (a topic du jour, perhaps), and Chaplin signs up as a police officer who overcomes the street’s bully by shoving his head in a gas lamp, and rescues a damsel in distress (of course!). Neil Brand’s score for this film used brilliantly distinctive thematic ideas to help the frankly bonkers plot to be easily understood, and once again the wonderfully nuanced playing of the BBC SO was delivered exactly in time.

The Immigrant, a 1917 film, continued the theme of farce, but added to it an element of political astuteness: with Ellis Island and a number of other landing sites open in America, immigration was, of course, an enormous topic. A series of unfortunate events on board a ship carrying immigrants sees Chaplin’s Tramp character very nearly being denied entry to the States after he is accused of pickpocketing, but all is eventually explained and he makes his merry way down town. Unaware that he has in fact dropped it from his pocket, he picks up a coin he has ‘found’ in the street, and goes into the nearby restaurant to eat. A bully-boy waiter is seen evicting a customer for being 10 cents short, at which point Chaplin’s character realises he also doesn’t have enough money to pay for his meal; all is well, though, in the end. Brock’s score, in a similar way to Kid Auto Races, adds a layer to the film, which is essentially formed on a simple, two-part plot; it is as though the music is another. The lucidity of the orchestra’s sound added a quality of immediacy and pure liveliness that is missing with a mere soundtrack.

It occurred to me that playing along live to a film must be tiring work. To keep it up for the best part of 45 minutes, as the BBCSO did during the feature-length WWI comedy Shoulder Arms, is really extraordinary. Set in the trenches, Chaplin’s score masterfully tells the story of the ‘awkward squad’, a cheese which requires a gas mask to go near it, and the completely improbable tale of the squad’s going over the top, capturing 13 Germans (‘I surrounded them’, says Chaplin) and the Kaiser. Funnily enough, the final shot is of Chaplin being woken up from what transpires to be a mere dream. As a New York Times critic said after its release, ‘the fool’s funny’; indeed, but a significant part of that is down to the music. The score itself—and the film—would have been utterly ineffective had the BBC SO not kept up its precise timing and vivacious playing.

This was a most enjoyable concert, and one where I left wishing that silent movies were still ‘a thing’; you have to see/hear it to believe it, but there is a certain je ne sais quoi that you don’t get on a soundtrack with even the best of orchestras.