Goodbye to all that

Film - William Cook welcomes the return of our favourite romance and its famous station

Britain was still fighting a world war when David Lean and Noel Coward created Great Britain's greatest romantic movie, but, more than half a century later, our passion for Brief Encounter shows no sign of abating.

This week, Lean and Coward's masterwork is released on DVD. Meanwhile, Carnforth Station, Brief Encounter's historic steam train setting, is being restored to its former glory. Few films seem so trapped in a barely remembered past, but far from consigning this one to cinematic history, each passing year merely heightens its appeal. For what began as a simple love story has since become a national metaphor for an idea of England that has almost completely disappeared.

The plot, like all the best plots, is really very simple. Two respectable married people meet by chance in a provincial train station. They fall in love. They think better of it. They part. And it is this painful, premature separation which transforms a rudimentary romance into a complex battle between duty and desire. In modern Hollywood, you would expect desire to triumph in any romantic tug-of-war, but in bygone Britannia, duty is the reluctant victor.

"The feeling of guilt and doing wrong is too strong," says Celia Johnson, teetering on the edge of adultery. "Isn't it too great a price to pay for the happiness we have together?"

A modern movie starlet would scarcely know what she was on about, but, back in 1945, rights were less important than responsibilities, and so Johnson steps back from this adulterous abyss. Her lover, Trevor Howard, also does the decent thing and emigrates to Africa. "It's a very English picture," says Margaret Barton, Johnson's supporting actress, in the special documentary that accompanies Carlton's re-release. "The main characters are wanting to be good, to be nice, and not to hurt other people." As the Brief Encounter co-writer Ronald Neame says, in the same documentary, this very English picture is about two honourable people who try to remain honourable, rather than do something from which they both know nothing but more unhappiness will come.

There is nothing pious or simplistic about Brief Encounter's old-fashioned morality. Coward lets us know there are no happy endings to be had. Johnson's husband is dull and dreary, yet a doting spouse and father. Howard is the love of her life, yet would destroy her beloved family. Either choice is a defeat, and there are no second chances. Like wilting autumnal flowers, Johnson and Howard are both in their final, fleeting bloom of youth, with middle age fast encroaching. Neame said that Johnson could read the Yellow Pages and make you cry, and in a cheerful yet careworn Howard, she found her perfect foil.

Yet the unsung star of this elegy is the railway station where they meet. Coward's original play, Still Life, was set entirely in a station, and Lean's film kept Coward's railway centre stage. The story was set in Kent, but south-east England was besieged by German flying bombs, so Lean had to travel north for his locomotive location. Carnforth in Lancashire was beyond the blackout boundary, midway between London and Glasgow, on Europe's busiest main line. A bustling junction, where steam trains stopped to change engines, it was a perfect atmospheric backdrop for Lean's film. However, since electrification, the trains have been able to hurtle straight through Carnforth without stopping and, despite its commuter traffic, the station has fallen into disrepair. The decline of Carnforth's station echoed the decline of Coward's England, until this celebrated building was eventually scheduled for demolition.

No longer. For the last few years a band of dedicated enthusiasts has been fighting to save this famous landmark, and restoration is now well under way. With members from as far afield as America and the Far East, the Friends of Carnforth Station have helped to raise nearly £2m. Donors include the Railway Heritage Trust and the David Lean Foundation, but the biggest investments have come from the Northwest Development Agency and Railtrack, which is spending more than half a million pounds. The Friends of Carnforth also plan to build a visitors' centre, a restaurant and a replica of the buffet where the film's main scenes were set, even though the original was built in Elstree, and only installed for a few weeks during filming.

"It was a real architectural gem," says Michael Chorley, a retired railway civil engineer and the chairman of the Friends of Carnforth Station. "Now, after 30 years of no maintenance and everything else, it's in terrible condition." Chorley has won awards for station restoration, and his colleagues are even restoring Carnforth's old Victorian station clock, after tracking down the original mechanism to an antique shop in Kew.

"Railways had a far greater effect on people's lives and emotions than they do today," says Chorley, who was evacuated from Manchester to nearby Kendal during the Blitz, while his father served in the RAF. The station that Chorley and his friends plan to recreate should commemorate the days when railways were the emotive conduits of our daily lives. But, above all, it will commemorate a film that started off as a requiem for two ordinary thwarted lovers, and ended up as a requiem for an entire generation.

Brief Encounter is available on Carlton Video (DVD £15.99, VHS £10.99). Friends of Carnforth Station can be reached on 01524 735 450, or log on to:

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich rule politics again