84 CHARING CROSS ROAD – George Fenton
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
84 Charing Cross Road is a genteel British period drama directed by David Hugh Jones, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by American author Helene Hanff. The film stars Anne Bancroft as Hanff, and tells the story of the long-distance friendship that develops between her and antiquarian bookseller Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins), who manages a shop at the titular address in London in 1949. The film is little more than a quiet character study, a snapshot of life on opposite sides of the Atlantic in the period immediately after World War II, but the story has proved to be immensely popular: the original novel was a best seller, the subsequent Broadway stage play was a smash hit, and this screen adaptation was a critical darling in the UK; Anne Bancroft won a BAFTA for her leading role, and the film was BAFTA-nominated for its screenplay, and for Judi Dench’s supporting role as Frank’s wife, Nora.
The score for 84 Charing Cross Road is by composer George Fenton, who by 1987 had firmly cemented his reputation as the go-to guy for English period dramas, having received an Oscar nomination for Gandhi in 1982, and having written the scores for acclaimed productions such as The Jewel in the Crown and The Company of Wolves. His music for 84 Charing Cross Road is steeped in that same quintessentially English sound, providing an appropriate look of the musical conventions of post-war Britain, but he peppers it with a great deal of lazy, hazy jazz of the sort that George Gershwin excelled. This is a clever idea, in that it highlights the geographical distance between the two protagonists; Frank’s London is still rather old-fashioned, a little stuffy, and traditional, while Helene’s New York is lively, upbeat, romantic, and occasionally a little sexy. Fenton cleverly positions himself between these two musical worlds, traversing the Atlantic much like the letters that pass between the friends over the course of almost two decades.
The English music is delightful; light, pastoral, whimsical, warm, with beautiful harmonies between strings and woodwinds, and regular interjections from Leslie Pearson’s pretty piano lines. The main English theme which weaves through the score is gently romantic, but very proper, as if it is taking pains to maintain the decorum that English gentlemen in the 1940s and 50s always sought to uphold. Cues like the main title piece “The Journey,” the sublime “Book of Love Poems,” and the slightly more austere and withdrawn “Marks and Co.” highlight this style of writing, while the pleasant and pretty “Nora Writes” shifts the instrumental focus to a duet between flute and harp which is quite charming. The best of these cues, for me, is “Pilgrimage – Helene and Frank,” a new variant on the main theme which highlights a dulcimer and an Irish flute above a warm string wash, and is quite moving.
Helene’s New York is filled with 1950s jazz, and makes great use of pianos, brass (especially saxophones), and clarinets to encapsulate the livelier, more forward-thinking circles through which Frank’s unlikely pen pal moves. Cues such as the second half of the “Main Title,” the solo piano in “Dear Speed,” the peppy and frothy “The Subway,” and “Helene’s First Letter” highlight this authentic sound, showcasing Fenton’s talents not only as an excellent composer in his own right, but also as an excellent mimic. I don’t mean that as a slight in any way – it takes great skill to successfully adopt another composer’s mannerisms and blend them with your own, and the way Fenton is able to capture such a unique and iconic sound and style is admirable.
The two styles blend together in the excellent “Tread Softly,” which features a soft and endearing brass performance of the English theme, offset with jazzy New York piano textures and elegant woodwinds. Elsewhere, “Love Between Friends” is a deft piece of romantic swing jazz, the sort of music one would hear in dance halls all across the United Kingdom in the 1940s and 50s, a cavalcade of muted brasses and brushed cymbals, courtesy of band leaders like Glenn Miller. The score’s conclusive piece, “Hopes Fade/Condolence,” is a dark variation on the main theme featuring a notable performance by a kantele Finnish zither, and introspective string and woodwind harmonies.
The album, on Varese Sarabande, is rounded out by a few pieces of source music, including a church organ interlude in “The Wedding,” an original Latin-Caribbean piece called the “Festival of Britain Conga” (which keeps threatening to break into ‘Soul Limbo’ by Booker T. & the M.G.’s, best known as the theme for the BBC’s coverage of test match cricket), performances of traditional seasonal carols, and a lovely rendition of Arcangelo Corelli’s “Church Sonata in A” for violin and harpsichord. The score was originally released on vinyl LP and CD in 1987 around the time the film was released, and was re-issued in 2007 as part of Varese’s CD Club, but it is a fairly rare album these days, and appears to be priced around $30 on the secondary market.
Although 84 Charing Cross Road is a romance score, it doesn’t have the same sort of sweeping passion of something like Dangerous Beauty or Ever After, and should not be approached as such. Instead, it’s a much more restrained, charming portrait of a specific time and place in history, and of a particular type of Englishman, whose social status and sense of propriety did not allow his emotions to run away with him, but whose profound friendship with a dazzling American woman he never actually met altered his life in a significant way. Still waters run deep, as they say, and Fenton’s musical depiction of that concept rings true.
Buy the 84 Charing Cross Road soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Fanfare/Main Title – The Journey (3:02)
- Book of Love Poems (2:03)
- Marks and Co. (1:09)
- Dear Speed (1:39)
- Christmas Gift, 1949 – Sussex Carol (traditional) (1:32)
- Nora Writes (1:47)
- Church Sonata in A (written by Arcangelo Corelli) (1:58)
- Pilgrimage – Helene and Frank (2:28)
- The Wedding (1:47)
- The Subway (0:38)
- Love Between Friends (1:46)
- Tread Softly… (2:05)
- Helene’s First Letter (1:45)
- Business As Usual (1:31)
- Festival of Britain Conga (0:51)
- Daydream/Meeting Ginny and Ed (2:01)
- The Move, 1958 (1:41)
- New Year, 1960 – Auld Lang Syne (traditional) (1:52)
- Hopes Fade/Condolence (1:18)
- Love Between Friends Reprise/Closing Credits (3:58)
Running Time: 36 minutes 41 seconds
Varese Sarabande VCL-0307-1062 (1987/2007)
Music composed and conducted by George Fenton. Orchestrations by George Fenton, Robert Stewart and John Warren. Featured musical soloists Gavyn Wright, Leslie Pearson, Michael Jeans, John Leach and Andy Findon. Recorded and mixed by Keith Grant. Album produced by George Fenton.