A theatre graduate who found himself playing piano before the legends of the silent screen, Neil shared with us some of his fervent passion for the craft of composition, improvisation, and the road map of life that led him to playing for our dear friends, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
How did you get into music?
I was one of those annoying kids who could play the piano by ear when I was growing up. I preferred sitting and letting my mind wander, letting my fingers wander, and coming up with original tunes. It never occurred to me to be a professional musician. I gave up piano lessons when I was 16 and went off to study drama. I came away from university deciding to become an actor and musician. I was going to act and play the piano and then along came silent movies, out of the blue…
What drew you to accompanying and composing for silent films?
I was part of a group of students from my college who went to the South Coast to open an old cinema as an arts centre. The film society there wanted to show movies and said, ‘one of the films we’d like to show is Buster Keaton, a silent film, would you like to play the piano for it?’ I’d never seen a silent film before then, except on TV. I was slightly terrified because he [Buster Keaton] was so good. He was doing these fantastic stunts. I was playing for the movie in front of the audience and they started to laugh. I forgot any music I planned in my head, I just went with the feeling off the back of the audience’s laughter and then made up the next hour or so of the film. When I finished, I couldn’t remember a note of what I played. It had been so immediate, like touch typing. It was then fairly obvious that this was a career I could eventually make something out of.
Do you think there are any common misconceptions about Laurel and Hardy and their films?
I think their comedy is entirely recognisable. If anybody thinks that they’re not ‘real’ comedy, then they really do have a very pleasant surprise on Sunday because their comedy is very well grounded in human nature. The way they respond to stuff is completely recognisable, it’s just that where we might not do something quite as daft as that, they’ll go ahead and do it. I think people thought these comedies were for kids. Well, they sort of are, but they’re also for adults as well. Adults will get so much out of this and it’s a very old school style of comedy. The laughs all come from a generosity to make themselves look funny for our benefit - you have to really understand human nature to make that work.
Laurel or Hardy?
You knew that was an impossible question before you asked it! It’s very hard to divorce one from the other, the point is that they are a team and the team is funny and the team is complete. Separated one from the other, they are incomplete.They needed the dynamic that the other one gave them and that then allowed them to become something way, way bigger than either of them could have managed on their own.
He speaks of these two legendary comedians as old friends, threaded with an intimate knowledge of music and endless affection for their art. Sunday’s privileged audience will share with Neil, Stan, and Ollie, one singular event accompanied by music and laughter that will only ever exist in that fleeting world inside the La Scala. You absolutely, should not, cannot miss it.
Oh, and by the way, he eventually chose Stan.
Neil Brand appears at the Inverness Film Festival on Sunday 10 Nov with his new show: Neil Brand Presents Laurel and Hardy.
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Supported by Film Hub Scotland, part of the BFI’s Film Audience Network, and funded by Creative Scotland and Lottery funding from the BFI.