HHCT’s showing of Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last!” with live organ accompaniment was a great success. Improvised by Jonathan Hope, in the wonderful setting of St Michael’s Ledbury, it was a marvel.

This kind of thing was a common high-class entertainment in the silent film era of the early 20th century: an organ being certainly superior to a honky-tonk piano. But very few original cinema organs have survived: being complex beasts and expensive to maintain, most have succumbed to decades of commercial pressure. Thankfully, the church organ is a much less endangered species and the Victorian organ of St Michaels is not exactly a Wurlitzer, but a very worthy alternative. The use of St Michael’s and its organ for this kind of event also reinforces one of the Trust’s passionately held beliefs: we need to use our churches more. Not only are the county’s churches beautiful and historic places of worship, they are also venues that, with a bit of imagination, can host a wide variety of events.

Harold Lloyd was one of the “A list” stars of silent cinema, starring in a string of hit movies as both romantic lead and funny man, and every bit the equal of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Yet his work remains less well known than that of his contemporaries, some say because his insistence on high royalty payments during his lifetime meant less exposure on US television. “Safety Last !” is not just a romantic comedy but features several ground-breaking action stunts filmed against the authentic background of 1920’s LA.

Our organist was Jonathan Hope who studied at the Royal College of Music with a number of eminent teachers. Jonathan became Assistant Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral in March 2014, where he is the principal organist for the cathedral services, accompanist to the Gloucester Choral Society, Musical Director of the Saint Cecilia Singers, and Accompanist to the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival Chorus.

Many organists are reticent about improvising, preferring to have dots in front of them, and silent film improvisation is not for the faint of heart. But Jonathan is a confident chap, and made a superb job of improvising an accompaniment, providing appropriate music for action sequences, several musical jokes, and of course, the occasional sound effect. He watched the film many times in preparation, and reckons that comedy is harder to do than action or suspense – as he says “the organ does spooky very easily – it’s much more difficult to be funny!”

We thought it remiss to invite an organist of Jonathan’s calibre without asking him to play some “serious” organ music, and he started the evening with the Sinfonia from Cantata 29 by JS Bach arranged by Marcel Dupré: a fast and furious showpiece that makes significant demands on both instrument and soloist.

Thanks are due to St Michael’s Church for hosting this event, and to our sponsors The Feathers Hotel and PK Engineering Ltd for their support. The evening was very well
attended, and we hope to do similar events in future. If anyone has a favourite silent film that they would like to see, do let us know!

Herefordshire Historic Churches Trust