Church Mouse was very excited to be at St. James the Great at Cradley on Saturday 11th June when it played host to both Jonathan Hope and Harold Lloyd in the shape of the silent film Safety Last from 1923 accompanied by Jonathan’s improvisation.
Cradley is nothing if not a musical church. Thomas Bisse, Rector of Cradley 1713-24, Chaplain to Queen Anne and King George I, was instrumental in founding the Three Choirs Festival. The choirs of the three Cathedrals of Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester were already meeting every year to sing together during his lifetime. In 1724, Thomas Bisse suggested that donations to benefit the orphans of clergy should be collected at these meetings, so he set up a charity for that purpose. The Three Choirs Festival continues to flourish after more than three hundred years, the oldest non-competitive music festival in the world, and it still maintains its collections for local charities.
Saturday evening’s performance of Safety Last had another link with the Three Choirs Festival as the organ accompaniment was provided by Jonathan Hope, “one of the most distinguished organists of his generation” who became Assistant Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral in 2014. The principal organist for cathedral services, he is also Festival Organist when the Three Choirs is held at Gloucester. Amongst his other achievements, Jonathan played for the funeral of Sir John Tavener, at a service for the London 2012 Olympics and HM Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. He plays internationally, has performed live on BBC Radio 3 and 4 and has released his own solo recordings. HHCT and Cradley Church were therefore extremely fortunate and delighted that Jonathan, who has a particular interest in improvising for silent films, agreed (thanks to the organ in Cradley being an early Nicholson!) to return to accompany Safety Last again, the first time having been for HHCT at Ledbury Church a few years ago.
After an amusing introduction by Jonathan, he sat down at the organ with a small screen in front of him while we were entertained by the truly hilarious antics of Harold Lloyd and his co-stars on a large screen suspended high enough for everyone to see. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, The Boy (Harold Lloyd) goes to the Big City to make his fortune, upon which he intends to send for The Girl, Mildred. His adventures are caused by his failed attempts to make lots of money whilst at the same time pretending to Mildred that he is, in fact, very successful. When she comes to the Big City to find him, thinking that he is now an affluent businessman, he is finally forced into trying to claim a thousand dollars, the prize to be given for climbing up the side of the building where he works to draw more people into the store. The Boy’s friend, an experienced climber, is meant to do the climb for Harold, but as he is being chased by an irate policeman at the time, he is unable to do it and Harold is compelled to do it himself. Luckily, Jonathan could be heard over the audience’s laughter; it is extremely funny.
Lloyd performed most of his own stunts, though not every one and not the death-defying one at the end of the film where he apparently ends up swinging by his foot from the end of a rope in front of the tall building, (a fact only revealed much later in a TV programme in 1980). During the climb Lloyd pretends to lose his footing on numerous occasions, is hit by a builder’s plank coming through a window, mobbed by pigeons, berated or egged on by people inside the building, has a mouse (from the American cousins of the Mouse family) run up his trouser leg, sits on a flag pole dangling what seems like hundreds of feet up over the streetscape and swings on the hand of a large clock on the building’s face. The entire heart-stopping sequence would give Health and Safety executives collective nervous breakdowns nowadays.
Jonathan, with unfailing energy and unerring sensitivity, matched the organ to the action, with hints of “What shall we do with the drunken sailor?” when a drunk appears and slow melancholy notes when Lloyd is depressed about his lack of financial success. The music climbed higher and faster as Harold continued to scramble ever higher and higher. To say that the audience members were on the edge of their seats would be an understatement. If you have the opportunity to see Safety Last, do watch it, and even better if you are fortunate enough to hear Jonathan Hope accompanying!
Thank you very much to Cradley PCC and the helpers, technical, administrative and catering who made the evening so enjoyable.