BBC SSO / Scott of the Antarctic

BBC SSO / Scott of the Antarctic

City Halls, Glasgow

Whatever the modern viewer might think of Ealing Studios’ 1949 adventure film Scott of the Antarctic, with its Boys Own derring-do and plucky stiff-upper-lip, it’s worth remembering it was a child of its time.

It was Ealing’s first colour movie, scripted in the wake of the Second Word War, with the clipped lines of Sir John Mills as the quintessential “English” hero alongside such notable other castings as Kenneth More, Derek Bond and James Robertson Justice, even early sightings of a certain Christopher Lee and Dandy Nichols. Directed by Charles Fend, it recounted the bittersweet fortunes of of Scott’s tragic 1910-12 expedition, which in the 1940s would still have been fresh for the telling. And it did so with some spectacular camera work.

What we shouldn’t forget is the brilliantly moody and emotive film score composed by Vaughan Williams – especially this year when the musical world has been celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth – and that was the purpose of this wonderfully fluent “Live in Concert” screening featuring the BBC SSO, the women of the Glasgow Chamber Choir and soprano Katie Coventry, under the baton of the super-efficient Martyn Brabbins.

That it coincided with the anniversary was, it should be said, an accident of circumstances. The original intention by the event production company Big Screen Live and its creator Tommy Pearson, working with global film production company StudioCanal, was to stage it in 2020, but Covid put paid to that. Pearson masterminded the preparation of the film, overseeing the excision of the music from the original soundtrack, not an easy task, he explained, given that the score didn’t exist – as is the case nowadays – on a separate track from the spoken dialogue.

A sure sign of success in such ventures – where the orchestra performs in real time to the projected film – is when the orchestra’s physical presence gets forgotten. So smooth was Brabbins’ engineering of its entries and exits that it simply felt like a regular night at the movies, but with the musical dimension infinitely more visceral, and rather refreshingly no mass exodus as the credits rolled! 

The eeriness of the wordless female voices, over which Katie Coventry (a last-minute replacement for the indisposed Elizabeth Watts) cast her own siren-like descant, possessed a haunting, palpable otherworldliness. Vaughan Williams’ bold harmonies and uncompromising orchestral textures played on equal terms with the film’s awesomely crisp snow-filled camera work. And how that slowly ascending motif, appearing over and over again, matched the arduous but doomed march for survival of Scott’s diminishing team. Its ominous inexorability took on a life and soul of its own in this illuminating context.

Pearson, in his opening introduction, also explained that music originally discarded from the final edit had been judiciously reinstated for this performance, but more intriguingly that he had also created a concert prelude out of Vaughan Williams’ used and unused material. It proved an added fascination, rather like the film outtakes you get these days on a modern DVD, but as a foretaste rather than a tail-end curiosity. 

It also reminded us that Vaughan Williams later made his own full capital from the ideas, when he incorporated many of them in his “Antarctic” Symphony, completed in 1952. 

Ken Walton