Entertainment & Arts

Brief Encounter's Margaret Barton: 'I was never a film star'

Brief Encounter scene Image copyright ITV Global Entertainment Ltd/REX/Shutterstock
Image caption Margaret Barton (right) on the Brief Encounter set as tea room assistant Beryl, with Joyce Carey and Stanley Holloway

As a teenager making her first film, Margaret Barton had no idea her role in Brief Encounter would earn her a place in British cinema history.

The former actress, who turns 90 on Friday, is the last surviving member of the main cast of David Lean's classic 1945 film, which starred Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard.

The black-and-white tearjerker tells the story of housewife Laura Jesson (Johnson) who has a love affair with married doctor Alec Harvey (Howard) after he helps remove a piece of grit from her eye in a railway station refreshment room.

Margaret Barton plays the young waitress Beryl Walters, who appears in most of the film's famous cafe scenes alongside prim and bossy manageress Myrtle Bagot (Joyce Carey) and ticket inspector Albert Godby (Stanley Holloway).

Image copyright blackmorevale.co.uk
Image caption Back behind the tea counter: Margaret James as she is today

"I must have seen the film quite a few times, as I'm often asked to talk about it!" says the former actress from her home in Dorset, where she is better known locally by her married name of Mrs James.

Although the film was made more than 70 years ago, she is still asked to attend screenings and events associated with Brief Encounter.

"Young people come dressed up in the style of the 40s. They bring a handkerchief for the last few scenes because they know they're going to cry.

"They love it when I talk about the film and how marvellous it was to work with David Lean."

Brief Encounter, which was adapted for the big screen by Noel Coward from his own one-act play Still Life, is considered one of the best British films of the 20th Century.

In 1946, it was nominated for three Oscars - for director, actress and screenplay. Its soundtrack famously features Rachmaninov's heart-stirring Piano Concerto No 2.

"I think the film's appeal is partly to do with the music," says Mrs James. "It was David Lean's idea to have the Rachmaninov."

Image copyright ITV Global Entertainment Ltd/REX/Shutterstock
Image caption Margaret Barton in a publicity shot for Brief Encounter

The actress was cast when she was 18 years old after Lean and Coward spotted her on the West End stage during World War Two.

"I started my theatre life at the age of 12," Mrs James recalls. "During the war I became very well known for playing children and young people because I was so small for my age."

At the age of 17, she appeared in Pink String and Sealing Wax at Duke of York's Theatre when the first flying "buzz bombs" started to fall on London.

"It was nerve-wracking, but fascinating as well. You could hear these things coming over and then the sound stopped. I knew they were going to drop but you didn't know where.

"I remember how the audience would get down on the floor and you could hear the seats going back. And then this great explosion would happen and dust would drop down from the top of the theatre."

Image copyright blackmorevale.co.uk

Because filming took place during World War Two, Carnforth Station in Lancashire was chosen as a location for the film's fictional Milford Junction as it was remote and presumed safe from attack.

Mrs James, however, filmed all her refreshment room scenes on a set at Denham Film Studios in Buckinghamshire.

"David Lean would ask me on the set sometimes, even when I wasn't needed, to come and watch from behind the camera. I enjoyed that very much. He wanted me to see the two main characters working their scenes."

She remembers the long waits for the camera and lights to be set up between scenes. "I don't remember how many days filming lasted but I was paid jolly well for it," she laughs.

"I got to know Celia Johnson very well and we worked together quite a lot on the radio during the 40s. In the 1950s we had a three-week visit to Italy with a production of Twelfth Night."

'Pioneering days'

She never worked with Trevor Howard again, but would often see him if they were working on separate films at the same studios.

After the war, she married and made more films and expanded her career into television including the BBC's Sunday-Night Theatre in the early 1950s.

"They were pioneering days," she says. "Everything was live. It was a marvellous time to be working, I loved every minute of it."

Aside from acting, Mrs James has focused most of her time on the Michael James Music Trust - a charity set up with her husband Raymond in memory of their son, who died from cancer in 1981 when he was 30. Raymond died earlier this year, aged 93, after a short illness.

Mrs James says she still gets letters, many from abroad, from fans of Brief Encounter. "David Lean would have been utterly amazed to know how much it's loved all over the world."

Recently, she opened a local tea rooms and will soon be attending a revival of Noel Coward's Still Life being staged in a train carriage at restored railway station Shillingstone in Dorset.

She has already met the actress playing the role of waitress Beryl. "She looks just like I did at the time of Brief Encounter," she says.

Given her role in such a famous film, does Mrs James feel like a movie star?

"No," she laughs. "Some people say to me you're our film star and I say I'm awfully sorry I was never a film star. But I was a jolly good film actor - and that's the best thing of all to be."

Still Life is at Shillingstone Station in Dorset on 2, 3, 9 and 10 July

Related Topics

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites