Observations: The sound of silents

Alfred Hitchcock's close collaborations with soundtrack composers are the stuff of movie legend, but the accompaniment to one of his early works is shrouded in mystery.

In 1929, Blackmail was one of the first British talkies, though with sound yet to catch on, producers ordered its director to also make a silent version. And despite Hitchcock's interest in the dramatic possibilities of music, experts have no record of what the music for this work sounded like.

"We don't even have the cue cards," says Neil Brand, a long-standing piano accompanist to pre-sound films who collaborated with Paul Merton on the comedian's Silent Clowns touring show. Yet Brand will not be performing this weekend at a rare screening of the silent version of the film. Instead, he has composed a score to be performed by the 82-strong BBC Symphony Orchestra.

His aim is to devise for this obscure part of the great Alfred's oeuvre the sort of lush orchestration and dramatic invention that accompanied the likes of Psycho and North by Northwest.

"I wanted to give it the Hollywood treatment," Brand explains. "Bernard Herrmann and all those other great composers took a similar approach: dark, complex, but with beautiful, soaring melodies."

Sunday's screening also features an introduction by the bequiffed film pundit Mark Kermode and a post-concert Q&A with Brand and the broadcaster Francine Stock, as befits a landmark event.

Normally, these shows feature much smaller ensembles. The composer reckons this is the first UK silent drama to enjoy a full orchestral score since sound came in.

Alfred Hitchcock's 'Blackmail' is screened at the Barbican, London EC2 (www.barbican.org.uk) 8pm, 31 October

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