Brief Encounter contains some of the most iconic scenes in all of cinema. There’s the one in the refreshment room where middle-class housewife Laura Jesson first meets Dr Alec Harvey, the mysterious stranger who just might be able to rescue her from a humdrum marriage; there’s the one in the flat where the couple are interrupted just as they are about to give in to their desires; and of course, there’s that final backward glance as the pair grieve for an affair which never quite happened.
Starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, it was the best advert going for the romance of the railways and now Bradford’s Freedom Studios has borrowed the title of the 1945 film for its latest production inspired by the city’s Interchange.
On a Friday morning as Greggs is doing a steady trade and a party of schoolchildren are ignoring increasingly loud requests to file through two by two, there’s no sign of an Alec or a Laura, but for playwright Rav Sanghera, who has spent months absorbing the comings and goings at the Interchange, it is a melting pot of human stories.
Over the course of any one year, it’s the place where a hundred first dates are met and where numerous relationships are ended. For some, it’s a place to shelter from the elements, the chance to see a friendly face; for others, it’s their first experience of a city they will go on to call home.
“You see all walks of life here,” says Sam Jackson. He began working at the Interchange in 1975 as a security guard and is soon due to retire as station manager. “In the early hours, you get to see the unsung heroes, those people who get up in the middle of night to work the early shifts in factories and hospitals. They’re followed by the rush of schoolchildren and commuters and then there are those passing through to somewhere else and those who come to Bradford from all parts of the world to start a new life.
“I’ll never forget the day when I was called to see a man who had arrived at the Interchange. He didn’t speak much English, in fact the only thing he could say was: ‘I am here’. He was clearly supposed to be meeting someone who hadn’t turned up, but I’ve always thought part of my job is to ensure that people don’t feel daunted or confused. We are more than just an Interchange, we are here to help people on their way.”
The production, which opens next week, will be performed in the Interchange itself and focuses on five individual stories. Some are inspired by the passengers and others are based on those whose working life revolves around the Interchange, from the bus drivers to the cleaners.
“I love it here,” says 40-year-old Mahmud Ul-Haq, driver of the 607 and 613. “Fifteen years ago I was unemployed and saw an advert for drivers at the Job Centre. It’s given me a career and it’s given me a steady income and you never know what will happen when you set off on a route. The other week one of my passengers collapsed and I had to call 999 who guided me through CPR. I just did what anyone else would have done.”
The idea of Brief Encounters is to throw a spotlight on ordinary people, like Tina Sharpe and Jenny Watson. As customer service assistants, their job description includes cleaning the toilets and emptying the bins. What it doesn’t say is that to many of the lonely and vulnerable who pass through the Interchange they may be the only familiar faces they see each day.
“If we see someone who is miserable, we try to give them a smile or ask how they are,” says Tina, who has worked at the Interchange for two years. “I’ve made so many friends here and I rarely go through a day without someone giving me a hug. Of course most people come here just to catch a bus or meet someone off a train, but there are others who see this place as somewhere which is a bit of a sanctuary.”
“It’s dry and apart from in winter it’s warm, so there are a few who like to have a little sleep in the toilets,” says Jenny. “But we are a bit of a family here and part of our job is to make people feel safe.”
Freedom Studios has previously taken over a redundant Bradford mill to tell the stories of the city’s textile workers and Brief Encounters will run over five days.
“I guess I was a bit surprised that anyone wanted to stage a production here,” adds Tina. “But then I thought, why shouldn’t there be a play about us? We all have a story to tell.”
• Brief Encounters at Bradford Interchange, October 6 to 10. www.ticketsource.co.uk/event/9397