Graeme Stephen's The Penalty at The Queen’s Hall Edinburgh tonight combined imaginative and unique talents separated by nearly 100 years in time being brought together for something a little different, and a little special - Graeme Stephen (guitar), Pete Harvey (cello) and Lon Chaney (actor).
Earlier this year (March 2018), leading Scottish composer Graeme Stephen’s brand-new score for guitar (Stephen) and cello (Pete Harvey) for Lon Chaney’s silent film The Penalty premiered at The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival. The Hippodrome in Bo’ness near Falkirk is thought to be the oldest surviving purpose-built cinema in Scotland (built 1912), so the venue was perfect for this production. I missed this event, so the production coming to The Queen’s Hall with its wonderful natural acoustics was an opportunity not to be missed for me.
The original film released in 1920 features Lon Chaney as an embittered underworld crime boss known as “Blizzard” who wants two main goals in his life – revenge on the surgeon who needlessly amputated both his legs above his knees as a child, and to bring carnage to the city of San Francisco whilst looting it at will in the process. This dark and disturbing film is famous for Lon Chaney refusing to use any trick photography to give the appearance of his character being an amputee, and instead he endured great physical pain in his performance using special strapping that allowed him to work for only very short periods of time due to the pain it caused him. The only time we see Lon Chaney standing tall on his own two legs in this film is in a fantasy “looting” sequence. The running time of this silent film is 90 minutes, and that itself re-sets some pre-conceived ideas that many people might have of silent films, they were not all “shorts” and, as this film clearly shows, the film industry had developed and matured rapidly in a very short period of time.
This review has to mention “The Penalty”, but the real review here is of outstanding work that Graeme Stephen has created here in giving a new musical score to this film, and the skill with which Graeme (guitar) and Pete (cello) not only bring the music to life on stage, but also breathe new life into this nearly 100 years old film. Here, Stephen has created music that is at times as dark and disturbing as the original film, and at other times something of lightness and beauty. Film and music playing seamlessly together here is something special to experience.
For some reason, many of us now imagine “silent cinemas” to be silent, but of course they were far from silent and in their heyday, early cinemas were the largest employers of musicians in the country. Silent films could have musical accompaniment from a single piano to far more elaborate combinations of instruments. It is, however, the piano that we seem to imagine in our heads playing to these films today, so when Graeme and Pete begin to play on cello and guitar, there is for a moment that re-adjustment in your mind (well mine anyhow) to what was expected. Very quickly though you begin to realise how skilfully composed the many styles and moods of this music are, and just what a guitar can achieve as an instrument for a film score. There is also a skilful use of cello here in achieving a disturbing darkness of tone that I never really associated with this instrument before now.
Graeme Stephen has created a very special work here that stands on its own as a musical accomplishment without the film, but achieves something extra special when combined with it. If you have been lucky enough to have seen one of the combined performances, you might like to take a visit to the Wikipedia page for the film at the URL below.
As well as some background on the film, the whole film is on this page to view in its original silent format, and this is an opportunity not only to re-watch the film, but also truly understand just what Graeme Stephen has created with his original musical score and how much it enhances the original film.
More information on Graeme Stephen is also available from his website at
Review by Tom King