Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

*** Contains spoilers ***

True stories have a real edge over made-up ones – you just don't know how they are going to end.

Although, this afternoon I did. I had seen the stage version of this at Richmond Theatre in 2004 and, again since it is based on a true story, I found this 1987 film adaptation to be very close to it. A true story doesn't really leave much room for changes, not if you're going to be faithful to it.

I suspect that this tale must be one of the truest. It's heavily based on a series of actual letters exchanged over a twenty-year penpalship between Helene Hanff in New York and Frank Doel in London, so both the stage and the film versions are driven extensively by narration. Though I don't know how much, if at all, the original letters were adjusted before publication in 1970, I'd like to suppose that in both cases, these were the actual words written during the preceding two decades.

That both parties seem to have kept all their correspondence over this period also testifies to their value of them.

Air travel was much more expensive in those days, and in this respect the story has aged a little. In the theatre, I did kinda wonder why Helene couldn't easily save-up for her trip to London.

If ever a film were about the journey rather than the destination, then this one would be it. The ending is a real-life tragedy, something that no Hollywood producer would ever green-light in a work of fiction.

As a result, 84 Charing Cross Road treats its audience with the respect that it deserves for coming to see it. Writers Hugh Whitemore and James Roose-Evans do an excellent job of conceiving the context in which Helene's (Anne Bancroft) and Frank's (Anthony Hopkins) lives took place, while director David Hugh Jones effortlessly enables the whole piece to breathe.

It's sometimes infuriatingly billed as a 'romance' – even Radio Times that week embarrassed itself – but that Helene and Frank never in the end met is truly sad.

The stage version that I saw understood how frustrating this conclusion was, and so during the curtain call the actors playing Helene and Frank held hands and pecked as good friends.

The applause got deafeningly louder at this. Their contact in-person was an impossible event, that made no pretence to be a part of the narrative, but it was satisfying to see anyway.

Alas, I don't think there's any filmic equivalent of such a trick, except possibly dreams, or showing out-takes?

Never mind, the movie 84 Charing Cross Road is worth 100 minutes of anyone's time.

And, look, I've just been writing about it.

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