About nine months ago Markson Pianos were approached by a film production company and asked if we could supply pianos for Florence Foster Jenkins, a film being made in the UK. They were very specific. There were six pianos in all. They wanted a concert grand, two smaller grands and several uprights for specific location sets. The film is based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins who was an American socialite from the 1920s and ‘30s. They wanted a concert grand for the Carnegie Hall set and we put in a Steinway. There were two hotel and apartment scenes where we put in a Bechstein grand and another Steinway grand. The uprights were for various different scenes for a members of the cast playing the piano. The pianos all had to be adapted to become silent so they could be played as ordinary pianos but could also be silenced where necessary. At other times they would be played quite quietly. Meryl Streep had to sing, and you always can’t sing without a piano accompaniment really, but the piano couldn’t be too loud for those scenes. So there were lots of technical challenges. We put a Steinway grand into Abbey Road studios with Meryl Streep coming along to record her singing, where she recorded in a separate sound booth to where the piano was situated.
We had to deliver the pianos at short notice and also tune them at very short notice. Logistically this was challenging to arrange. The piano might be needed twenty steps up or twenty miles away. Our tuner could sometimes be required to be there at 8.30am and stay there all day. He was picked up either from his barge, or from our showroom, by a chauffeur. I think it was both the most exciting and most challenging thing we’ve ever been asked to do, with last minute changes and technical demands of finding so many different pianos at the same time for one film. We’ve done lots of different films where we might have been required to supply one piano at a time, like for ‘Room with a View’ when we supplied a beautiful ornate Bechstein grand piano.
I was asked by the production company to do a viewing to see if one of our pianos could be taken to the first floor of a mansion outside London. The film director turned up with crew in a jeep and I was asked to play the part of the piano tuner in the film. I’ve done a lot of amateur dramatics and improvisation before, so I unhesitatingly said “yes!”. The director said “we’ve found our piano tuner” and everyone cheered. Then, followed a costume fitting and several months later I was called in for the filming, collected by car early in the morning and taken to Twickenham film studios. I expected that my character would to be seen in the background tuning a grand piano, so I was surprised to find myself on set with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. It was only in the dressing room that I had been shown my script. It became clear on set with various retakes that I would grow into the part of Charlie the piano tuner, and that my interaction with Meryl Streep was a comic one.
While on set I was asked my opinion on whether a large busk of Toscanini should remain on the piano or if it should be placed behind me. I said it shouldn’t be placed on the piano as it would be difficult to tune the piano. I was also aware it would block most of the view of me in the film! Hugh Grant wanted it on the piano but Meryl Streep agreed with me and the bust was placed behind. With the announcement of Toscanini’s arrival I was to be escorted off stage by Hugh Grant. In one of the takes I slowed down thinking that this would increase my visibility in the film, and the director, Stephen Frears, shouted out “Don’t make a meal of it Simon”.
In the after-party Meryl Street was very interested to hear about our piano business. I was told by the young editor that I had been cut in rather than cut out so I knew straight away that I wasn’t on the cutting room floor. It was a wonderful experience, they were very good humoured, supportive and encouraging.” (Simon Markson)
Florence Foster Jenkins is out in cinemas from May 6th