Terence Davies: interview

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Wally Hammond talks to visionary British director Terence Davies about his deeply personal and long-awaited new documentary ‘Of Time and the City’

The Irish often lament: ‘Who will honour our Irish poets?’ Liverpool, a city not without a healthy Irish contingent, has produced more than its fair share of them – poets that is – none greater than filmmaker Terence Davies, director of ‘The Terence Davies Trilogy’ (1976 to 1984), ‘The Long Day Closes’ (1992) and ‘The Neon Bible’ (1995).

In ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ (1988), his autobiographically inspired remembrance of growing up in a large working-class family presided over by a brutal and abusive father in postwar Liverpool, he arguably produced the most distinctive, beautifully crafted and emotionally communicative British movie of the recent era. But this national treasure has suffered incomprehensible and shameful neglect, not least from the great and good responsible for financing British cinema. For the last eight years, since he made his audacious Edith Wharton adaptation ‘The House of Mirth’ in 2000, our greatest and most visionary cinematic talent has been allowed to languish, like some depressed, sleeping tiger.

But, rightfully, things are looking up for the elegant, petit scouser. The British Film Institute has played a role: last year’s touring retrospective gave a chance for fans and new audiences to sample his films. Following that, Liverpool, in its commissions for its tenure as Europe’s Capital of Culture, recently gave him £250,000 to fashion a portrait of the city where he was born, to a family of ten, in a Liverpool 6 tenement, in November 1945.

‘The commission sounds very grand, doesn’t it?’ the smiling director tells me, sitting relaxed in the Green Room of BFI Southbank. ‘In fact, it was competitive. One-hundred-and-fifty-seven people applied and I didn’t think we’d get it. I thought: They won’t be interested in our documentary, why should they be?’

Why should they? Maybe because it’s one of the most original, enthralling and moving documentaries of our time. It takes a poet to do what Davies has done: to take the cold archive footage of the city’s landmark buildings, streets, docks and public spaces from the years 1943 to 1975 – and by means of some newly shot material, a poetry-inflected voiceover narration and judicious, eclectic choice of music (Mahler, The Hollies, Peggy Lee), fashion it into a love poem to a specific place and time that retains a universal resonance. It’s a city symphony as dynamically edited as anything by 1920s avant-gardists Dziga Vertov or Walter Ruttman, tied to a magnificently self-declaratory reminiscence that is as witty, erudite and evocative as any in English letters.

‘I always said it was going to be a personal essay,’ Davies explains. ‘My template was Humphrey Jennings’s 1942 documentary “Listen to Britain”, which tried to create what it was like to be British at a time when we thought this country was going to be invaded.

I didn’t want to do anything so grand. I wanted to tease out the essence of what it was like to be a Liverpudlian in this period, from the ’40s to the ’70s, when I lived there. It had to be subjective because I was remembering things that I was experiencing as a child.’

It’s arguable that Davies has never lost touch with that inner child. The new material he shot features children playing in the old squares and new malls. Why this simple footage is so emotive, transcendental and optimistic is moot. In Davies’s cinema, as for children, time stands still. The size of a mouse, the man has the memory of an elephant – able in his fictions to remember the precise mustard and green weave of a family carpet (‘The Long Day Closes’) or the faint sound of birdsong as his alter-ego, Robert Tucker, is brutally beaten in his schoolyard (‘The Trilogy’).

‘Needless to say, they asked why I hadn’t put certain things in the film, like the Toxteth riots,’ Davies asserts. ‘I said, “Because it’s not part of my psyche and it’s not part of my emotion.” When I was growing up, Toxteth was a long way away and you just didn’t go places a long way away. And so in my film I respond to things that affected my life, my street.’

There’s a lot of streets in ‘Of Time and the City’, of stone, bricks and mortar or – lamented – ’60s poured concrete. Miraculously, Davies makes them all speak, most eloquently in a sublime pan over a terrace row, edited to the soprano Angela Gheorghiu’s version of ‘Watch and Pray’. How did Davies match sight and sound?

‘Making this documentary was the reverse of doing fiction. When you do fiction you write down every shot, every piece of music. Here, this is the reverse. I wrote the narration at the same time that I was watching it. It provoked things. I don’t know how or where they come from but sometimes it’s pure serendipity. They didn’t want me to do the narration. I was told to find someone else but I wanted to narrate my own poetry and TS Eliot because I love them so much. We got another actor in but it didn’t work, so we recorded the narration all in one day, because that’s all we had time for.’

Davies’s cinema is about emotion and truth – both crystallised or transcendent – but he talks instead of his most cherished quality, honesty. ‘I think an audience recognises honesty; they might not realise it, but they do. I’m not a sociologist, I’m not political, I’m not a theoretician or an analyst of popular culture, because I’m not interested in any of that. I’m very, very black and white, I either feel great passion or nothing at all. I am moved by the poetry of the ordinary.’

Was the experience of making the film transformative? ‘It was liberating. It was a wonderful way of doing things. I think in a peculiar way it’s changed me. Perhaps it’s being out of work for eight years. There was an element in me that usually worries, but I just said, “No, let’s do that, drop that.” Something in me changed. Who knows, it’s probably the beginning of some awful psychosis.’

Of Time and the City’ screens at the London Film Festival on Oct 18 and 21 and opens in cinemas on Oct 31.

Author: Wally Hammond



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