Interviews | My Liverpool: Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City

By Jason Anderson

Terence Davies may have escaped Liverpool in 1973 but he’s never gotten very far away from home. Indeed, the relationship between the director and his birthplace has been as stormy, protracted, loving, and bitter as any great romance gone sour. In the early shorts that would later comprise The Terence Davies Trilogy (1984) plus his masterful features Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992)—all now available on DVD from the British Film Institute—he recreated Liverpool in painstaking detail. The vividly felt joys and horrors in his autobiographical vignettes often seemed violently at odds with their immediate context, this grim, sooty environment that was hostile to any glimmer of colour.

He just had to get away eventually. And, so he did, fleeing to John Kennedy Toole’s American South for The Neon Bible (1995) and to the Old New York and Old Europe of Edith Wharton for The House of Mirth (2000). But when you’ve been, as Davies says, “unemployed for seven-and-a-half years,” sometimes a new direction can only be lit by an old flame. Even so, Of Time and the City—Davies’ alternately acidic and affectionate homage to Liverpool and one of Cannes 2008’s few unqualified triumphs—is anything but tender-hearted. Instead, the director reasserts his claim on the place with ferocity, going so far as to rid it of the stain left by its rather more famous native sons. In Davies’ vision of Liverpool, the idiot youth at the Cavern Club shake their action to Mahler’s Second Symphony—and if John, Paul, George, and Ringo don’t like it, they can fuck right off.

While we’re at it, Betty and Phil can take a flying leap, too. Of Time and the City’s most bilious sequence presents the royals’ national wedding celebrations as a vulgar display of wealth and ostentation, all the more appalling for their being conducted within spitting distance of the “worst slums in Europe.” Combining quotations from the likes of T.S. Eliot, Chekov, and A.E. Houseman with his own commentary, Davies cuts straight to the heart and gives no quarter. Over images of the Windsors’ pomp and ceremony, he quotes Willem de Kooning: “The problem with being poor is that it takes up all of your time.” To which Davies adds: “The problem with being rich is that it takes up everyone else’s.”

Scorn may be Davies’ operative mode. Yet his sense of vigour and engagement is equally evident. By returning to the epicentre of his personal mythology—as he says, the locus of “home, school, the movies, and God”—Davies restates all that is powerful, resonant, and unique about his cinematic aesthetic. Though new shots are few (and mostly there to illustrate the wrong-headed pomposity of Liverpool architecture) and the majority of the film is drawn from archival sources, the images often seem as painterly as the domestic tableaux in Distant Voices, Still Lives. Impoverished women and children draw the most sympathy, the true-life stand-ins for the mother figures and boy alter egos populating Davies’ features. And as the filmmaker has proven on numerous occasions, nothing reconfigures reality into a more pleasing shape than the right piece of music. Here, Peggy Lee’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and the Spinners’ version of Ewan McColl’s “Dirty Old Town” (actually about Salford) play starring roles, with plenty of support provided by Liszt, Taverner, and Mahler. And lest you think Davies’ contempt for the Beatles extends to pop…well, it pretty much does, though he still makes lovely use of the Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”

That he uses such a quintessential ‘60s hit to accompany footage of young men leaving to fight in the Korean War is another typical Davies piece of mischief. Unlike so many other narratives that span the ‘50s and ‘60s, this one is not capped with the happy news that social revolution and personal liberation are just around the corner. For one thing, Davies still regards his homosexuality as an unholy curse, though he apparently found a tiny amount of solace in the covert queer culture of the day, represented in such hidden-in-plain-view phenomena as the BBC radio comedy show Round the Home.

No, if there’s any possibility of happiness in Davies’ Liverpool, it comes down to family. Or more specifically, a family holiday to nearby New Brighton, an ecstasy conveyed in vibrant excerpts of visitors’ home movies. While Davies can’t help noting the inevitable hubbub over those poor souls who collapse from heatstroke “because the temperature rose a few degrees above freezing,” he indulges in a choice Proustian reverie about “gobstoppers that would last until your middle age.”

Near the film’s close, Davies shares one of Chekov’s most cherished lines : “The golden moments pass and have no trace.” Yet Of Time and the City is full of those traces, Davies once again proving to be a master at reconstituting the moments that have marked him most deeply. For all of its author’s irascibility, this may be Davies’ warmest work. It’s most certainly the funniest. And even though Liverpool’s streets may be perennially clogged with Magical Mystery Tour-ists in search of Penny Lane, it now should be who really deserves a commemorative bus tour.

Cinema Scope: How did you come to be reunited with Liverpool?

Terence Davies: It was by accident. The producer Sol Papadopoulos had been a photographer—about 20 years ago, he took some photographs of my mother that I treasure because they’re really beautiful. He rang me and said, “Do you remember me? I’m Sol Papadopoulos.” I couldn’t forget a name like that, could I? He said, “Well, Digital Departures are going to make three films in Liverpool for £250,000 each—would you be interested in doing a fiction?” I said, “No, I’ve done them and I don’t want to do that any more.” So he said, “What would you like to do?” I said, “I’d like to do a documentary but in the style of Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942).” I don’t know if you’ve seen it but it’s one of the great documentaries. It’s only 19 minutes long but it captures what Britain was like when we were about to be invaded. It’s so lyrical and it captures the very nature, the very essence of being British. I thought I’d like to do that for Liverpool. Then I thought, “Oh God, what have I agreed to? Perhaps I can’t do it. I’m not a documentary filmmaker.” I was going to pull out. Then I was being driven home one day and I was thinking how the thing in Liverpool at the end of the ‘50s was these big slum clearances, with new estates being built for everyone. It was to be the New Jerusalem. It was awful. I remember that happening because we were re-housed. I don’t know where this came from, but I thought if I ran Peggy Lee singing “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” underneath these images, it would work. So when Sol rang again, I said, “This is the sequence.” That’s when I knew I had it.

Scope: Did you approach the film as if you were making a narrative feature?

Davies: Not really, but I did say to the editor, “Cut it like fiction.” It was different from a fiction film in the sense that, there, you start with a narrative and you clear any copyright beforehand. Apparently you don’t in documentary. I’d think, “What if I can’t get Peggy Lee? What if they say no? And what if I can’t get T.S. Eliot’s poems?” There would’ve been huge holes in the soundtrack, so that was a great strain. And although I had an idea of the trajectory and what the architecture of the piece should be, all this new material we were looking at would prompt other memories. Or else I’d go out and shoot something and I’d suddenly find I was thinking about something that happened 53 years ago. That’s extraordinary. I’m obsessed by the nature of time and memory. Most great poets have tried to tackle it in one way or another. It’s as if someone simply drops a pebble in the pool and all the ripples are those memories. The nature of memory is associative, nonlinear, and emotive. You remember the intense moment, not the things around it.

Scope: Was it painful to revisit those memories and discover that things were not as magical as you imagined?

Davies: You can’t recapture it. If you go back, you’d kill it. You have to remember what it was like when you first felt it as a child—that’s the truth. It may not be the literal truth, but it’s the emotional truth. By the very fact that you’re trying to re-create something either in a fiction or a documentary, you’re changing its nature. But it has to remain true. You may express that truth in a different way—and in a more sophisticated way than you could when you were seven—but you’re still expressing the truth. That’s the important thing. Someone sent me a photograph of my street and it looked drab and ordinary. But it didn’t matter because in my mind it was and still is something else.

Scope: What was Liverpool like when you returned to make the film?

Davies: It was awful. Because my old neighbourhood had been torn down. There were eight cinemas within walking distance of my house, and now there’s one left. Where I lived is riven with drugs. That would have been inconceivable when I was growing up. They took drugs in America, but they didn’t in England—and they certainly didn’t in Liverpool. Perhaps the odd aspirin, but that’s about it. It’s changed. There’s a new stylishness, which is good, with ordinary people going out and actually knowing about good food and good wine. I thought that was wonderful because in my day the most exotic thing was a rum and peppermint, if you could afford it.

Scope: So would you admit that some of the changes are for the better?

Davies: Of course. And there has to be change. But in that sense, I’m really reactionary because I hate any kind of change. I want things to stay as they are. It’s absurd but there’s a part of me that wants that.

Scope: But did you feel as if you found the city you knew somewhere within all this archival footage?

Davies: No. This is the country of the imagination. For instance, there was an elevated railway that ran the length of the docks, between eight and ten miles long. I remember going on it as a child; it was pulled down in 1957. And we found footage, but the footage makes it look like something out of Metropolis (1927). It looks fabulous! I wish I’d known about Metropolis when I was seven and travelling on it. But suddenly the very fact that you’re seeing the old elevated railway in such beautiful black and white changes it as well. When you’re travelling on it, you see it from a subjective point of view.

Scope: Yet the footage of New Brighton really makes the place feel as fantastic as it must’ve felt to visitors back then.

Davies: Yes! But those were home movies. And that lovely colour—all those soft reds and blues. We’d go to New Brighton for a day out because that’s all we could afford. No one went abroad. But it was still exotic to go for an entire day. And if the sun was shining, that was even better.

Scope: Did making this film have any kind of therapeutic effect?

Davies: No, it never does. A true catharsis makes you accept what has been lost. But I’m full of regret because I remember how happy I was. Just for four years—from seven to 11—I was ecstatically happy and everything seemed magical. Literally, I was sick with happiness.

Scope: Then what happened?

Davies: I realized at 11 that I was gay. And being Catholic, that ruined my life. I decided I would be celibate. And I am and have been for a long time. My childhood was over in a second. That makes me full of regret. I just wanted to be ordinary and normal, with a car, two-and-a-half children, and a dog named Rover! It happened in the summer after leaving primary school. One day, these bricklayers were building a wall at the back of the house. It was hot so they just had jeans on. I looked out of the window and I thought, “I shouldn’t be looking at another man like this.” In an instant, my childhood ended. It was awful. I still can’t go over it. I just wanted to be ordinary. I still do. I think everyone else has got the key to life and I haven’t.

I came from a large working-class family and they were all heterosexual, and I was a devout Catholic. I literally prayed until my knees bled. I wanted God to make me ordinary. And there was no answer. Every time I prayed, God was out…probably shopping at The Gap, the bastard. I struggled from the time I was 11 until I was 22. It’s a long time to struggle, especially when you feel that any kind of doubt is the work of the devil and you must fight against it. On top of that, homosexuality was illegal in England at the time—up until 1967, you could be sent to prison. When you’ve poured your life into a religion and then realized it’s a lie, there’s a huge hole inside of you. How do you fill that? I filled it with poetry, music, and novels and going to the theatre and movies, but that gap is always there. There’s part of me which will always think, God will know. But of course he won’t because he’s English, so he’s really stupid!

Scope: So have you ever felt happy since you were 11?

Davies: No, never. I’m afraid not. You do feel a certain contentment and moments of true ecstasy. I get that from art, from the people I love, and people who love me: it’s only a small number but I couldn’t live without them. But happy, no, not in the way I was between 7 and 11. I cannot tell you how wonderful it was. To discover the world every single day, it was fabulous—better than sex!

Scope: Your film conveys all these feeling and memories with such intensity. How do you think you’re able to render them so fully?

Davies: You have to be a neurotic. Someone told me that I was mesmerized by my past. I think that’s true because I can recall it with such vividness. I can recall emotional things very, very powerfully. I’m very aware of atmosphere. And whether it’s your memory or anyone else’s, what makes it resonant for other people is its truth. People can recognize that. They recognize insincerity as well. That’s why of all the mediums, cinema is the most emotional. An actor comes on screen and you think, “Sorry, don’t believe in you at all.” There are certain actors I can’t watch. They come on the screen, and I want to kill them. I just think, “Not you again!” Other actors I know are not very good and I think, “Oh, but I need them.” It’s the same with music. I remember hearing Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony and that was it, I was lost. I thought, “Anton, you can do no wrong.” Then I listen to Wagner and I think, “This is agony…and it goes on for days and days.”

Scope: You’ve always made such distinctive use of music in your films—that’s particularly true in Of Time and the City. What drew you to the pieces of music here?

Davies: Where music is concerned, it has to be instinctive. You can’t think, “What should I do against this sequence?” It never, never works like that. Your antennae are sort of out all the time. About three years ago, I was listening to some singing by Angela Gheorghiu, one of which was Popescu’s “Watch and Pray.” It went into my mental catalogue as something I’d use but I had no idea where. Then when I saw the footage from a BBC film called Morning in the Streets (1959), I thought of Angela Gheorghiu. She’s singing in Romanian but it doesn’t matter.

Scope: Did you feel a similar connection with the Peggy Lee song?

Davies: Someone told me that song is so sentimental. You could say Meet Me in St Louis (1944) was terribly sentimental, but it actually tapped into something primal, almost like a fairy tale. Everything is perfect there, and we all desperately want the perfect family, the perfect house. And it doesn’t seem arch or false because it’s done with such sincerity and passion. In that song, the subtext is someone going from young married to old age. We all go on that journey. When great songs have a truthful subtext, then they transcend sentimentality. And I just love Peggy Lee.

Scope: It’s also very mischievous of you to combine the footage of youngsters at the Cavern with decidedly non-pop (and non-Beatles) musical accompaniment.

Davies: Not only could we not afford Beatles music but I absolutely detest pop music. It’s agony to listen to, especially British pop music. Oh, God, kill me now—I’m ready to die after two minutes. I’ve never liked the Beatles. “Money can’t buy me love.” Oh, yeah, there’s a big revelation. You can’t imagine them writing a witty lyric. Look at Cole Porter. No one can write a Cole Porter song. No one can write a Lorenz Hart song. But then, music has changed. Popular music isn’t aimed at people like me. After the rise of Elvis Presley and the Beatles, all my interest disappeared. I remember being taken by one of my sisters to see Jailhouse Rock (1957). I sat there riven with embarrassment. I thought, “Doesn’t he look ridiculous?” And this awful voice. Had I been a spy, they’d only have to show me 20 minutes of that and I’d tell them anything.

Scope: The new film also ends a long absence from filmmaking for you. Why do you think it was so hard to get another project off the ground?

Davies: Well, we don’t have a cinema culture in England. Now we try to imitate Hollywood, which we do very badly because all imitations are by their nature second rate. And when someone in a meeting says, “Everybody’s got to have a backstory,” I’d say, “Yes, but that would make it four hours long.” Silence. Then I’d ask, “Have you seen Singin’ in the Rain (1952)?” Yes. “Do you remember Debbie Reynolds? What backstory does she have? She has none. And we’re still watching it for 56 years later. Isn’t that odd?” Then they’d show me the door. Or else they’d say, “There’s got to be a climax on page such-and-such.” When did they make Robert McKee God? Most 25-year-olds think that cinema began with Tarantino. The level of ignorance is really shocking in England. If you want to celebrate anything and have knowledge, that’s elitist. It’s like after the civil war in England, there was this period before the restoration of the monarchy when there was real religious and political correctness. If you didn’t go along with the Puritan view of life, your life could be made absolutely miserable and you could be killed. It’s like that now with the new orthodoxy. And when it’s propounded by people who know nothing, that’s a bit hard to take. And they tell you how to write a script? How many films have you written? And of course you’re made to sound as if you’re a diva. But the only thing we have a genius for in England now is stupidity—we can’t do anything else.

Scope: Do you find anything interesting going on in modern cinema?

Davies: I very rarely go now. I’ve lost my ability to disbelieve. And when you can call out the shots before they happen, you’re not going on any journey. Oh, you’re going to cut to a two-shot now—surprise, surprise, how fabulous. Or you hear a telephone ring and you cut to a telephone. Why can’t you cut to an elephant and let the phone keep on ringing? And then the elephant says hello. Then it’s interesting! Or better still, the elephant says, “It’s for you!”

I still watch lots of musicals and British comedy of the late ‘40s and ‘50s. There are only two modern films I thought were wonderful: Laissez-passer (2002) by Bertrand Tavernier and Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993). But there’s nothing else in between. Most of the time, the curtains open and I think, “Ninety minutes? Life’s too short and so am I.”

Scope: At Cannes, it was announced that you have a new feature in the works.

Davies: Yes, a romantic comedy with a happy ending. Can you believe that?

Scope: Has it been any easier trying to get financing for this project than other scripts?

Davies: Of course not! In England, no. You have to have nine different people from all over the world putting money in. And that in itself is agonizing because you get all these notes. You have to go through the whole palaver of saying, “No, I’ve done that in reel two. Next time you watch it, keep your eyes open!” That’s tiresome but there’s nothing you can do it about it. I’m not a big name so I can’t command huge amounts of money. The only way you can do that is if you make your calling card to America. But if I did an action movie, it would be two cars going very slowly—that’s not exciting!

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