(21/11/08) – The city of Terence Davies’ youth, Liverpool, is at the heart of much of the sixty-two-year-old director’s work, from his powerful Trilogy through his debut feature Distant Voices, Still Lives to the Palme d’Or-nominated The Long Day Closes. After adaptations of John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible and Edith Wharton’s The House Of Mirth, followed by eight years away from the director’s chair, this month sees Davies return to the spotlight and his hometown with Of Time And The City, a visual ode to post-World-War-Two Liverpool which premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews. (Photo credit: Sol Papadopoulos)
What made you return to Liverpool for your latest film?
Sol Papadopoulos, one of the film’s producers, used to be a stills photographer and twenty years ago he took some beautiful photographs, which I still have, of my mother. He rang me out of the blue and asked if I remembered him, which I did, and if I was interested in doing a fiction film in Liverpool, which I wasn’t. I’ve done my fiction films set in Liverpool now, I don’t want to do any more. So I asked whether he’d be interested in doing a documentary, a subjective essay about the Liverpool I knew from 1945, when I was born, until I left in 1973, contrasting it with the new Liverpool. He said ‘yes’, and that’s how it came about. It’s serendipity at its best!
How did things take shape after that initial conversation?
After I’d agreed to do the film, I got cold feet. I was driving along the Thames and was going to ring Sol and tell him I was pulling out. Then as I stopped at the lights, I don’t know where it came from but I remembered the big slum clearances in northern cities at the end of the 50s and I had an image of the New Jerusalem. I thought if I use that and Peggy Lee singing The Folks Who Live On The Hill, we’ve got a sequence, we’ve got a film! And Sol rang me at that moment!
Peggy Lee wasn’t your only inspiration; Humphrey Jennings was also very important, wasn’t he?
Listen to Britain was my template. Even though it’s only nineteen minutes long, it’s sheer poetry from beginning to end. Jennings was trying to capture what it was like to be British in 1941, a time when we thought we were going to be invaded. My intentions in Of Time And The City were much more modest. I was trying to capture what it was like to be Liverpudlian, what growing up in Liverpool between the mid 40s and early 70s felt like, and I tried to be as true to that as I could.
Was there any discussion about what you should or shouldn’t include in the film?
To a certain extent. There was a bit of argument over whether I should explain more about the Korean War, which I resisted because I felt I’d contextualised it enough. But there’s always tension between the people who put up the money and the creatives, there isn’t a single film made without that. You just try to come to some sort of amicable accommodation.
And we didn’t cover the Toxteth riots. But what people don’t understand who’ve not lived in Liverpool, but certainly my generation does understand, is that you didn’t go outside your area – your house, your street, where you went to school, where you worshipped, and the pictures. Toxteth was a long way away, and if you didn’t have any reason to go there, you didn’t. And the riots took place because of the conditions people were living in and the discrimination they suffered, but I didn’t experience that. I was only interested in putting things in which directly affected me, which is why I’ve said all along that this film is a subjective essay.
Speaking of personal experiences, did looking through archive footage for the film bring back any special memories?
We happened upon some colour material of New Brighton. I remember going over there on the ferry, either with my family or with friends and their parents, for days out. That released a flood of memory, so the narration there was completely inspired by looking at that colour footage. Other times I asked for specific footage, for example, of Quare Times winning the Grand National in 1955. My sister Maisie was the first in our family to get married. In those days you couldn’t afford a place so you moved in with your in-laws, so she and her husband George lived in the two top rooms of our house. George had bought a little radio and we all gathered round and listened to the race on that. My mother had a little bet and won five shillings, and that gave me enormous pleasure.
Although it is a very personal film, its appeal is still very broad.
I tried to be as truthful as possible to my experience. And I think if you’re true to your subject, people recognise that. You don’t have to be Austrian to love Schubert, or Russian to love Chekhov – they’re true to what they felt and what they experienced. And I think audiences respond to that, but it’s a subliminal response. And what Of Time And The City seems to have done is to have pricked everyone’s memories of when they grew up and their town. And it’s done this all over the world, which is completely amazing.
You must be delighted with the film’s reception since it screened at Cannes.
Yes, but it’s come as a huge shock! It was made for a modest £250,000 – 157 people applied for that money and, to be honest with you, I thought, ‘Why would they give money to someone who’s never done a documentary before?’ But lo and behold they did! Our aims were modest too, so when it took off it came as a surprise to us all. Now eighty-seven film festivals want it!
What does that mean for future projects?
This film is my final farewell to Liverpool. The city I knew is a land of the imagination now. I won’t make any more films there. That time has gone. But I already have two scripts finished, one’s a romantic comedy, and the other’s based on a Scottish novel called Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. And I’m also working on a script based on a book by Ed McBain. Making films has been my raison d’être, but it’s a collaborative effort, it costs a lot of money, and you’ve got to persuade other people to give you their money, and then you have a moral responsibility to that money. It’s always difficult. It would be nice to have one experience where it’s completely easy from beginning to end, that would be lovely. Then I’d never complain again!
Of Time And The City is in UK cinemas now. It will also screen at the Turin Film Festival on 26 November 2008.