Tonight we attended the world premiere of Terence Davies’ new film, Of Time and the City, at the Philharmonic Hall. The red carpet had been rolled out and the place was packed with an expectant throng from the London and northwest media and cultural elite. This was an event that I had eagerly anticipated ever since seeing Terence Davies introduce a short season of his films and engage in a Q&A session at FACT last autumn.
In Of Time and the City, Davies returns to the autobiographical source of his earlier great films – the Trilogy, Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes – the working-class Liverpool of his childhood. The film was financed as a commission to celebrate Liverpool as the 2008 European Capital of Culture and is essentially a compendium of archival footage that covers the years from the end of the Second World War through to the seventies. This is Davies’ dreamtime, the world of his memories of a simpler, better world, an ideal world even.
As we waited for the film to start, we were entertained as usual by the Philharmonic’s resident organist, Dave Nicholas. Then the lights dimmed and the famous screen rose slowly from the stage. The film began, and there we were in the Philharmonic as the curtains drew back to reveal the very same screen; it’s an beginning designed to represent the grand old picture palaces of the past — the curtains open, and the black-and-white footage expands to fill the screen and take us back to the world of Davies’ childhood.
In an article in the Telegraph, Davies says his intention from the start was to make a first-person statement, rather than a detached social history. “One or two people have said, there’s nothing it about the Toxteth riots – and there isn’t, because that didn’t touch me. In those days, Toxteth was far away – you didn’t go to those places unless you had someone who lived there. My environs were tiny: my street, the streets around it, school, church and going to the pictures, that was it.”
This survey of Liverpool is an occasion for Davies to revisit, through his voiceover commentary, his own autobiography. It’s an autobiography familiar to the viewers of his earlier Liverpool films. First, there was his struggle with his Roman Catholic upbringing, the “years wasted in useless prayer” before the inevitable loss of faith and the total rejection of the church, both as a set of religious beliefs and a social institution. Then there is is Davies’ growing awareness in his adolescence of his gay sexuality.
Cinema is another key feature of Davies’ memories of the Liverpool of the past. Although individual films have their role to play — for example, the effect of Dirk Bogarde in Victim (1961) on Davies’ growing gay consciousness — it’s the broader communal spirit of cinema-going that he celebrates here. Davies remembers family Christmases and time spent in the cinema: ‘In those movies it was always Christmas and it was always perfect’. But now, Davies concludes sadly, ‘they are all gone’.
As a teenager, Davies was not exactly representative of young Liverpool. In the early 1960s, he worked in an office close to the Cavern, where the Beatles were turning the city into the temporary capital of the world. Davies, however, never went there: a lover of Hollywood films who was just discovering Sibelius and Bruckner, he thought the Merseybeat boom was destroying songwriting. He hates pop to this day: “If I’m forced to listen to it, it is absolute hell – hell,” he says. The film has only sarcasm for the Beatles. Yet, in spite of being an avowed enemy of modern pop music, and in the one gross misjudgement of the film, he uses He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother by The Hollies over images from the Korean War.
Davies doesn’t hide his disdain for the way Liverpool has changed in subsequent decades. Near the end of the film there are scenes of city night life, of the nightclubbing, pub-crawling, binge-drinking contemporary leisure culture, scenes that are clearly intended as a rebuke to the Liverpool of the present. This is the main weakness of the film – when Davies returned to make the film he had been away for the best part of two decades. You feel that he really hasn’t understood how it feels to have been here during that time and to have seen the city (the centre at least) change immeasurably for the better.
Davies is caustic when he considers the Royal family, what he calls ‘the Betty Windsor show’. Davies’ narration still burns with anger at the outrage of a luxurious royal wedding at a time of rationing in a nation that possessed some of the worst slums in Europe.
Davies’ last two films were literary adaptations (strangely, from American novels), The House of Mirth in 2000 and The Neon Bible in 1995. Neither approaches the intensity, power, and beauty of the autobiographical films he made before this and on which his reputation rests. Firstly, between 1976 and 1983 he made the three black-and white shorts (Children, Madonna and Child, Death and Transfiguration) that comprise the trilogy and depict his impoverished working-class childhood, the memories of his violent father, his close and loving relationship with his mother, and his struggles with his Catholic upbringing and his homosexuality.
Davies used the same autobiographical material for the two colour films, Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988 and The Long Day Closes in 1992. The way the trilogy worked with shifts in time through increasingly complex visual and/or aural matches is refined in these colour films. They are as close as narrative film can come to a pure sensory experience of sound and image — The Long Day Closes is famous for its lengthy shot of the hall carpet, one that is held by Davies for the patterns of changing light to play out. His work in these two films has been described as ‘filmmaking of the rarest delicacy and beauty’.
As for the new film: ‘My idea was to contrast the city I knew and the city it has become, which is alien to me’, Davies said in an interview.
Of Time and the City: trailer
- FACT Interview: Terence Davies visited FACT to talk about Of Time and the City and about his relationship with the city of his birth.
- Guardian review
- Reel Review: Of Time and the City (Guardian)
- A walk through the city of ghosts: Terence Davies interviewed by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Guardian)
- Terence Davies talks to Jason Wood (Guardian)