Festival Daily

A Round with... Terence Davies

By Nicholas Davies

Who: Terence Davies, director, Of Time and the City and The Terence Davies Trilogy
What: Vodka cranberry and vodka seven
Where: 22 Lounge at the Windsor Arms Hotel, 18 St. Thomas Street
When: September 5, 7:30pm

I arrive at 22 Lounge in the lovely Windsor Arms Hotel, where a very charming bartender clears out the back room to make way for my private chat with Terence Davies (no relation), the master British director of some of the most heart-rending works of contemporary cinema – including his latest, Of Time and the City, and his seminal Trilogy, which is screening in the Dialogues: Talking with Pictures section this year. I’m a tad nervous – Davies’ work is a personal favourite – but no need. Affable, hilarious and a little bit naughty, he’s soon regaling me with quotes from the best British comedies, bits of Polari from the BBC and a story about Derek Jarman’s flat.

ND: You haven’t been to Toronto since 2000, when you were here with House of Mirth. Is there anything you absolutely must do while you’re here?

TD: I’ve always ended up being here a short time and doing a lot of interviews and very little else. I saw a little bit of the park and the university last time, and I went up the CN Tower and that was very spectacular. The first time I came here – with Distant Voices, Still Lives – I said to my very good friend Mary Pat Gleason, who worked at Alliance then, “Could I possibly go and see Lake Ontario?” And it’s a sea! It’s absolutely huge.

ND: Of Time and the City is your first documentary. Has it been in your head for a long time?

TD: No, it came about quite by accident. Sol, one of the producers, had taken some photographs of my mother about 20 years ago. He rang me up out of the blue and said, “Do you remember me?” And I said, “Yes, I’ve still got the photographs you took of my mother, because they’re very beautiful. Of course I remember.” And he said that this thing called Digital Departures was going to make three films in Liverpool, but only costing £250,000, and would I be interested in a fiction? And I said, “No, but what if I did a documentary, using mostly archival material and starting from 1945, which is when I was born. It would collect material to show the way the city was when I was growing up, juxtaposing it with now.” And he said, “Yes, that sounds like a good idea.” And then he said, “It’s a competitive thing and 157 people have applied.” So I said, well, I can whistle goodbye to that! And then later I was driving through London near the Houses of Parliament and I thought, “Oh, I don’t want to do this. I really shouldn’t have said yes.”

ND: Why ever not?

TD: I was going to say, “Look, I’ve made a big mistake.” But there’s a hospital called St. Thomas’s on the other side of the Thames, and we stopped at the lights. Now, the big thing that happened in Liverpool at the end of the 1950s, like in a lot of northern towns, was that the slums were cleared and new estates were built, and we were moved out. And I thought, if I juxtapose that [event] with “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” it will work. And [Sol] rang that minute, and I said, “We’ve got a film.” And that’s how it happened.

ND: There’s a hilarious line in the film: “Municipal architecture – dispiriting at the best of times but, when combined with the British genius for creating the dismal, makes for a cityscape that is anything but Elysian.” Now Liverpool is the European Capital of Culture. Much of your work looks at what gets lost in order to make room for some sort of gain – what got left behind in this shift for Liverpool?

TD: In most places, community – because those communities have grown up over a hundred years. When you got married, for instance, you lived initially with your parents then got a flat or a small house, so community spread naturally. But that had happened over a long period of time. And they thought, if we just get rid of [the slums] and build these new estates, we will make a community. Well of course, you destroy it. Those estates were built very quickly, very cheaply and very badly. The awful thing about it was the subtle betrayal – they were built with the most honourable of intentions, and they were a complete and utter disaster. There was a local politician who built two blocks of flats – Mum and I moved to one of them – and she was a wonderful woman. She looked like Mrs. Khrushchev. These awful coats! But she was a saint, really believed in helping the poor. But you can’t just wipe everything out and start anew. What they could have done was move people out, refurbish those houses, move them back in. You’d have had a community of people with better housing. But that would have taken much longer and it would have cost too much. And we’re very good in England at doing things on the cheap. And then we live to regret it.

ND: There’s anger in Of Time and the City – anger about the loss of community, about the rich, about hypocrisy in general. But you express it so elegantly. Tell me about that.

TD: When I was growing up, it was very stratified. Anybody with a posh accent, you just did as you were told. They were posh. Anybody with any kind of authority was obeyed. You didn’t even think twice. But what gave rise to the really great comedies of the late ’40s, early ’50s in England was this thing of knowing your place, so of having to be angry without being angry. That kind of suppressed anger is very funny. The greatest example, of course, is Dennis Price in Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which he kills all these people – but so elegantly! There’s one bit where he says, “I like to think I saved them from a fate worse than death – you must remember I was very young and not naturally callous.” That’s fabulous! And I think that’s where it comes from. It’s so superbly elegant. It’s the greatest of all film comedies!