Friday, 1 March 2013

Distant voices… Of Time and the City (2008)

Terence Davies’ memorial montage of Liverpool was commissioned as part of the city’s 2008 Capital of Culture celebration. The organisers were looking to get a take on the “new” from someone who had left the city and in Davies’ case this had been in 1973 when he was 28. The director felt that he’d already had his say on his home town with his stunning Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes and had to be persuaded into making a documentary.

He was finally convinced by a vision of Everton Valley high-rise flats accompanied in his head by Peggy Lee singing The Folks Who Live on the Hill. The Lord sings in mysterious ways…  

Of Time and the City emerged as an unique description of growing up amidst post war decline with Davies as the sardonically poetic narrator of his own emergence from this wreckage. Institutions, architects, pop music and, above all, the Catholic Church all let him down but he came through.

Filming St George's Hall
It’s a totally honest film and one without artifice or sorrow – he may not sound it now but Davies is a Scouser alright. One of ten children crammed into a terraced house in Kensington (not the same as London’s version…), he is one of that glorious generation who made something of themselves as the city’s education system contributed to an accelerated social mobility of a kind we’re unlikely to see again.

My parents’ were similarly enabled and moved out from Anfield and Wavertree to the leafy commuter town of Lydiate, damning me forever to be an out-of-town “woollyback” but we move on… Liverpool and transience go hand in hand, but it’s my family’s city and some live there still.

They say that the only people who love Liverpool are the ones that have left…  Davies is not necessarily amongst them and leaving his rose-tinted camera at home, remembers to bring his poison pen. That said, he clearly retains affection for his family and the community he grew up in.

St George's Hall - scale and splendour...
The film opens with lingering shots of the massive classicism of St George’s Hall – the largest contained space in any municipal building of its era and a statement of civic architectural arrogance unrivalled anywhere else in Yorkshire or Lancashire - a fair reflection of the city’s economic importance at a time when it was pretty much second only to London.

Liverpool's Pier Head
There are frequent shots of the overhead railway which ran along the river front giving a south Manhattan appearance to this most American of British cities. As a silent film aside...this was the scene of the World’s first tracking shot with the Lumière brothers placing their camera on the train in 1896 to record the dock side past the old Customs House and long disappeared warehouses signifying Liverpool’s true nature as a port of empire.

The Lumière's 1896 train ride - Princes and Albert Docks
The footage isn't in this film but you can see it here. Sadly, like many Liverpool landmarks, the railway fell victim to short-term planning decisions and was demolished in the mid-50’s disappointing Davies and many other schoolboys.

Davies post-Catholic confessions are emphatically rendered as he describes his “thousands of hours of wasted prayers” and a futile wait for forgiveness from a God that had no time for deviations from the norm. There’s a painful counterpointing showing a deconsecrated church being used as a bar… graven images still in place looking down incongruously on the revellers.

Then he shows the opening of the city’s Catholic Cathedral, an impressively ambitious construction in cold concrete, locally termed Paddy’s Wigwam, bishops in their flowing red dresses struggling against the Irish Sea wind on an unwelcoming mid-60s day.

Not "Betty and Phil"
Davies is also impressively dismissive of the “Betty and Phil show” with his voice over to Elizabeth II’s 1947 wedding detailing the royal couple’s extensive and mind-numbingly prosaic list of gifts… Barely a pause and he details the even greater “waste” at her coronation in 1954. And so it goes… with a quick cut to less well-fed working people eking out their living on rations in austerity Britain… and so it goes.

Davies’ was sustained by creative appreciation with movies his particular passion alongside arousing trips to oggle the wrestlers tight shorts at the Liverpool Stadium. We’re shown a premier at Birkenhead’s Ritzi cinema, as Gregory Peck helps make this "the Hollywood of the North".

Davies’ fondness for popular music did not extend to rock and roll and his sneering  “yeah, yeah, yeah…” tells you all you need to know of his opinion of The Beatles: “…more a firm of North-western accountants than a pop group”. Liking the Mop Tops isn't a legal requirement for Liverpudlians and,as elsewhere, Davies is totally honest - beat music's rough visceral charm evaded him and he much preferred the well-honed popular classics.

But Davies real passion is with classical music and he reels off a string of exotic European names with relish as Hippy Hippy Shake plays over manic scenes from The Cavern. The film begins with the screen being elevated in the Liverpool Philharmonic and you can hear a section from Mahler’s 2nd later in the film (sadly not performed on this occasion by my uncle's former band, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra - the most recorded orchestra in Britain).

Davies with producers Solon Papadopoulos and Roy Boulter at the Phil
On a strictly limited budget, Of Time and the City is a masterpiece of cost-controlled collage with film acquired on a miniscule budget and seamlessly strung together in support of the director’s commentary. Davies shows the demolition of the old Victorian terraces and their replacement by high-rise homogeneity. For families like the Davies’ it meant the enforced exchange of one unsatisfactory way of life with another, more isolated but with arguably better views...

There is disappointment at Bold Street booze-culture but Davies doesn’t appear overtly judgmental of today's city. His ire is reserved for those who forged his difficult years and for the myopic planners who blighted the area for decades. Possibly in spite of himself, the film is dominated by the 40's and 50's of his childhood, until everything comes crashing down in the 60's to be replaced by concrete isolation.

Davies’ culture worked in part because of his family and not circumstance.  He is rightfully proud of the man he has made and his journey beyond. Returning now he feels estranged: it’s not the place that he knew and – presumably – his people have also moved on too. And it’s people that make the place.

He’s not alone and Liverpool has almost halved in population over the last half century as it has evolved into something new. It’s still a place with extremes and beauty... and it endures.

Davies concludes by saying “goodnight ladies” to the “Three Graces” that dominate the Pier Head – these are at least unchanged in spite of all behind them…

I watched the BFI DVD which comes with a wealth of extras including Humphrey Jenning's documentary Listen to Britain which inspired Davies’ approach to the film. I don’t think you have to come from Merseyside to connect – this is a universal take on the nature of change and identity – and whilst Davies knows where he came from he is also a man who truly knows himself best of all.

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