Saturday 14 October 2023

Britain says "Goodbye" to its Son of Liverpool, Film Director and Prince of Lyricism, Terence Davies

Terence was born into a working-class, Roman Catholic family, the youngest of ten children in the Kensington district of  Liverpool, just after the end of the Second World War in the Autumn of 1945. He was the son of Helen and Thomas, a chimney sweep by trade who he remembered as : “rough, alcoholic and utterly callous”. He later said his father’s protracted, glowering silences, made him feel : “Terrified all the time. The one thing I can’t bear now is atmospheres. I can come into a room full of people and I can tell you who’s had the row. I always say : if I’ve upset you, just come out with it. If you cold-shoulder me, I instantly see him sitting in the corner of the parlour and I’m a seven-year-old again”. 

When his father died of cancer when Terence was six and a half years old, the body was kept in the front parlour for ten days because the family couldn’t afford a chapel of rest. He later recalled : “You could smell death. It was awful. I had to sleep in the bed he died in. I still get nightmares where someone is coming into the room to kill me.” 

One of his greatest memories was being taken to the cinema to see 'Singin’ in the Rain' by his sister at the age of seven in 1952. Over forty years later he recalled : “During that scene in the rain, I cried and cried and criedShe asked : "Why are you crying?" and I told her : "Because he looks so happy!" Nothing does that for me like the old Hollywood musicals. I love Bergman’s 'Cries and Whispers', too, but it’s hardly a toe-tapper, is it? I wish I could say I’d made something as great as 'Singin’ in the Rain' but alas, no, I haven’t”.(link)

As a film director, he later mused : "When I heard it had taken three days to shoot and they had to mix milk with water in order for the rain to photograph, and you actually look at it and it’s only from eight camera positions - Hard to believe! Only eight camera positions. There’s nine cuts, but it cuts back to one of the previous camera positions. But, in eight positions! I still want to cry at the end of it when that extra is being given the umbrella, and you think, 'I wonder who he was?'. I often wonder 'what happened to him?' That’s heartbreaking somehow. You wonder what he thought when he saw it : “There I am with Gene Kelly”.(link)

Terrence said : "
One of my other sisters in 1956 took me to a 'town picture'. Town pictures were expensive - one and ninepence, which was terribly, terribly expensive. It was on a Sunday and we went to an early matinee of 'Young at Heart'. That’s when I fell in love with Doris Day. I can remember every single thing about that day. (This was in 2016, when he was seventy-one ) Every single thing. It’s still as fresh now as it was then and I can’t see it without thinking about where we went, and that when we came out the sun was still shining and my sister felt a little faint. I remember her leaning down on the floor. It will be with me for the rest of my life".(link)

In the same year he said :
 "I remember being taken to see a very bad, late Powell and Pressburger called 'The Battle of the River Plate' . It’s really not good, it’s towards the end of their career and it’s like 'Ill Met by Moonlight' - it’s not that good. But it wasn’t that film that I actually remember. It was the short that was on with it. It was 'The Red Balloon'. And I wept! I wept and wept at the end of that. It’s the greatest short ever made. It’s just fabulous. So glorious!" (link)

As a boy he loved being in a cinema, partly became they were all different and said : "One of the eight near our home was originally a theatre, so you could see all the boxes that obviously were never used. And they had the balcony, which was right over the top, and which they called in this country 'The Gods'. And you had to walk up an endless number of stairs to get there, but it was cheap". 

This happy phase in his life came to an abrupt end when he was eleven and was packed off  to a catholic boarding school, The Sacred Heart Roman Catholic High School. He recalled : “I was conscious of being ecstatically happy but knowing it was going to go” and sure enough it did and : “The first day, these lads saw their victim – and I was beaten up every day for the next four years”. He was fifteen when he realised that he was gay and said : "For somebody like me, who discovered at puberty that they were gay and it was then a criminal offense in Britain, the Church offered no succour. I felt then that if I prayed and was really good, God would make me like everybody else. Those years when I prayed until my knees bled were awful". 

The agony of school was lifted when he left when he was fifteen in 1960 to work as a shipping office clerk and then a bookkeeper in an accountancy firm. He recalled : “I was twelve years in a job I absolutely detested; you just felt you were dying by the centimetre. I saw a lot of people go under. In the offices I worked in, they hated every minute of it and dreaded when they got to 65, being given a Teasmade in the boardroom.” 

Living back at home, in 1962 he said he heard Alec Guinness recite from memory Eliot’s 'Four Quartets' on television, and now read them once a month. He also discovered Bruckner, his great love and Sibelius, and Shostakovich. He said that they worked into his unconscious to such an extent that, in later life when he looked at images, he thought of music.

He sought release from the trap he felt he was at work by doing some amateur acting and thinking back to 1967 he said : "I finally realized the priests were just men in frocks, and I dropped the church when I was twenty-two. It left a deep emotional hole in me - a sense of chaos". Then in 1971, at the age of twenty-six, he left Liverpool to study acting at the Coventry School of Drama on a grant awarded by the Local Education Authority. In 2009 he said : "The environs I grew up in were tiny. It consisted of house, church, street and the movies. I felt I had to leave. I wanted a creative life, rather than becoming an accountant, which I did for twelve years, and I detested it. It was like a slow death". In Coventry he started writing the screenplay that eventually became 'Children' and when he was thirty-one in 1976, his script found favour with the BFI Production Board. 

Now that he was funded by the Board, Terence became part of a vital wave of new British talent that also included Bill Douglas, Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman. The experience of directing it was a traumatic one for him because he was openly disdained by his crew, but the film itself was a triumph, crowned by a miraculous shot of Robert and his mother standing on the doorstep, their reflection in the hearse window erased as the father’s coffin is slid into the back of the vehicle. (link) When once asked by one sceptical audience member why his films were so slow and depressing, he replied : “It’s a gift.”

He then signed up at the National Film School in London, eventually shooting 'Madonna and Child' as his graduation film in 1980. (link) When he added 'Death and Transfiguration' in (link) 1983, the trio were released commercially under the title of 'The Terence Davies Trilogy'. Their protagonist, Robert Tucker  was a surrogate, of sorts, for Terence's own experiences growing up gay and devoutly Catholic in a working-class Liverpudlian neighbourhood. He was encountered in 'Children' as a bullied, tentatively gay schoolboy, then in middle age in 'Madonna and Child' and in his dotage in 'Death and Transfiguration'. He himself said : “Being in the past makes me feel safe because I understand that world”He also said : “My great love is Eliot’s Four Quartets and these were my modest version of the Four Quartets, based on the suffering of myself and my own family”. 

Terence used the Trilogy as a springboard to complete a pair of dramas that, if  not entirely autobiographical, nevertheless felt close to home. His 'Distant Voices, Still Lives made in 1988, centred on a family living in the shadow of an abusive alcoholic patriarch played by Pete Postlethwaite.(link) The shoot was extremely taxing for Terence and he was sometimes seen, between takes, sitting on Postlethwaite’s lap and being comforted. When Pete said he couldn't believe the truth behind the scene in which his character breaks a broom across the back of his own daughter, Terence handed him his sister’s telephone number and said : “Call her.” (link) The film critic Mark Kermode finished his review of the film with the judgement that Terence : "Has remained one of our singular cinematic artists, a film maker to be cherished, admired and adored." (link)

Four years later his 
'The Long Day Closes' was his love letter to the picture palaces he had frequented with his sister as a boy in the 1950s with his young central character based on Terrence and even sharing his nickname, “Bud”. (link) The film critic Frank Kermode said it was the first Davies film he had reviewed and he said : "I remember watching the film and absolutely falling in love with it ".(link)

When it came to his making his first documentary, he related in 2009, that at first he was genuinely perplexed and asked himself : “Why would they give money to someone who's never done a documentary before?” But they gave me the modest sum, £250,000 to make the film. I didn’t have great expectations, so when it took off, it came as a surprise to us. Now eighty-seven film festivals want it! I also felt I’d completed making fictional films about Liverpool and I didn’t want to retread the same ground. So the documentary form would provide the opportunity for a fresh look at the past. But I insisted on not making a strict documentary, but one based on my emotional memories—a subjective essay, which I discovered after completion was my farewell to Liverpool. My template for the film was Humphrey Jennings’s nineteen-minute-long 'Listen to Britain' ".(link)

'Of Time and the City' was filled with many of his hallmarks : in his voiceover for the film, he could be heard dismissing the Beatles as resembling “a firm of provincial solicitors” and calling the 1947 wedding of Queen Elizabeth II “the start of the Betty Windsor show” over his footage of gunships that appeared to be opening fire on the happy couple. (link) He evoked the smoke-filled, narrow cobblestone streets of his boyhood where working-class families like his lived in back to back terraces with their outside toilets and where the children sometimes played in the rubble of Second World War bombed out houses. He said : "I remember all the children’s street games, and skipping songs. So much of our life as children was lived on the street. It’s utterly different today - the street life is gone. No the images don’t leave me with a feeling of unrequited regret. They don’t console me".

Terence said : "The images preceded the text. I wrote the commentary as the images unfolded, while I was cutting the film. I felt at times that I didn’t need a text at all, that silence was sufficient. They didn’t want me to do the narration at first. I was told to find someone else but I wanted to narrate my own poetry and T.S. Eliot and I did the narration in one day. Among the extracts I used were lovely tracking shots of street life from a documentary, 'Morning in the Streets' (link), that I would have shot in the same manner. 
My choice of music for any particular image was always instinctive. There is no thought process that kicks in. I saw an image, and my choice of music just responded to it. The music and images moved in counterpoint to each other".

"My point of view comes from instinct and heart. I try to be as truthful to memory as possible. I remember the intensity of those moments, which I still reverberate to even today. So I have no esthetic distance from the material". The Liverpool I knew has disappeared. I’ve recreated a city that is no longer there. The last cinema in my old neighborhood, the Odeon, has been pulled down. The city is now a mythical city for me, because memory is myth. I love the city, but have no illusions that there isn’t a great deal wrong with it".

"I do hope that viewers respond to it with their hearts, because I make it with my heart. It has to be true to your inner voice and inner eye and I hope that’s not as conceited as it sounds, because you can only be true to yourself".