By Lawrence Ferber
Originally published on Advocate.com February 06 2009 12:00 AM ET
After mining his
youth and family life in the autobiographical
masterworks The Terence Davies Trilogy
(1976-83), Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988),
and The Long Day Closes (1992), out U.K.
filmmaker Terence Davies returned one last time to his
Liverpool roots and memories with Of Time and the
City, which opened at NYC’s Film Forum on
January 21. An elegiac composition of archival
material, newly shot cityscapes, music, and Davies’s
narration, it is both a nostalgic love letter and an
ultimate farewell to a past and place riddled with
pain, warmth, and first struggles with sexuality
(Catholic guilt and emerging/repressed homosexuality are
frequent themes in Davies’s work).
Born in 1945 in
Liverpool, Davies kicked off his career as an actor
during the 1970s, but transitioned to director with his
first short film, 1976’s Children.
Regarded as one of the United Kingdom's most
influential, important filmmakers of the 20th century,
Davies went on to craft 1995’s The Neon
Bible (adapted from John Kennedy Toole’s book)
and 2000’s acclaimed The House of Mirth,
adapted from Edith Wharton’s novel and starring
a boldface Hollywood cast (including Gillian Anderson
and Laura Linney). Currently awaiting a green light on a
21st-century romantic comedy set in London and Paris, Davies
discussed his final cinematic foray into his past, the
late Derek Jarman, the current state of U.K. film,
and, having been terminally single his entire life,
whether he might finally find romantic and sexual happiness
through the Internet.
Advocate.com:How would you set up Of Time and the City
for someone unfamiliar with Liverpool and its history?
Is any exposition necessary?Terence Davies: I really can’t answer that
because I made it clear, when I was given the money to do
it, that it would be a subjective essay. I can only
tell you what other people have said to me, and the
movie has seemed to catch a kind of zeitgeist. People
from all over the world have said, "Oh, I’ve seen my
childhood on-screen." It seems to have prompted people
to think of their own lives and childhoods, or their
parents. But my intentions were really modest. My
template was [the 1941 film] Listen to Britain
by Humphrey Jennings. It’s a 90-minute poem trying to
capture the nature of being British. I was trying to
capture the nature of what it was like to be
Liverpudlian and growing up in that city, which made a
huge impact on me.
You include a fantastic audio clip of the BBC radio
show Round the Horne, which featured iconic gay
British actors camping it up in the secret gay
language, Polari. Can you talk about that
phenomenon for a moment? [Laughs] They were loved in the late
1950s and early '60s, but no one knew what they meant.
They just thought they were funny. Listening to them
again brought such joy back to me, because on a Sunday at 2
p.m. you could open your window and hear that the
whole of England was listening to Julian and Sandy.
They were pretty saucy, even if it was all code and insinuation. Yes, they were very saucy. Someone wrote in to
the BBC saying, "I think it’s filthy." The
controller at BBC asked for a script, read it, and
wrote back to her saying, "Not only is it not filthy,
it’s not funny either!"
Did you ever learn Polari and speak it with friends? No. You can only get away with that if
you’re Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick. If
you do it in real life, it sounds really rather sad.
I’d love to take a Polari language course. Oh God, don’t!
What was the toughest archival material to locate? It wasn’t so much what was difficult as
what to leave out. There was a huge amount of archival
material. We went through the material on two
occasions and it took an entire day to get through it.
What is your fondest memory from your Liverpool days? There was a rich street life. When you’ve
got nothing you tend to live in the street and have
nothing together. But I suppose what I miss most is
the fact that within walking distance of my house there were
eight cinemas, and another eight in town. It was so
wonderful. There was always something interesting to
watch -- always. I miss having that abundance of
How do you feel about Liverpool when you visit it today? The city I knew is largely gone. It’s a
city of my mind, my imagination. But everywhere I go
there are memories, so that makes it difficult. But
also most of the places I knew have been pulled down.
I was there in November and it seems a city in the
process of being reinvented and updated -- I visited the
which was pretty glamorous. The Alma de Cuba. It’s been very well
You and Derek Jarman were both part of the British
Queer Cinema wave. Do you see many parallels between
your careers? Stylistically he was doing something completely
different, but I think there are two things we had in
common: We’re both gay, and he had a very good
sense of humor and so do I. He was a life-enhancer. He
really was. He was so full of life and generous, a
lovely man. I can’t say I’m a
life-enhancer, although I try to be.
You’re working on a romantic comedy right now. You bet! It’s a romantic comedy set in
the present day in London and Paris in fashion
magazines, and it ends with a happy ending. Knowing me,
I’ll put a subtitle on the end: "You’re all
gonna die!" [Laughs]
Last year’s documentary about Jarman,
Derek, sparked conversations regarding how the
U.K. Film Council had shifted its focus from art to
commerce, and how many important British films
weren’t being preserved or available to the
public, yet anything "high-octane" with gangsters is
being promoted and funded. Your thoughts on the
situation and how your own work is being treated? This obsession with box office, and I’m
not anti-American, but we are being subsumed by
American culture. We look for validation, both
culturally and politically, towards the USA when really we
should look towards Europe, because that’s
where our future lies. More and more we’re
trying to be like Hollywood and we can’t do it. Those
things make an indigenous British cinema much more
difficult. I’m patriotic only in the sense I
want us to make films about stories that arise naturally
from these islands. There is no point in making
gangster films because we can’t do it properly.
They are just silly. That does not go to say you
should not make films that are purely entertaining.
There’s nothing wrong with that presuming
they’re well made. But we are in this thrall to your
country. If we go on like this, in 20 years' time
we’ll be like Hawaii but with lousy weather.
If you remade your cycle of autobiographical films
today, would you make them more explicitly gay? If I was making them now, I wouldn’t get
the money for them.
Would you consider making a film about your adult years? God forbid! That’s even more depressing
than the trilogy! [Laughs] I’ve never
reconciled myself to being gay. It has really ruined my
life. I can’t accept it, and so I’m
celibate. But I get enormous solace from the music of
Bruckner, the poetry of Eliot, the sonnets of Shakespeare,
and Emily Dickinson. I have very good friends whom I love
and are very supportive. Perhaps in the end
that’s all one can hope for. I write poetry,
which gives me enormous pleasure, and every now and then
when you feel a bit low you put on something like
Singin' in the Rain, which is the first
film I saw, at 7. You just think, Oh, it is
worthwhile after all!
Have there been any relationships during your life? No, I’ve never had a relationship.
I’m celibate. I’m not good-looking, I
don’t have a good body. No one’s ever been
interested, so it’s best to stay home and [hold
on to] your dignity, I think.
I feel the age of the Internet has changed that,
because no matter what you are, from skinny geek to bear
to superchub to daddy, there’s a website
where someone is looking for you. I don’t believe that, you see. But
I’ve been celibate for so long, I have to say I
wouldn’t know what to do anyway if someone wanted to
go to bed with me. I’m so sad! [Laughs]
I think you’d find matches online. Some gays read
Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky and Miller plays. But they only read them for the jokes!
Can you enjoy other filmmakers' gay-themed films?
Have you watched much queer cinema in recent years? Not really. I don’t really go to the
cinema. I’ve lost my ability to suspend my
disbelief. That comes with making films. There’s one
way of curing a hobby and that’s doing it for a
living. When you’re conscious of the cuts,
people acting, it’s very difficult, almost
impossible. Musician friends of mine can’t go
to concerts. It’s like that. I can’t suspend
my disbelief anymore.
Your films are mostly quite melancholy. Was life on
set as sullen between takes, or was there a jovial mood
when not shooting? I always try to have a laugh. You’ve got
to have a laugh. The people who do the most damage in
the world are those with no sense of humor. We’re
all doing a job we love and getting paid for it and
that’s wonderful, and I do love to have a
laugh. Obviously if you’re doing a serious film, when
you do the takes of course you’re serious, but I do
like to have a lighthearted atmosphere.
If someone goes to Liverpool today, what is the one
thing they must see or do? Go and see the St. Georges Hall. It’s
considered the greatest neoclassical building in the
world. It’s absolutely fabulous. Once a year in
the Great Hall they take up the floor and it’s all
Minton tiles. They’ve got everything there. The
courts the way they were in the 19th century, this
beautiful little concert hall. It’s breathtaking.
And should they try Liverpool’s famed scouse stew? Yes, it’s very good. It was brought over
by the Irish and all it is is a stew. When I was
growing up, if there was no meat to put in it, we called
it blind scouse [because you didn’t see any meat]!