Documentary of the week – Of Time & the City

Terence Davies (2008)

Black and white archive film has rarely looked more melancholy or gorgeous than in this beautiful, bitter love song to the lost Liverpool of Terence Davies’s childhood. The sometimes worn nature of the film itself adds a feeling of something precious irretrievably slipping from one’s grasp, as we watch the details of humble day to day lives in their warmth and hardship.

The blue remembered hills of Davies’s opening Housman quote are here the murky 50s streets of some of the worst slums in Europe. But glowing with life all the same. The crowds of children playing in the streets, the playground singing games, the special treat of trips across the Mersey to New Brighton, where bodies are laid out to sunbathe side by side like so many pale corpses. Glamour as stars gather for a gala night, the hard grind of the docks, the cheerful lads going off to the Korean War. Never such innocence again. And always the feeling that we are observing and celebrating the dead – for so most of them now will be.

For working class baby boomers who remember when life was like that it’s a particularly melancholy experience to watch those still familiar styles and people, who now look almost as strangely different as those jerky crowds cheering on Queen Victoria or World War I soldiers in early newsreels. Lives become social history.

There’s humour – the ironic comments on the hated monarchy come rather shockingly from Davies’s rich, surprisingly posh, tones, and his nostalgia is not too rosy – the guilt imposed by the beginnings of sexual longings that were then illicit, the damage done by his youthful involvement with the Catholic church, are stabbed home. Who would really have their lost content returned to them? Other regrets seem just plain grumpy – his displeasure at the coming of the Beatles washing away the pop songs of the likes of Dickie Valentine and Alma Cogan (oh come on, Penny Lane and A Day in the Life a bad exchange for Mr Sandman and Never do a Tango with an Eskimo?).

Sound is perfectly matched to images: Mahler and the Hollies, Ewan McColl, and, most moving, Peggy Lee’s The Folks Who Live on the Hill, soaring over the demolition of the awful slums and building of the hopeful but dreadful 60s tower blocks, almost unbearably painful images of yet more dreams dashed. But views of Liverpool’s regeneration and the new crowds who throng its streets, along with words from Eliot’s Four Quartets, leave us with an, albeit shaken, optimism.

 Tyneside Cinema Newcastle October 2008



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