Distant Voices, Still Lives: An interview with Terence Davies

By Peter Fraser

terence-davies.jpgTerence Davies

From the 16th – 30th April the BFI Southbank will be screening a retrospective of the films of Terence Davies including a digitally restored re-release of his first feature film Distant Voices, Still Lives. Originally released in 1989, Distant Voices, Still Lives recounts events from Davies’ working class Liverpudlian childhood in the 40s and 50s in a truly cinematic style. The film acknowledges the vagaries of memory through an episodic and elliptical structure that is expressive of what Davies has termed ‘the poetry of the ordinary.’ Despite the strictures of the environment and the time, not to mention the violent tyranny of Davies’ father (memorably portrayed by Pete Postlethwaite), the film evokes a fierce pride and communal warmth as well as the director’s very obvious, and very infectious, enthusiasm for the potential of cinema.

I met with Terence just after the restored print of Distant Voices, Still Lives was screened at the 50th London Film Festival in October 2006.

Peter Fraser: Looking back on Distant Voices, Still Lives how do you feel about it now?

Terence Davies: I still have very mixed feelings because I haven’t seen it projected for over ten, twelve years. Parts of it are very hard to watch because it brings back very painful memories especially now that my mother has died. That’s very hard because I miss her every day. She’s been dead two years now. So it’s always very mixed. I always watch it thinking ‘my goodness, did that really happen?’ and I know it happened because I was there or my brothers and sisters told me that it happened. When I watched the film the other day with my sister she was sobbing. There are bits of it I like. I like Love is a Many Splendored Thing but that’s because I like Love is a Many Splendored Thing ! But there are parts of it that are incredibly hard to watch.

PF: I suppose that being able to watch the film is different to being satisfied with it. Do you feel that you managed to express what you wanted to express?

TD: I did as much as I could but huge amounts were left out because if I’d put them in nobody would have believed them. They really wouldn’t. My father threatened my mother in front of me when I was five by saying ‘I’m going to chop your head off with an axe.’ Now I can’t put that in because I know that no one will believe it. But of course that’s what you have to do when you write something. You can’t put everything in. You’re trying to condense down from many things to just one thing. In the film he beats her up just once but that has to represent the fact that he did it all the time. In the film there’s one accident but in real life the two accidents were separate. My brother was in the army when ammunition boxes fell on him and my brother-in-law fell off scaffolding into the street but two separate accidents aren’t interesting. That’s poetic license. When I went to see Love is a Many Splendored Thing it was a glorious summer evening. It wasn’t raining at all. I don’t know why I wanted it to rain but part of it was probably because I love Hollywood rain.

distant-voices-still-lives-terence-davies.jpgDistant Voices, Still Lives, 1988

PF: Art is selective but so is memory. How did you approach the film to express the vagaries of memory while retaining a sense of truth about what really happened?

TD: Well, because content determines form I knew that the film would be cyclical because memory is not linear and it’s triggered by time which then triggers other things. It’s an emotional journey that you go on. Also a great influence was The Four Quartets by Eliot. When we first got our television in 1960 Alec Guinness read them over four nights. I still read them now. I read them once a month. I think that they’re one of the greatest achievements of poetry in England. They’re about the nature of time, the nature of memory, the nature of mortality and the nature of seeing. How by seeing something very small you can become changed by it or perhaps it changes you. Eliot writes: ‘What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make and end is to make a beginning.’ Did the end precede the beginning or was the beginning always there before the end? That’s such a wonderful description of the nature of time and experience and that particular passage always reminds me of that middle passage in the speech by Richard II in which he says, ‘How sour sweet music is / When time is broke and no proportion kept. / So it is in the music of men’s lives / And here I have the daintiness of ear / To check time in a disordered string; / But for the concord of my state and time / Had not an ear to hear my true time broke. / I wasted time, and now doth time waste me’.

PF: So it’s a film that portrays hardship for your mother and for your family. Do you feel that you came to better understand your father through making the film?

TD: No, I hated him for an awfully long time. I really did hate him. Then you realise of course that it’s completely useless and one day I remember thinking ‘I don’t hate him anymore.’ I don’t love him. I never think about him. But when I realised that I didn’t hate him it was such a sense of relief. Although people say he’s sympathetic…

PF: There is the scene on Christmas Eve in which he lays Christmas stockings on the children’s bed while they’re sleeping...

distant-voices-still-lives-terence-davies-2.jpgDistant Voices, Still Lives, 1988

TD: Everyone says that but you see my interpretation of that scene is that he should be loving towards them when they’re awake not when they’re asleep. Like all tyrants he confuses sentimentality with real emotion. Why doesn’t he say that to them when they’re awake? He could have done but he didn’t.

PF: How did you avoid sentimentality yet remain true to your emotions in considering your past? Or was sentimentality never a danger in portraying such events?

TD: British people are terribly afraid of sentimentality actually because the British people are the most sentimental people in the world. The Americans are not in the least bit afraid of sentimentality because they’re as hard as nails. So there is an instinctive element of thinking that it must be moving without being sentimental. Although there are people who thought that it was sentimental so you can’t win in a way. There is that intrinsic feeling that you have to have some kind of restraint. I grew up in a world where the British were known for their restraint. Passion was disdained and it still is now because everyone wants to be cool, as though they feel nothing about anything. There is a very fine line between being moved and crying because something’s sentimental. I love sentimental films and I can sit and cry as much as anyone else to It’s A Wonderful Life or Love is a Many Splendored Thing. I sit and have a good cry and I think that it does you good but I couldn’t make those films because I’d be embarrassed! I’d love to have been able to. I just don’t have the talent. It’s a very specific talent and I just don’t have it but it doesn’t stop me from looking at the films and thinking ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to make them.’

PF: Given that the way things happen can’t easily be separated from how we remember them, how do you set about capturing the levels of truth about what happened?

TD: You must remember what you felt when you wrote it. When it’s autobiographical you remember how you felt when it happened. I’ve got a very keen sense of emotional atmosphere because I’ve had to. When I came into the house as a child if my father was in a bad mood then he’d kick me from one end of the house to the other. I only made that mistake once. So I’m very sensitive to atmosphere. I can sense something wrong as soon as I go into a room and I’ll be all on edge. People have asked me how I know and I can’t tell them but I know. My emotional memory is very strong and as you go through each layer of a film you have to keep that in your heart. You have to be true to that and sometimes you have to really fight for it. Sometimes someone will make an alteration to the film and it will be even better and that’s wonderful when that happens but you’re beset by people wanting to change it. When that comes from good intentions, because they want to make a good film with you, it becomes hard to resist. When it comes from ignorance I get angry. Then you’ll be looked upon as the villain of the piece because you’re being awkward. So you’re always oscillating between two points and sometimes you think ‘why do I bother?’ Even being an accountant must be easier than this!

distant-voices-still-lives-terence-davies-3.jpgDistant Voices, Still Lives, 1988

PF: In telling such a personal story it might be presumed to be difficult to find a universal appeal. Do you think that’s the case or does one lead to the other?

TD: I think if it’s done properly then one thing leads to the other because those things that are specific are usually universal. Chekhov is universal but he’s specific to Russia. Kind Hearts and Coronets, one of the great films that have been made in the UK, couldn’t have been made anywhere but England but it’s got a universal truth because what is it about? It’s about a sense of injustice. It’s irrelevant whether he [Dennis Price’s character Louis] wants to become Duke or not. The point is that his mother was badly treated and that’s not fair! He does things with such aplomb and such style, even murder, that it’s wonderful. The great irony of that film, with all its English restraint, is that he gets arrested for the one murder that he didn’t commit. Then Joan Greenwood comes in and they plan a murder without saying anything! It’s so delicious but it could have been made nowhere but here just as The Last Picture Show couldn’t have been made anywhere other than America but look how universal it is. Of all American films it’s the most Chekhovian but it’s so specific to Texas. Yet that doesn’t matter.

PF: You’ve mentioned the ‘poetry of the ordinary’ and although there is a lot of hardship in Distant Voices, Still Lives I come away with a sense of colour, vibrancy, community...

TD: That’s because it was a really rich environment. People did sing, they did help one another and I miss that more than anything. We just came together. That house after my father’s death was a magnet. People just came. Especially on Friday my eldest sisters’ friends would come and I’d be allowed to go for their make-up and their nylons. There’s no difference between the poetry of the ordinary and the poetry of the extraordinary so long as it’s truthful and that can be all sorts of truth. It can be Siegfried Sassoon writing about the first performance of Le Sacre du Printemps in London. It’s wonderful and it’s truthful because he’s actually captured what it must have been like to hear it for the first time. Then you read someone like Emily Dickinson who is intensely personal and private with that wonderful poem that is only three stanzas long:

I REASON, earth is short,
And anguish absolute.
And many hurt,
But what of that?
I reason, we could die:
The best vitality
Cannot excel decay,
But what of that?
I reason that in heaven
Somehow, it will be even,
Some new equation given;
But what of that?

From the 16th – 30th April the BFI Southbank will be screening a retrospective of the films of Terence Davies including a digitally restored re-release of his first feature film Distant Voices, Still Lives.

Peter Fraser is the Marketing Coordinator for Vertigo Magazine, Deputy Editor of Close-up Film magazine and a freelance journalist and writer.