For one of the greatest British directors of all time, life outside the mainstream can be difficult. Terence Davies talks to DONALD CLARKEabout his first feature in a decade
EVEN IF TERENCE Davies weren't one of the greatest of all British directors – and he is – he would still rate as an irreplaceable ornament of that nation. To describe a conversation with Terry as an "interview" is to indulge in underselling. The experience could better be billed, using the language of café theatre, as An Evening with Terence Davies.Had he charged off-Broadway prices, I would not have considered asking for my money back.
Somehow or other, while discussing The Deep Blue Sea, his fine new adaptation of a Terence Rattigan play, we find ourselves considering his hatred for contemporary popular culture. "I remember my sister taking me to see Jailhouse Rock," he says, his cheeks reddening ominously. "I was 11 and I cringed all the way through. Isn't Presley awful? That awful voice. Then the Beatles came along and they were even worse." Really? But Terence is from Liverpool. Hating the Beatles constitutes a kind of treason in that city.
"Probably, probably. I thought they were awful then and I still do. My interest in popular music ended with the decline of the great American songbook. You just can't imagine somebody writing a lyric as clever as Begin the Beguinepost-Presley. They just couldn't." I then make a mistake. While raking through cleverer members of the rock generation, I foolishly mention Bob Dylan. A small explosion detonates on the other side of the table. "Oh God. Now he's really awful! Those lyrics are puerile beyond belief. That dreadful voice. Now he's actually unbearable." As you will have gathered, it's easy to get sidelined when chatting with Davies.
Let's get back to the career. Now 66, a round man with a gorgeously posh voice, Davies made his first short film in 1976. Plugging away determinedly, he eventually delivered a desperately moving, highly autobiographical triptych that came to be known as The Terence Davies Trilogy. Something like fame arrived in 1988 with the release of his transcendent feature Distant Voices, Still Lives. The films comprised an utterly singular blend of grim realism and disconcerting romanticism. Outbreaks of appalling domestic violence are interspersed with warm tributes to the sentimental songs and films he so admires. Few directors have such an unmistakable cinematic signature.
Despite being lauded as among the best of his generation, he has had great difficulty getting his vision on screen. Indeed, when bemoaning the state of the British cinema business, commentators invariably point towards poor Mr Davies. " Sex Lives of the Potato Menmakes it to screen, but Terence Davies can't get a film made," they weep.
“It’s difficult when you are not in the mainstream,” he says. “We are culturally and politically a lap dog of America. We will swallow everything from America. If we’re not careful in 20 years’ time we’ll have no culture at all. The language is despised. But we need to be protected, not ossified.
“It’s stultifying to hear that another Jane Austen adaptation is being made. If that’s all we can do we should maybe just stop.”
The Deep Blue Sea,Davis's first dramatic feature for a decade, did come together pretty easily. The picture stars Rachel Weisz as a frustrated woman who, in a gracefully shabby version of post-war London, leaves her husband, a senior judge, for a rakish, unstable former RAF pilot. Stubbornly resistant to the here and now, Davies claims he had never heard of his leading lady until he began preparing the film.
"I never watch television – well, apart from the news and really good documentaries," he says. "But one night I turned it on and saw this girl with really fabulous eyes. I phoned my agent and said: 'Do you know who this Rachel Weisz woman is?' He said: 'I think you are the only person who doesn't.'" Though the film features a number of Davies trademarks – notably the unavoidable pub sing-song – The Deep Blue Seamarks a further move away from his earlier, autobiographical films. Enthusiasts for Distant Voices, Still Livesand The Long Day Closes, that film's successor, probably think they have a fairly sure understanding of the director's early life. Pete Postlethwaite plays the psychotically abusive father to a large working-class Liverpool family.
Davies is the youngest in a family of 10. He has never made any secret of the fact that he lived in terror of his father. So, how closely were those films based on his own early years? “It’s very, very partial – particularly the bits that I am not in,” he says. “If I had put in everything that happened nobody would have believed it. My father was so psychotic I had to leave a lot out. You can’t recreate the terror. The suffering was so prodigious you couldn’t put it on screen. Nobody could bear it.”
He goes on to tell a poignant story concerning one of his sister’s friends. She called at the Davies house and found her pal cowering in terror. “’Can you brush my hair for me,’ she said. ‘My dad won’t let me brush me hair.’ Pure psychosis.” So what did the family make of the films? A great deal of dirty linen was being washed in public.
“My older brother refused to talk about it,” he says. “My elder sister refused to talk about it. Only one sister was prepared to talk about it. But my mum said: ‘He’s told the truth’. The rest disapproved without ever saying so. It was clearly not accepted. There was nothing I could do. But it was hurtful.”
Davies explains that he knew he was gay from an early age. In previous interviews he has stubbornly – indeed furiously – refused to celebrate his sexuality. He speaks of regret, loneliness and frustration. This is now a very unfashionable stance to take. Born in 1945, he is easily young enough to have wallowed in the gay-liberation waves of the 1960s and 1970s. The face is reddening again. One suspects he would have as much time for that scene as he would for a Blue Öyster Cult marathon.
“Being gay has ruined my life!” he nearly shouts. “I hate it. I’ll go to my grave hating it. Which is why I have been celibate. One-night stands are not for me. I was not good looking. I did not have a good body. Nobody was interested when I was young. Now I am old. I am still not good looking. I know what I am. I will always loathe it. It has killed part of my soul.”
Oh, come now. Yes, Davies has endured setbacks throughout his life. After leaving school, he worked for 10 years as a shipping clerk and accountant. But he pulled himself out of that life. Initially keen on becoming an actor, he wrote a short screenplay and somehow managed to persuade the British Film Institute to finance its production. Over the succeeding few decades he developed into a genuine hero for independently-minded film enthusiasts. Just consider the acclaim that gathered round his recent documentary Of Time and the City, a poignant study of Liverpool. Can he really be that unhappy?
“Well, most of the time I put a front on,” he says. “I like a good laugh. I have a good sense of humour. But I am very lonely. Very lonely indeed.” It would be easy to dismiss Davies’s outbursts as adventures in melodrama.
But he does seem utterly sincere. He stands in opposition to his own era: its music; its language; its attitudes to sexuality. This helps lend his films their peculiarly divided quality. Davies is prepared to innovate with form and experiment with narrative structure. But he always yearns for a time of greater melody, less noise and better diction. Just consider how he speaks. There is not a hint of Liverpool in his accent. One could be chatting to a BBC radio announcer of the 1930s.
"When I was making Of Time and the Citythey asked me if I could do a bit about losing my accent," he says. "That irked me. Who cares? But I asked my sister Maisie and she said: 'You never had an accent.' I think I have a very imitative ear and we used to listen to the BBC radio a lot when I was a child. They really did speak the Queen's English."
One does wonder if any of his pals have tried to talk him out of his more oppressive attitudes. Haven't associates questioned him on his view of his own sexuality? "I haven't asked them. That's what I think. Look, I am not going to change if all my friends decide to be royalists. I'd still be against royalty." He tells a story about showing The Terence Davies Trilogyin San Francisco. The screening did not go down well. At the end, a chap stood up and complained that the bleak view of gay life was surely too excessive.
"It was the only time I've been rude in those situations. I said: 'Sit down! How dare you say that? You're good looking. You don't know what it's like to grow up in a time and place where homosexuality was illegal. Sit down!'" See? You get your money's worth at An Evening with Terence Davies.