Of Time and the City: revisiting Terence Davies’s archival hymn to Liverpool

In tribute to the late Terence Davies, Kieron Corless recalls the overwhelming experience of watching Davies’s 2008 film Of Time and the City, his witty and opinionated ode to Liverpool.

9 October 2023

By Kieron Corless

Of Time and the City (2008) © Preserved by the BFI National Archive

When was it? 2006? 2007? Memory lane is full of cracks and potholes nowadays. 

The tube pulls up. I step in, sit down. I’m soon aware there’s no-one else in the carriage apart from a bespectacled white-haired man sitting right opposite. “You’re Terence Davies!” I blurt it out involuntarily. A warm, ironic smile, just the slightest forward inclination of the head. “Yes I am.” Suave, charming, with an air of old-school debonair. And the voice: velvet bass. 

All I know for certain is that this was deep into that bitter eight-year period when he was effectively an outcast, couldn’t get a film made in the UK for love nor money. Especially money. 

We chat till he gets off. I can’t remember what we talked about, but that phrase got lodged in my head. ‘Yes I am.’ A hint of defiance. Unfallen, unbowed. I disembark, exhilarated by the encounter.

Merseyside, the late 80s. The high tide of Thatcherism is the low ebb of Liverpool. The city has been left to rot by the Tories since the early part of the decade. Mutilation through mass unemployment and rampant poverty. The situation takes a severe toll on my parents’ physical and mental health. I’d left for university and head back home (is it still home?) less and less often. Can’t wait to leave as soon as I arrive, wracked with guilt. 

Distant Voices Still Lives (1988)

A vivid memory from this period is when I take home a VHS of Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). The ever-widening cultural chasm between me and my parents prompts a refusal at first, but I insist we see it together. I watch their responses as much as I watch the film. The film recreates the world they grew up in with painstaking care and beauty – the terraced council houses, the close-knit working-class community, the street life, the pub singalongs, it’s all there. Their silence is eloquent; I can see they’re shaken by it, way more than I’d been. I’m grateful to witness this.

For some reason, I wasn’t so taken with Of Time and the City when it first came out in 2008. Watching it again today is a different experience, overwhelming in parts. My parents are gone, so there’s a personal dimension now. The scene with the girls singing in the playground, it could be my mother. Exactly the right time and place. That aside though, I realise the film is like nothing else I can think of, a complete one-off. It boasts surely one of the great self-dramatising voiceovers: a perfectly executed performance, a beautifully weighted address to the archive. The heightened, almost melodramatic pitch feels just right, almost parodically Liverpudlian. Impassioned but laced with ironic wit. Not averse to dismissals, occasional scorn. Opinionated. Intense. 

Of Time and the City (2008)
© Preserved by the BFI National Archive

“You hate the place you love, and love the place you hate,” says Davies the narrator. The self on display is riven, fractured. We’re privy to an internal drama, lose ourselves in a memory echo-chamber. Follow the dance of pronouns in the film – they seem to be measuring the distance ever so carefully between you, them and I. Between subjective and objective. “I” occasionally shifts to “we”, but more often it’s a conversation between “him” and the elusive phantoms. “Do you remember? Do you?” Enunciated with such compelling force.

But he knows exactly when the voiceover must stop, when the narrator should just listen and watch, become a silent viewer and let the images and music he’s chosen cast their spell. Listen to their voices, in snatches and fragments. Listen to Liverpool emerging from the stain of war, the terror and the bombs. I’m pierced by that Humphrey Jennings-esque passage of ordinary life unfolding on the street scored to Branesti’s Priveghiati si va Rugat; people hanging out, heading to school, cleaning windows. (Look closely at the later images of tower blocks – no pavements. A crucial element of communal life removed at the stroke of some architect’s pen.) The sequence encapsulates all the loss and sadness, the longing for a better future that didn’t quite materialise. The performing “I” has disappeared, merged into a collective experience, a moment of radical empathy and unity. 

Memory deteriorates and the archive becomes a refuge, albeit double-edged. It compels, seduces. It reveals and conceals. It resists and withholds. It taunts. “I’m an alien now,” he says. He left. I left. You can’t go back. But the images, the archive remain. You’ve become a spectator of your own slow undoing. 

This piece first appeared in Terence Davies, a book of writings by directors and critics published by the Viennale. 

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