Terence Davies on Distant Voices Still Lives, 30 years later

With a restored version of his debut feature back in cinemas, the great British director Terence Davies talks nostalgia, Brexit and things that make his heart sink.

3 September 2018

By Sam Wigley

Distant Voices Still Lives (1988)

Terence Davies is the first to admit he’s got a reputation for misery, but today he’s positively beaming about the new digital restoration of his 30-year-old debut feature Distant Voices Still Lives. “It does look gorgeous, I must say. That anybody should want to revive it after 30 years – I can’t believe it.”

Following his early trilogy of autobiographical shorts, Distant Voices Still Lives began life simply as Distant Voices – a film of 40 minutes or thereabouts set in postwar Liverpool that reached further back into his family life to chart the horrifying abuse meted out by his father (played by Pete Postlethwaite). Realising the story wasn’t over, Davies returned to the project two years later, with the Still Lives section depicting a happier time as family life goes on after the father’s death.

Released in 1988, the resulting diptych got Davies international recognition, with American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum predicting – bang on the money, as it turns out – that this uniquely personal and boldly constructed masterpiece “will be remembered and treasured as one of the greatest of all English films”.

Yet, Davies’ subsequent career has been anything but a walk in the park. There was a long hiatus in the 2000s when the tide seemed to have turned against his style of filmmaking. No one would fund him, and nothing got made.

Happily, the last decade has changed all that, and The Deep Blue Sea (2011), Sunset Song (2015) and A Quiet Passion (2016) have brought the Davies tally up to eight features – a quantity that once looked desperately out of reach.

He’s in mischievous, ebullient spirits as we talk about the film that started it all. 

Distant Voices was last re-released in 2007, and in your interviews at that time you didn’t hide your frustration at how your career had stalled; you were struggling to get work funded. But in the last 10 years, beginning with Of Time and the City in 2008, you’ve seen an extraordinary renaissance. What’s that been like?

I really did think after The House of Mirth (2000) that that was it. I mean, I didn’t work for eight years. No one was interested. And I thought, well, if the career’s over, then it’s not a bad note to end it on.

And, out of the blue, [producer] Sol Papadopoulos rang me and said, “Do you remember me?” He was initially a photographer and he took some wonderful photographs of my mother, which I’ve still got. He said, “Well, I’m a producer now and we’re wondering whether you’d like to do a film about Liverpool.” I replied, “No. I’ve done all that.” But he rang me back and I said, “Well, I don’t want to make a drama. What do you think of the idea of a documentary?”

It’s extraordinary the way things happen. Sol Papadopoulos could have rung anybody and he rang me. There’s a line in A Star Is Born (1954) when James Mason says to Judy Garland, “If there’s a number you’ve got to take it.” And he’s right. He’s absolutely right.

But whatever’s up there – the gods, the fates, Lady Luck – I’m so lucky that I had a second chance because some people don’t get a first chance. I’ve been very blessed.

Distant Voices Still Lives (1988)

Do you remember how you felt about British cinema in the 80s when you were trying to break through? Did you feel as if there was a place for you in that industry?

I never felt part of a British school. I knew Derek Jarman and Bill Douglas slightly. But I’ve never been part of the cinema crowd. I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t like big parties. You stand around with a rictus grin and you don’t know anybody. I can’t do that anymore. If there’s such a thing as British cinema, I certainly don’t feel part of it. I never have.

As backers, did the BFI or Channel 4 have any kind of shaping influence on Distant Voices? Or did they leave you to it?

They left me to it. They were fantastic. And when we finished Distant Voices, they wanted to release it, and I said, “No, there is another piece. Will you let me write a companion piece to it?” And they said, “Yes.” Then they waited two years. You couldn’t do that now. They were very patient because they knew it wasn’t finished and they were good enough to back me up.

So did you always intend to make the second half, Still Lives?

I don’t know. I was still very inexperienced. I didn’t know why but I knew there was something extra. Luckily I was allowed to do that extra one. I just wanted to round it off.

When my father died, we did begin to live, we had a proper life. Our house was like a magnet, especially for my sisters and their friends on a Friday night. What bliss Friday nights were – I can still smell them. So I just wanted to indicate how although this man damaged my entire family, there can be and there must be hope. I know I’m very good at misery and death, but I did want to imply hope: now he’s gone, we were able to live.

I was seven and still at primary school when he died, and I left primary school at 11. So for about four years, I lived in utter bliss. I was happy all the time. Then I had to go up to secondary school, which was an all-boys school, and I was bullied for four years and my little paradise ended like that.

Distant Voices Still Lives (1988)

The film is so intricately constructed in terms of the sound design and shot construction – and in the way it weaves together different time periods in a non-linear fashion. Was all that mapped out in the script from the beginning, or did you find a lot of the shape in the editing room?

That’s where you find a proper structure. But it was also in the script. Memory doesn’t work in a linear way. It’s cyclical, and each memory triggers something else. And there were certain things which I just instinctively responded to, which may not, at the time, have had that kind of resonance for anybody else.

On the radio [when I was young], it was only the Home, the Light and the Third. And the Home service was the one that started broadcasting first. And it always started with the shipping forecast. I had no idea what it meant, but it was like some sort of wonderful melody, and I thought that’s how the film’s got to start. As soon as you hear the delivery of announcers at the BBC in the 50s, you’re put back to the 50s. It’s like smell.

I felt driven by the narrative and I listened to the narrative because real truth isn’t the same as cinema truth. How do you orchestrate those memories? I hadn’t actually written what my father behaved like. Nobody would have believed me. They would have said no one could have behaved like this and got away with it. But in those days, they did.

Before I was born, one of my brothers, Kevin, was a babe in arms and they were living in an upstairs apartment. My father would go to his black rages and my mother said, “Well, I just couldn’t take another beating.” So she picked up the baby, opened the window and jumped out of the window. And a soldier walking by caught them. You can’t put that in film. It’s either completely unbelievable or it’s comic.

You’ve spoken before about Distant Voices being painful for you to watch, because of what it depicts. It must also have difficult to cast the role of your father. What was it you saw in Pete Postlethwaite? It became the breakout role for him.

I had started casting just after A Private Function (1984) came out and he was in it. It was just by sheer coincidence that he actually looked like my father. But he came in for the audition and he took one look at me and you could tell he didn’t like me. He looked me up and down and I could see what he was thinking: he’s a bit light on his feet. I said to my producer: “He obviously just does not like me.” And do I really want to work with someone who doesn’t like me and who doesn’t hide it? So she said, “I’m going to show him the trilogy.” She showed him the trilogy and he said yes.

Your tastes have been so shaped by Hollywood musicals and British classics of the 40s and 50s, yet your fragmented treatment of memory and the idea of multiple time periods being bound together within one tracking shot is much closer to European arthouse cinema – directors like Alain Resnais and Theo Angelopoulos. Had you been watching those kinds of films too?

Well, in Liverpool you couldn’t get that. I mean, no one showed films like that in Liverpool. They just didn’t. If I did see them, I saw them on television. But when I see those sorts of films – [Victor] Erice is another – I always feel that my films are much weaker than they are.

I’ve always loved the shot – or rather several shots invisibly stitched together – set to ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ that tracks past Christmas scenes at different times in your family’s life. What do you remember about doing that? I’m curious if Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) was any kind of inspiration, with its idea of stitching together separate moving shots by cutting invisibly when the screen is black.

I got an inspiration from the carol itself. Christina Rossetti wrote the poem. And a friend of mine used to sing it in choirs. One year she said, “Would you come for Christmas service?” I said, “Yes, I’d love it.” And they sang ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and I just couldn’t stop crying. I’d never heard it before and I thought I’m gonna use that. I don’t know where but I’m gonna use it. As soon as I was writing [that sequence] I thought that’s where it goes. It ends with them wrecking the Christmas table, which [my father] did every year. But thank God she asked me to go that Christmas Eve, and thank God they were singing ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’.

Distant Voices Still Lives (1988)

But the idea for the shots themselves, and the merging of different eras together in one fluid motion…

That’s what’s wonderful about dissolves. Nobody’s told the audience this but when you see it dissolve, you automatically know time has passed. I don’t know how we know but we do. And if you track right-to-left, the implication is you’re going back in time. If you track left-to-right, you’re going forward. It’s just that underlying indication. But it’s the carol that binds it together because you’re listening to something and you’re not actually seeing what you’re listening to. When there’s that friction between what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing, that’s when cinema is at its most powerful.

I’m sure I was unconsciously influenced by that wonderful sequence on the river in Night of the Hunter (1955), one of the great sequences. What a masterpiece it is. So these things linger in your mind but you forget them.

And influence should always be like this: you should like something, you should then forget it, and then it comes out of you unconsciously and then it becomes changed. If you just repeat something, it’s a poor imitation. It has to go through some sort of gestation that you’re not aware of – that’s when it’s visceral. That’s when you’ve got to listen to your inner ear and watch with your inner eye. I can’t think of any other way to do it.

Another fascinating, small stylistic element is the fact that you don’t see any sky in the film, or when you do it’s abstracted and white. The most you see is in the short beach scene, otherwise, if you see the sky, it’s like a glowing white patch – it’s certainly not a blue sky or even a grey sky.

I cannot tell you where that came from. I have absolutely no idea. I’ve got no idea what it’s supposed to mean. I just thought it’s got to go to white. I don’t know what I was taking at the time.

I take it to suggest the mistiness of memory, but it also gives a sense of confinement.

In a way, without realising it at the time, it was confined. I mean, my life was bounded by the street on which we lived, the church we went to on Sunday, and school. And the movies. That was it.

But it didn’t feel in the least bit constrained. I just loved my street. Every single cinema you had to go a different way to get to it, and they were all different. It was such a joy. Such a joy seeing CinemaScope for the first time in The Robe (1953) – the curtains going back and the audience gasped. I can hear it. No one had ever seen a screen that wide.

Distant Voices Still Lives (1988)

It’s obvious that you loved those American cultural imports of your childhood, but since then you’ve spoken about British film as being sub-American, enthralled to American culture. Can you pinpoint the time when you think that that American influence on this country became too dominant?

It’s an agglomeration because in the 50s, if you wanted to go and see a musical, you didn’t go to British musicals because they were lousy, quite frankly. And when they tried to make films, like It’s a Wonderful World (1956), with Terence Morgan as a songwriter, your heart sinks. These utterly forgettable songs. We just couldn’t do it. And I still don’t think we can.

I was in at the end of the American songbook. So people had Cole Porter, who was still writing in 1956. And the American songbook is poetry for the ordinary people. It’s poetry. It’s one of the great gifts to the world. When Stephen Sondheim dies, that will close, because there’s no one to equal him. It will close like, when Ken Dodd died, the door slammed shut on variety. That’s all gone.

But now what influences is all this sub-American language. If I ask someone how they are, I don’t want him to turn around and say, “I’m good.” What does that mean? And also this awful computer speak – everybody seems to do it. I can’t do it and I don’t like it. What’s awful about it is that we try to imitate it. We’ve always done this. We try to imitate the American sound. We always do it badly.

So the fallback position [for British film] seems to be constant period films where they’re just pretty pictures and everyone looks as though they’ve just come from wardrobe, makeup and hair. And they’re speaking in modern idiom. Well, I’m sorry, if it’s set in 1815, they didn’t speak like that in 1815.

As soon as you hear of another Jane Austen adaptation your heart just sinks. You think, what is this doing for British film? Why can’t we have someone who’s actually looking at the modern world and reinterpreting it in a British way, not a sub-American way. I can’t do it. I’m too old and I don’t understand the modern world. But why aren’t we doing it? It’s as though we get our validation from America.

If this goes on and this dominance continues, in 25 years’ time, we’ll have no culture of our own. We’ll be like Hawaii but with lousy wifi. That’s what’s going to happen.

Terence Davies directing Distant Voices Still Lives (1988)

But do you watch enough modern British films to know that new directors aren’t engaging with the modern world?

No. I can’t suspend my disbelief anymore. That’s my age and my background. I hope with all my heart that there are new people coming up who are interpreting British stories. Not in an American way, but British stories. I don’t know who they are and probably if I were to see them, I wouldn’t like them, but that’s not the point. The younger generation have got to make films that are about this country. In our way. If we don’t do that, we’re all lost.

I don’t think it’s just cinema. I think it’s in every aspect. Look at politics. Why do we always look to America as a template? Why can’t we look, for instance in prison reform, to Scandinavia? Because they are actually civilised. Why are we looking to one of the most compassionless and worthless societies in the world, where everything is measured by success and money and how many facelifts you’ve had? I mean, Jesus Christ. What kind of future is that?

And don’t watch television. You can’t watch television. I can’t. Endless bloody series and it’s always about murder or a series about being in the mind of a serial killer. I don’t want to be in the mind of a serial killer. Eastbourne’s bad enough.

Is that where you live?

No, I steer clear of Eastbourne. No, I live on the coast. There’s a saying up there: Harwich for the continent, Frinton for the incontinent.

I was going to ask, since you mention TV, and you have done period dramas, albeit not quite in the mould that we’ve been talking about – have TV people ever tried to woo you?

No. Never. I can’t do all that quick cutting. Believe me, a lot of people detest what I do. The men [at the TV companies] clearly hate my guts. Very often I’ve said to my manager I wish I could have been a jobbing director, but I can’t make films any other way. I can’t write and direct what I don’t believe in. I see it in a specific way and I’m glad to say that people like it. Others hate it. One woman at a Q&A jumped up and said, “Why are your films so bloody slow and depressing?” I said, “It’s a gift.” She was really cross about that.

You’re very frank about your nostalgia for that particular period in the Britain of your childhood, at a time when that type of idea of old England has become very politicised as part of the Brexit debate. Do you have any sympathies with that notion of being able to get back to how things were?

You can’t. Once it’s changed and gone, it’s gone. I voted to stay in, and I think we’ve signed our own death warrant. I think [staying in the EU] would have saved this country, not only politically but culturally as well. Once it’s gone, you can’t get it back.

You’ve been travelling to lots of film festivals with the success of your recent run of films. How do you cope with chatting to other filmmakers if you don’t keep up with contemporary work?

I just can’t. If I go with my manager, that does help a lot. But I’ve got nothing to say. That love and that magic for cinema is gone. I can’t suspend my disbelief anymore. Except occasionally. I saw a film from Philippe Claudel [Before the Winter Chill, 2013]. It’s Daniel Auteuil and Kristin Scott Thomas. He plays a doc. It’s really wonderful.

Much of the time, after the first two minutes you just think, “Oh, God. I’ve got another 88 minutes.” And I can’t do it anymore. What I miss is the joie de vivre.

There was talk some years back of you doing a romantic comedy called Mad about the Boy…

No one would give me the money.

Not even now?

Well, you get too demoralised. And I think I don’t have the emotional energy to try and get it off the ground. It was probably never meant to get made. Perhaps it’s a dreadful script. I don’t know. But no one would give me money. No one.

When was that set?

That was set in the present day at a fashion magazine. Perhaps the fates are telling me something: don’t do anything modern.

Distant Voices Still Lives (1988)

Do you have a sense of whether a project like Distant Voices Still Lives would get made today in the UK?

I think it’d be incredibly hard. And no one would let you wait two years [in between the two parts]. That would be out of the question. Now there’s always this pressure: get the names. I’ve never understood it, because it doesn’t guarantee anything. But it’s still held to, like some kind of grail that if you’ve got a big name, then people will go. It’s nonsense. It’s just nonsense.

But the people with the money, they’ve got that part because it’s their money and they can give to anyone and they can say, “No, you will do this.” But again, I’ve been very lucky. We didn’t have enough money to shoot Sunset Song. And do you know who really backed it up? The insurance people – they said: “No, you’ve got to make it.” That’s extraordinary. And I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I thought they could have just said stop it now. And they didn’t.

I’m blessed with things like that. Yes, part of me wishes that I could fill out a huge cinema and all that. I haven’t won any of the major prizes. It would be nice. But my films don’t win prizes.

Distant Voices was up for eight, I think, in the European Film Awards. Didn’t get anything. And the ceremony was in German. For some reason, I wasn’t given a translator. So it was four hours of German. I love the language but I can’t speak it. And I thought, oh God. I knew as soon as it started that it was going to be downhill all the way because there was an opening cabaret and guess who the main cabaret was? Julio Double Glaze-ias. It was agony. Mind you, it could have been worse. It could have been one of those British boybands like Fetch That or Frankie Goes to Cricklewood.

Distant Voices Still Lives (1988)

Which of the awards would mean most to you?

To be honest with you, I don’t know. I’d love to win a major prize. I’m as vain as anybody else. But I’m also equally terrified of the pride. I can’t bear people who are arrogant and think they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’d sooner be dead than end up like that. That’s the Catholic in me because it’s one of the deadly sins. Even though I don’t believe at all, I’ve got lots of Catholicism still in me because once a Catholic, always a Catholic, unfortunately.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I listen to a lot of music. I write poetry. I read poetry a lot. And, again, I’m very blessed because I live in a little village where my neighbours are not only my neighbours, but they’re my friends as well. And sometimes it’s nice to do nothing. You have to have a lot of thinking time because very often something will come to you out of the blue. But I don’t do many cultural things any more.

Do you still listen to the shipping forecast?

No, because they don’t say it in the same way. I can say it better.

Behind the scenes on Distant Voices Still Lives

Distant Voices Still Lives (1988) production shot
Distant Voices Still Lives (1988) production shot
Distant Voices Still Lives (1988) production shot
Distant Voices Still Lives (1988) production shot
Distant Voices Still Lives (1988) production shot
Distant Voices Still Lives (1988) production shot
Distant Voices Still Lives (1988) production shot
Distant Voices Still Lives (1988) production shot
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