Caught by the River

(The Sound) Of Time and the City

21st November 2008

words by Roy Boulter photos by Bernard Fallon

One of the joys of producing the much-praised Terence Davies feature film ‘Of Time And The City’ was the Director’s inspired choice of music for the film. I’d like to be able to claim an extensive knowledge of classical music, but the reality is I occasionally listen to Radio Three or Classic FM in the car when the whoppers on Radio One prove too much to bear.

Classical music did influence my previous career – drummer in 90’s indie-dance rogues, The Farm. Our biggest hit, ‘Altogether Now’, was based on‘Pachabel’s Cannon in D major’ – and other tracks were inspired by the work of composers like Faure, the experimental Luciano Berio and the mezzo-soprano Cathy Beberian.

After The Farm, I moved into scriptwriting; working on Brookside, The Bill and Jimmy McGovern’s The Street, among others, before setting up a production company – Hurricane Films, with long-time friend Sol Papadopoulos (photographer of the iconic sheep-in-flares image on the cover of The Farm’s single ‘Stepping Stone’). Last year we approached the legendary Director Terence Davies, to ask if he’d return to Liverpool to make a film, sixteen years after he’d last worked in the city and eight years since his a last film (to the shame of the British film industry). After a degree of deliberation, Terence agreed to make a personal ‘documentary’ on Liverpool, using Humphrey Jennings wartime classic ‘Listen To Britain’ as the template – but it was Peggy Lee’s ‘The Folks Who Live On The Hill’ that was the real starting point. Unsure of how the documentary would evolve, it was the director’s visualization of neighbourhoods being demolished only to be replaced with the ‘new Jerusalem’ of modern estates – all set to the classic 50s track – that really fired his imagination.

With a point of reference, the process began in earnest. The film – which the Director also narrates using prose, poetry and his acidic wit – started to come together. We gathered hours of archive footage for him to sift through, and he started to select the music that would give the images a new life. Sometimes a sequence would be built around a specific piece of music, in other instances, he would select a piece to accompany a specifically theme. His impeccable taste and expert knowledge of classical music meant it was an education working with him, and we were soon compiling an interesting and eclectic soundtrack. We managed to clear everything – despite the budget restrictions – thanks to expert music supervisor Ian Neil (also responsible for Joy Division biopic ‘Control’ and Joe Strummer doc – ‘The Future is Unwritten’).

The film opens with a specially commissioned performance of Liszt’s ‘Consolation No.3 In D Flat Major’ by concert pianist, Helen Krizos – a haunting piece which sets the tone perfectly for all that follows. Next, stunning shots of the interior and exterior of Liverpool’s neo-classical masterpiece, St. Georges Hall are heralded by Frideric Handel’s magisterial ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’. John Tavener’s haunting ‘The Protecting Veil’ plays over remarkable black and white archive footage of ordinary people at work and play on the River Mersey, the piece – inspired by a 10th century apparition – is heart-breakingly beautiful and a perfect example of the Director’s expert juxtaposition of music and images.

The next piece to be featured is ‘Beata Viscera’ written by thirteenth-century trailblazer, Perotin – the ‘Elvis’ of Gregorian chanting. Terence loves Perotin as much as he dislikes Presley (and pop music in general). His devotion to classical music is matched only by his love of cinema – particularly films from the Forties and Fifties, exemplified by his selection of ‘Hooray For Hollywood’ which plays joyously as tinsel town glamour brightens up the dull post-war North West in footage of a provisional film premiere. Gregory Peck in Birkenhead – surreal.

The second of the film’s five non-classical pieces is The Spinners version of Ewan McColl’s tribute to Salford, ‘Dirty old Town’ which provides a poignant backdrop to a grim but proud, monochrome Merseyside. Later on in the film, The Swinging Blue Jeans’ ‘Hippy Hippy Shake’ provides a more upbeat accompaniment to the rise of Merseybeat. While the whole world was going mop-top mad, Terence tells us that he was too busy discovering Bruckner and Sibelius – but instead of a piece by either composer, we hear Ronald Binge’s painfully polite ‘Elizabethan Serenade’ skipping along, primly – as far removed from Sibelious as Bruckner is from the Beatles.

For me, the most moving section of the film (after countless viewings my eyes still ‘water’), is the combination of uplifting footage of working-class kids playing in the streets and school yards of fifties Liverpool, and soprano Angela Gheorghiu’s peerless performance of ‘Watch and Pray’. If, after reading this article (or watching the film), you seek out just one of piece of music, make it the one by the Romanian nark – I mean ‘difficult’ diva. It is truly beautiful.

The award for the most unexpected track to feature in the film, goes to The Hollies version of ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’. Possibly the only pop song to feature the word ‘encumber’ – it works beautifully against images of the Korean War – casualties returning home, soldiers on the front line, and fresh-faced young men being paraded and waved off at the Pier Head on their way to be encumbered by god knows what.

As the film reaches it’s final third – now in colour but portraying the drab concrete hell, which many were forced, to live in – the sense of desolation is encapsulated perfectly by ‘The Concertino for Guitar and Orchestra in A Minor Opus 72’ by Bacarisse, which only heightens the understated despair. A young girl dutifully pulls socks (makeshift gloves) onto the hands of her little brother as they play in the snow – hands warm, dignity in tact.

Mahler’s ‘Symphony No.2 in C minor – The Resurrection’ heralds the build towards the film’s climax, as we see the city at its bleakest – Mahler’s distant brass lines hint at the revival to come. A sense of the dormant Liverpool, on the verge of rebirth is captured perfectly by another specially commissioned performance, this time of Brahms’ ‘Lullaby’, which Terence instructed singer Jennifer John to simply hum – with moving effect (tears all round in the recording studio). A founding member of Liverpool-based choir, Sense of Sound, Jennifer was asked by Damon Albarn (now the choir’s patron) to perform in ‘Monkey – Journey To The West’, which I was lucky enough to experience in Manchester, last year (and highly recommend).

In the film’s penultimate sequence – and it’s most life-affirming – young children and pensioners go about their daily business in one of Liverpool’s busiest thoroughfares, Williamson Square (featured, ever-changing, throughout the film). The sense of warmth and safety is enhanced by the use of ‘The Dolly Suite’ from Faure’s ‘Berceuse’ – theme tune of ‘Listen with Mother’- comforting nostalgia for the post-war radio generation.

The finale of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ brings the film to it’s climax – modern Liverpool basking under celebratory fireworks, before the credits play out to a reprise of Liszt’s Consolation – the perfect piece to contemplate all that you’ve just experienced. For a predominantly archive-based film, you would expect the choice of footage to be the most important factor in it’s conception, but I believe that Terence Davies’ selection of music is just as crucial – though I might just be biased due to my newfound classical music expertise.

(JB adds; I would have liked to have added some music to Roy’s piece but as yet I don’t think that the soundtrack is available outside of the cinema. I watched the film last week and was unfamiliar with pretty much everything but the ‘pop’ stuff. I agree with Roy when he says that the most moving scene is the one played out to ‘Watch & Pray’ by Angela Gheorghiu, it’s incredibly powerful. I found a recording of it on you tube but the pictures with it aren’t appropriate here, so rather than post it I’ll just give you the link.)