The British director talks The Deep Blue Sea and reflects on what life was like in war-torn Britain.
One of Britain's most cherished filmmaking treasures, Terence Davies' uncompromising, hyper-emotional brand of working-class social cinema has resulted in a sporadic body of work that is nonetheless essential. His latest, The Deep Blue Sea, sees Davies return to his youth by adapting noted playwright Terence Rattigan. LWLies met with Davies recently to find out how the project came about and reflect on days gone by.
LWLies: When did you first come across the Terence Rattigan play?
Davies: Well, I've never seen it staged; I've never seen any Rattigan staged. I only knew him by the film I'd seen in 1952, and I only saw that on television because I was seven when it was made. That was 'The Browning Version', and in the late '50s Burt Lancaster did a version of Separate Tables, which is very good. So those were the only ones I knew. I was taken by my mother to see The Deep Blue Sea by my mother when I was 10, and I only remember one shot from it, which was this shot coming down some stairs. So when I was asked to do a play I said that I couldn't do the two that I've just mentioned because the film versions are just so much better and I couldn't do as well. But I said I thought I might be able to do something on The Deep Blue Sea. So that's how it came about.
What are your thoughts on the various adaptations of The Deep Blue Sea that have been made down the years?
Well it was sort of adapted by Rattigan but the film, which was directed by Anatole Litvak, is a film filming the play. We saw some extracts on it on YouTube and it was unwatchable, I mean it so theatrical and her performance is so dreadful; I couldn't believe how bad it was. I'm glad I saw it after we'd made it because it was truly awful. I mean, it's supposed to be in a bedsit in Ladbroke Grove and they're in this enormous, enormous house and this huge staircase and she's dressed in this couture... you think, 'this isn't Ladbroke Grove.' Britain wasn't like that after the war, it wasn't; it was desolate and bleak and it was bankrupt.
In your adaptation you make use of only a handful of interior locations, you pay particular attention to the bedsit, which is almost like the third arm of the relationship between ....
It's an implied impression, if you see what I mean... Obviously that flat where they live is important because in those days, when my sisters started to get married, you couldn't find a place to live. Either you lived at home or, and they were bleak beyond belief, you took a house that had one room, one lavatory for three flats and an open gas ring on a landing. I mean you wouldn't get away with it now, you just wouldn't. And so I remember those bleak rooms very well. My sister moved into one and god I hated it, it was that dark '20s furniture and that cheap grey marble. I can just see that room. So it had to have that feeling of shabbiness, but also it was their only place to live so they were going to make the most of it. Actually in the play and in my film they live in two rooms, but in reality it would have probably been one room. And there's a moment when the landlady lets Hester off not paying rent on time and I can tell you that wouldn't have happened. You missed your rent once you were out. No ifs, buts or maybes, you were out on the street. No tenants rights, nothing.
But that flat is terribly important because it's where that breakdown of that relationship takes place. And also it's important because I grew up in the '50s as the youngest of 10 and I'd very often be left alone in the house and would look at the rooms. Making this brought it all flooding back, so it had to be right. It's got to show what she left, which is comparative luxury. I know what those interiors are like so it was really important to get it right and make that house a character. You've got to be able to feel that in this little house of maybe six or seven flats, each door has a story behind it. We're just seeing one of them, of course, but you have to be able to believe in all of them.
How much did you change or tweak from the play?
Mr Elton isn't in the play, and there's a reason I put him in. I remember from when I was about 10 we lived in a confluence of three streets nad we always had bonfire night in this little crossroads. And there was a little local shop run by a chap called Mr Bunel, and the shop had closed by this time. For some reason I had to go into the back of the shop, I can't even remember the reason now, and Mr Bunel had died sometime before, and Mrs Bunel was there on one of those chez lounge just lying there and I thought she was an invalid because I asked her if there was anything I could do for her and her response was, 'no no, I'm fine.' It's something you might forget normally but for some reason I never have forgotten that. I remember just lying on this daybed and thinking how awful it was that this woman was in there all on her own. It made me think that it would be nice if Hester goes and sees Mr Elton to help him and, just out of curiosity, and gets told a home truth. And in that moment she knows what real love is all about. So that's where that came from. I was only a child and I didn't know why those memories were touching, but I recall the texture of what it was like, to sense someone's pain like that.
And there's a lot of dialogue that's been trimmed or that's mine. Like the banter between Jackie and Freddie, it's really dull and they say 'old boy' all the time. It's really irritating, you just want to strangle them. So I wanted to make them more alive than that. I just couldn't use the original because it's just too stiff.
It belongs to the period too much?
Well yes, but mostly it's because it's just too stiff, too lifeless. Banter in those days was fun and harmless and innocent, I wanted to make it fun.
The idea that a woman would leave her husband is nothing extraordinary to my generation, but it was a big deal back then. What was your sense of that growing up?
You didn't do it. If you had a bad marriage so what? You stuck with it, that was the done thing. And if you lived in a working class environment you just became pregnant every year for 10 years like my mother did. But middle class women definitely didn't leave their husbands. It just wasn't done. I remember one girl who got pregnant from two streets away and decided she wasn't going to be forced into marriage. Everyone knew the story and people made her life hell, especially the women. I remember all that. What's interesting, and I do find this fascinating, is that someone who's extremely conventional, which Hester is, does something that's really unconventional.
And the suicidal element, another big taboo of the time...
Yes, and a criminal offense. I mean it was actually against the law to attempt to commit suicide. There was a man in our street called Mr Sleeman, who had a butcher's shop on the main road, and he died at home. People said he'd put his head in the gas oven and killed himself, and that was very shocking because people just didn't do that. And many, many, many years later I bumped into someone who knew that family, and I found out that he hadn't killed himself at all; he'd opened the gas oven to light it and he had a duodenal ulcer which burst and he collapsed. He died because of the ulcer, not the gas. He was a very nice man, but because everyone thought he'd killed himself his image was destroyed. He had a daughter and she moved away because of it. It was just something that you didn't do, so it's a brave thing to write about then.
What do you love about movies?
I love their magic. In a crowded room, in the dark, you watch something collectively but you think the secrets are being told only to you. That's magic.