The appearance of a new film by Terence Davies is an event for many for us, though sadly an all too rare event, the British film industry being what it is. The highly anticipated release of The Deep Blue Sea at the end of the month (which you can barely pass a corner of the BFI without seeing a poster for at the moment; one has now appeared in the men’s toilets!) made Davies an especially appropriate choice to deliver this year’s Colin Young Emeritus Lecture at BFI Southbank. Named in honour of the first director of the National Film and Television School, this lecture series was initiated in 2007 and offers an opportunity for the speaker to reflect on film culture and education; previous presenters have included David Puttman and Nick Broomfield. Davies is, moreover, an alumnus of the NFTS where the second part in what would become the Davies Trilogy, Madonna and Child, was completed in 1980 as his graduation film.
As it turned out, though, this year’s lecture was really a lecture in name only. Rather, it was a selection of clips from a few favourite Davies movies - The Pajama Game (1957), Gypsy (1962), Sweet Charity (1968), Oklahoma (1955), and - yup - Carry On Nurse (1959) - briefly introduced by the director and Roger Crittenden, and more in line with the BFI’s Screen Epiphanies strand than anything else. Davies began by talking with characteristic reverence about his formative cinema-going experiences, and the transcendence they offered him: “Even now I remember exactly where I sat, the route I took to the cinema…”
The film sequences shown were then loosely connected under the theme of “lost” performers: actors, dancers and singers who gave one memorable performance and then effectively disappeared. So we were treated to Paul Wallace hoofing it up in front of Natalie Wood in Gypsy and Reta Shaw and Eddie Foy Jr duetting to charming effect on "I'll Never Be Jealous Again" in The Pajama Game. Though this conceit didn’t really hold water for several of the featured performers (Charles Hawtrey? Gene Nelson? Really?), the clips themselves were an enjoyable compensation for the shaky premise, and Davies’s sheer unadulterated glee when introducing them (“This is SUBLIME!”) was infectious. Most enjoyable of all was the glorious “Steam Heat” sequence from The Pajama Game (and let’s get this marvellous Marxist musical back on a London stage soon!) and “You Gotta Get A Gimmick” from Gypsy, which sent Davies into transports of joy. The clips are here and here for your pleasure.
Always idiosyncratic, Davies’s idea of a lecture on film culture and education probably wasn’t what anyone - including, it would appear, Mr. Young himself - was anticipating. And more detailed commentary on the performers whose work he wished to highlight would have enhanced the presentation. Even so, this sharing of enthusiasms by our most ardently movie-loving auteur made for an entertaining evening.