Distant Voices, Still Lives from 1988 is Terence Davies’ attempt to capture working class Liverpool life of the 1940s and 50s on film. His evocation of pub life is particularly powerful.
Perhaps a fifth or a quarter of the whole film takes place in or outside the pub.
Cosmetically, most of the details are right. We see etched glass bearing the name of Higson’s, bottles of Mackeson Stout, ten-sided pint glasses, and bell pushes on the benches where the ladies sit.
It’s run-down and plain, this pub, but that doesn’t matter because the people bring it to life.
It is where families and friends get together, crowding every space.
In a repeated shot, from the lounge or saloon into the public bar, we see men ordering rounds of drinks:
“Nora! Hey, Nora! Can I have two ‘alves of shandy, a Mackies, a Double Diamond, a pale ale and lime, a black-and-tan, a pint of mix, a rum and pep, a rum and blackcurrant, and a Guinness?”
“Rum and pep” is rum with peppermint cordial; “mix”, also known as half-and-half, is 50/50 mild and bitter.
Another reason this pub feels so vibrant is the constant singing.
Singing is how the women in the film express their feelings, from sadness to joy.
Taking it in turns to perform, or harmonising together, they sway with their glasses:
“When that old gang of mine get together… On the corner of my home town… We were friends in the past… And our friendship will last… ’Til the curtain of dreams comes down!”
Would people put up with it these days? You’d probably end up in a snarky video on social media.
There’s also a strong implication that men who don’t like the pub – who don’t go, or complain about having to go – are the most likely to be unhappy:
“Come on, Les, just one drink.”
“Alright, just one, to wet the baby’s head, but we’re not staying here all fucking night.”
They simply don’t have what it takes to rub along with other people.
There are plenty of pubs on film but this portrayal seems, somehow, more real than most. Perhaps its because it isn’t treated as special – just part of everyday life, like the back yard or the kitchen.
Distant Voices, Still Lives is available via the BFI.