Gilbey on Film: Prophet without honour

Paul Kelly has made a wonderful film about Lawrence's tortured genius.

If pop music appreciation is a solitary business, so is making the stuff, at least for Lawrence, late of the ethereal 1980s band Felt and the 1990s glam rock outfit Denim. Although I have only a cursory knowledge of Felt, and Lawrence's latest endeavour Go-Kart Mozart ("It's the first B-sides band in the world"), Denim means the world to me. The band's two albums, Back in Denim and Denim on Ice (there was also a bits-and-pieces compilation, Novelty Rock) are painstakingly crafted artefacts that function simultaneously as mighty pop music and a commentary on the nature and history of pop. The most obvious cinematic equivalents would be Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven or François Ozon's Angel, movies which draw upon, revive and celebrate aesthetic conventions which are now largely defunct.

In Paul Kelly's poignant documentary Lawrence of Belgravia, we see what life is like now for one of British pop's enduring eccentrics: preparing to be evicted by the council from his London flat for rent arrears, and fearing every footfall in the hallways; refusing to reform Felt or play old songs on tour; reflecting on a world of supposed technological advance in which the new Go-Kart Mozart album won't be released on his beloved vinyl and people don't get paid for writing online ("I knew the internet was rubbish!"). His face sunken and pasty from years of drug abuse, his circumstances depleted as he reflects from his tower-block balcony on dreams of marrying a supermodel, Lawrence is nevertheless an inspiring, if unlikely, symbol of artistic purity. Explaining his resilience, he says: "No one else has got this far, and failed"

In the same week as seeing Lawrence of Belgravia, I also watched Julien Temple's fine documentary Imaginary Man (made for the BBC's Imagine strand) about Ray Davies. At times, it seems only success separates Davies from Lawrence; certainly the scenes in which the former Kink is wandering through the park ("I wonder what that duck's thinking") or reflecting on his schooling ("I was sent to a special school to find out what my problems were. I think my problem was that I knew what was coming") mark them out as kindred spirits. A double-bill of the two films would be ideal.

At the London Film Festival this week, I spoke to the director, Paul Kelly, about the eight years it took to make Lawrence of Belgravia.

What made you go from liking or admiring Lawrence to thinking he could be the subject of an entire film?
Lawrence is such an eccentric character with such a bizarre worldview, and such incredible optimism, and I wanted to share that with people. I'd known him since the mid 1980s; I thought he was so interesting that he deserved to have a film made about him. The premise of the film was that I wanted to make a documentary that didn't use interviews with celebrity fans or any band members, no talking heads at all; it's just Lawrence's worldview, expressed partly through the interviews you see him conducting with journalists, and his circumstances over the past eight years. He was making this album in 2003, so I thought I'd follow him as he made it, you know, that classic documentary thing. But that took eight years; it wasn't purely that the album took eight years, of course. There were other factors.

You do refer in a montage to Lawrence's drug problem, but I wondered why you didn't go into it more.
I show that little montage referring to the drugs, the mental health issues and money problems, but it's such a complex subject that if you dwell too much on it, you find it can eclipse everything else in the film. Then you'd lose the most important thing, the focus on Lawrence. You can clearly see the result of getting into heroin. Just because he's not lying around shooting up, doesn't mean the subject is hidden. Also, I never wanted to do the Lawrence story, or the Felt story or whatever. It was always about trying to get the essence of him on screen because he's fascinating.

How would you define his relationship to the past?
He only looks back to work out where he is and where he's heading. He has no desire to actually revisit that, which is why he's so stubborn about not reforming Felt, and not playing any Denim songs. He was on the phone to me last night until 3am talking about this Stone Roses reunion tour. Lawrence was saying, "I can't believe they're doing that. I thought they were gonna stick it out like me."

He says in the film that he craves fame and celebrity, but isn't there a part of him that is deliberately thwarting any chance of that happening?
I think he subconsciously messes things up for himself, I don't know if that's a fear of achieving the success he craves. Part of it is being uncompromising. There's a point in the film when he mentions Lou Reed, his hero, reforming the Velvet Underground, and he says: "I'm stronger than that." Which is funny -- Lawrence being stronger than Lou Reed! But he is, in a sense. Some blogger doubted the claim in the film that Lawrence has had offers to work with other people. Well, I can tell you he's been asked many times. I've seen him turn down things that are guaranteed money-makers. I won't say who it was, but he's had big offers to write for other people, and I've sat there with him and said, "Lawrence, you will get a shitload of money for doing this." But he just turns it down.

How did that attitude affect the filming?
He'd deny this, I'm sure, but I think he's got an inbuilt mechanism that will always make sure things don't happen. I thought the film wasn't going to happen. I got the feeling he didn't want it to end, and he didn't want the album to be finished, so he somehow found ways of stretching things out. As long as he's busy and has a target he's okay. I know he'd like money, to have nice clothes and live in a nice flat but he doesn't crave, you know, getting a helicopter and flying somewhere 'cos he's got nowhere to go and he doesn't like socialising.

He's very eloquent and funny when he's talking to journalists in the film. Is he like that all the time, or is that him being "on"?
He definitely performs for journalists, he's very good at that; he'll spend all day thinking about interviews, and he's got such a unique, bizarre worldview. That's rare. I heard Will Young on Woman's Hour today and I thought, "Christ, why does this guy get airtime?" I've got nothing against the guy but he hasn't got anything to say. Then you get someone like Lawrence who just can't get his voice heard.

Does he know his own worth? Does he know how passionate people are about his work?
I think so. I think he's very aware of that and very protective of that. He wants everything to be so perfect, but he's so protective of what he does that he kind of smothers it a bit, doesn't let it go out there and breathe. He writes great pop songs, and they deserve to be heard. Someone at the Q&A after the LFF screening asked him what his favourite Denim album was, and he said: "Back in Denim. Denim on Ice. Novelty Rock." He counted them out on his fingers. He basically listed all three albums! Someone else asked if he ever thought about the legacy he was going to leave behind, and he said: "What do you think I've been doing for the past 30 years? Of course I bloody think about it!"

How do you feel now looking back over the last eight years?
Well, it wasn't the only thing I did in that time! But, you know, Lawrence has a lot of issues, he can't function in a regular way. He is clinically ill, I guess. He can't for various reasons make an album in a regular way, just a day here and a day there. He disappears for months on end. I knew it would be protracted. I thought it might take a year. I never dreamed it would take eight.

What's the future for the film?
I've had a lot of interest from distributors. I don't know if it'll be seen as commercial. It felt to me that if Dig! or The Devil and Daniel Johnston could do well, there must be an appetite for the kind of music documentary about these strong characters. I made it very much as a cinema film so I'm hoping it'll have a theatrical life.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit