I once met Ray Davies in a bar. I literally bumped into the great man just as I was exiting the toilet. Which isn’t the most auspicious place to meet a pop legend - between cubicle and urinal - or to announce an undying love for the man’s god-like talent. But ‘carpe diem’ and all that, so I did, and also said how brilliant I thought his film Return to Waterloo. Considering the amount of daft punters, myself included, he no doubt has to deal with on a daily basis, The Kinks’ genius was exceedingly gracious and kind.
I guess it was because I was rather middle-aged in my teens that unlike my contemporaries, who were out drinking, taking drugs and enjoying the folly of youth, I was at home the Friday night Return to Waterloo aired on telly. I’m glad I was, for Davies film was an incredible piece of TV, and unlike anything I’d seen before.
Looking back, it was a daring commission by the broadcasters, Channel 4, for here was a first time director’s film with no real plot, no dialog, just a series of vignettes tied together by a cycle of songs, about the day in the life of a Traveler (played by the superb Kenneth Colley) - his hopes, his fears, his desires, his failings, his loss. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? But believe me, it was.
The film erupts out of a dark railway tunnel into a summer’s day. The Traveler wanders a railway station, through its crowds, then follows a girl with blonde hair, a newspaper headline with identi-kit picture - a rapist / murderer is on the loose. The Traveler follows the blonde (a memory of his missing daughter? a possible victim?) down into the underground, he passes a Busker (Davies, himself), and follows the girl along the platform. An underground train approaches. The Traveler’ nears the platform’s edge, its lights bleach out his face, and suddenly, as the day’s events rattle by, we return to the beginning.
It’s an opening that makes you sit up and take notice, as we are presented with several possible scenarios. Are we watching a murder mystery? A thriller about a missing daughter? A tale of sex/adultery/incest? It soon becomes clear these story-lines are unimportant, as what Davies is doing is something far more clever, subtle and personal.
Davies was thirty-nine when he made Return to Waterloo and it is filled with the disillusion of a man creeping towards his middle age and possible mid-life crisis. At the time, Davies was splitting up from his lover, Chrissie Hynde, with whom he had a daughter, and the film is tinged with a remorse for family life, for things that could have been, the pain of love lost. The question is how much does the Traveler represent Davies? How much is it a refraction of his own feelings?
Dear lonely heart, I wish things could be the way they were at the start…
But as we see, they can’t. Actions, or the lack of them, bring their own unexpected results.
Ken Colley has a list of credits from The Music Lovers, through Ripping Yarns to Star Wars and Return to Waterloo. He is one of cinema’s and television’s greatest character actors - a far better performer than most leading men. Colley does what many actors forget to do, he acts with his eyes. When you watch Colley, you know what his character is thinking, what he’s feeling, what is going through his mind.
The train journey is a metaphor for the Traveler’s life, in much the same way as Sylvia Plath once used it to describe her pregnancy:
Boarded the train there’s no getting off
Nearing Waterloo Station, the Traveler fantasizes of a way of “getting off” - by giving his younger self the keys to his future, here’s what will happen, kid, here’s what you can do.
Lime Street, Liverpool
Did you know that Waterloo Sunset was originally Liverpool Sunset? It was Davies’ paean to the city he loves:
“Liverpool is my favourite city, and the song was originally called Liverpool Sunset. I was inspired by Merseybeat. I’d fallen in love with Liverpool by that point. On every tour, that was the best reception. We played The Cavern, all those old places, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
“I had a load of mates in bands up there, and that sound – not The Beatles but Merseybeat – that was unbelievable. It used to inspire me every time.
“So I wrote Liverpool Sunset. Later it got changed to Waterloo Sunset, but there’s still that play on words with Waterloo.
“London was home, I’d grown up there, but I like to think I could be an adopted Scouser. My heart is definitely there.”
As we approach our destination, there’s a question: why did Davies call his film Return to Waterloo? What was he returning to?
Millions of people swarming like flies ‘round Waterloo Underground
But Terry and Julie cross over the river
Where they feel safe and sound
And they don’t need no friends
As long as they gaze on Waterloo sunset
They are in paradise
This description from Waterloo Sunset does not fit with Britain in the 1980s. The sixties promise of “paradise” has been bartered and sold, by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Tory policies during that decade knew the price of everything, but the value of nothing. But let’s not get too political, for the next song is as much about a private heartbreak as it is about public disillusion.
Now all the lies are beginning to show,
And you’re not the country that I used to know.
I loved you once from my head to my toe,
But now my belief is shaken.
And all your ways are so untrue,
No one breaks promises the way that you do.
You guided me, I trusted you,
But now my illusion’s shaken.
We had expectations, now we’ve reached
As far as we can go.
Return to Waterloo reaches its destination, a brilliant and original film, which leaves one wondering why Davies hasn’t written and directed more for film and television?
A few years ago, a friend told me Ray Davies allegedly has this burning ambition to write a sitcom - now wouldn’t that be something?