What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? Review
“East London before the Olympics” reads the cover blurb. When What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? was first conceived in early 2005 there was no way of knowing who would host the 2012 Games. The capital, at this point, was just another ‘candidate city’ albeit one with firm plans to transform the Lower Lea Valley should its bid prove successful. The one-time hub of industrial activity had grown derelict over the years and nowadays resembled little more than a wasteland. Its warehouses were empty, its waterways stagnant and its principal population (or so it seemed) the electricity pylons that dominated much of the skyline. Such was the interest generated from the bid it soon became apparent that some form of upheaval was inevitable for the area whether the Olympics came to London or not – and so Bob Stanley, of Saint Etienne fame, hit upon an idea. Two years previous the band had collaborated with filmmaker Paul Kelly and writer Kevin Pearce on Finisterre, an hour-long documentary in the ‘city symphony’ mould. In Mervyn Day they would have a kind of unofficial sequel; similar in its influences and style, except this time the subject matter was on the verge of extinction.
By the time filming had commenced in the late summer London 2012 was set to become a reality. Naturally, it would also become a part of the narrative. Mervyn Day takes place on the day after the announcement, punctuating its soundtrack with news bulletins expressing the optimism of the forthcoming Games. This being July the 7th we also hear ever-worsening details emerging from that morning’s terrorist attacks in the capital. Together they provide a mixture of happiness and despair that bleeds into the overall picture. Mervyn Day can be just as optimistic as those bulletins about the Olympic future, but it’s tempered with a bittersweet sense of nostalgia for a bygone era and, perhaps too, a touch of doubt as to the benefits of the post-Games legacy. The graffiti and makeshift signs captured by Kelly’s lens tell a similar story: for every crude but excitable attempt at drawing up the Olympic rings in marker pen (with “LONDON!!!!” scrawled underneath) there’s a “Fuck Seb Coe”, a “Fuck the I.O.C.” or “2012 Killing Local Businesses”.
Our window into the Valley is provided by Mervyn Day himself. He’s a young paperboy somewhere in his mid-teens who spends much of the morning out on deliveries or else traipsing around the now-dilapidated warehouses and what remains of the local cricket ground. Mervyn barely utters a word, instead cycling around to the Saint Etienne score as a kind-of unwitting guide. We go where he goes thus opening our eyes to the forgotten factories and barely trampled-upon back lanes. In essence he’s nothing more than a slender narrative hook on which the documentary can hang; there to provide a sense of structure, not to intervene. Indeed, the important elements are the images and the voices that sit atop them. Kelly interviewed a number of residents for their take on the area and the impact of the Games. Once again that combination of optimism and doubt plays its part, though nostalgia is the key factor. We get some wonderfully evocative factoids, recollections and urban myths: sheep on the marsh, a crocodile in the canal, kidnappings, Dick Turpin, the birthplace of plastic, a multi-storey stable in which to house the workhorses of the industrial age (“What an amazing thing!”), and plenty more besides.
To these voices we can add two more. Linda Robson and David Essex play the off-screen roles of Mervyn’s mother and grandfather, respectively, though their function is more obviously that of twin narrators. Through their presence screenwriter Pearce (best known as a music critic and the author of Something Beginning with O) is allowed to bring some of his own influence to Mervyn Day, to provide it with a more defined shape than the interviewees can provide. Furthermore in casting these two familiar voices the film reinforces its connections with the past. After all, Essex remains best-known for his seventies pop career and Robson for her performances in the long-running BBC sitcom Birds of a Feather (1989-1998); they’re tied to the decades that brought them to the height of their fame, practically inseparable. Further connections are drawn from the imagery, especially Mervyn on his bicycle. To watch him ride along a deserted street as morning breaks is to recall young John Moulder-Brown in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End or Anthony May in Douglas Hickox’s Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, especially given actor Noah Kelly’s throwback hairstyle and fashions. The name Mervyn Day, meanwhile, has been borrowed from that of the former West Ham, Leyton Orient and Leeds goalkeeper, an F.A. Cup winner back in 1975. All of these little details and designs only emphasise the weight of nostalgia.
Needless to say, this same strain runs through Saint Etienne’s soundtrack. With the exception of Good Night (written for the band’s 2005 album Tales from the Turnpike), all of the compositions are instrumental with most feeling a touch resigned in their tone, perhaps even haunted. They also complement the unlikely beauty of Kelly’s images perfectly, drawing out the romanticism in unexpected areas: empty byroads, broken windows and the faded remnants of no longer trading small businesses. The influence of Patrick Keiller’s 1994 feature London (another hard-to-classify blend of narrative and documentary heavily reliant on its soundtrack) is immediate in these moments, sharing as they do the same dedication to precise framing and an immobile camera. Mervyn’s youth and the summer setting create a far warmer vision than Keiller, however.
In the run-up to the Olympics, and after Mervyn Day’s production, the I.O.C. commissioned their own collection of London tales in a variety of styles. Mike Leigh turned in a typical slice-of-life drama with A Running Jump, Lynne Ramsay opted to go the experimental route with The Swimmer and the duo behind StreetDance, Max and Dania, targeted the youth with What If. Closest to Mervyn Day was Asif Kapadia’s contribution, The Odyssey. For this 30-minute piece Kapadia spent four days in a helicopter above the capital so as to capture a unique ‘God’s eye’ perspective. Over these aerial shots the soundtrack combined Antonio Pinto’s score with an assortment of talking heads (sportsmen, politicians, etc.) who trace London’s recent past from the announcement in July 2005 through to the present day. Of course that past includes the terrorist attacks of 7/7, the financial crisis and the summer riots of 2011. And yet The Odyssey remains firmly optimistic despite it all, which is where it differs from Kelly’s film. Whilst Mervyn Day is by no means a pessimistic work, it is decidedly bittersweet and determined to stay realistic. Given the discontented tone of Stanley’s liner notes for the film (originally published in the Guardian in July of this year), it looks as though it had every right to be.
What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? has been practically impossible to see these past few years. It was originally commissioned by the Barbican where it premiered in late 2005 complete with a live soundtrack performance. Since then screenings have been light on the ground, and so too has its soundtrack. Saint Etienne issued a fan club only CD of the latter in March of 2006, which has been its one and only release until now. As an especial enticement to the fans this is a two-disc set consisting of both film and soundtrack, although once again the release is limited: just 1500 copies and that’s your lot.
The DVD is encoded for all regions and in the PAL format. Housing the just the film itself (which runs for 46 minutes), a single-layered disc is more than up to task. Indeed, there are no presentation problems at all. Mervyn Day appears in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced, and looks spotless and free of any transfer-related issues. Do be aware, however, that the acted scenes look somewhat cruder than the landscape shots, suggesting Kelly used a variety of cameras on the film. There are no optional subtitles, English or otherwise. As for the soundtrack, that appears in a simple DD2.0 form albeit one that’s more than expressive enough when handling the Saint Etienne compositions and the various talking heads. Once again, no technical issues on this front.
Extras amount to the soundtrack CD (identical in its track listing to the previous fan club release) and a 16-page full-colour booklet consisting of Stanley’s liner notes, a selection of Kelly’s photographs and complete credits.
What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? can be purchased via Heavenly Films and Caught by the River.