Andrea Reynell caught up with renowned documentary filmmaker Sé Merry Doyle to discuss his new film ‘James Joyce – Reluctant Groom‘ in which poet Niall McDevitt guides us through a London landscape with unknown Joycean associations. The film takes us back to period in 1931 when Joyce and his long-term partner Nora Barnacle moved to London for a year in order to secure a legal marriage. The film also demonstrates that in this period of Covid-19 necessity is the mother of invention.
Andrea Reynell: Why was Joyce’s marriage to Nora worthy of a documentary?
Sé Merry Doyle: Well, it mainly came about through Niall McDevitt – the person who leads the whole story – and a well-known poet in London; an Irish poet, very well known in Irish poetry circles. Niall gives literary cycle or walking tours where he uses the landscape to tell stories. He often draws large crowds. I filmed him pre-Covid-19 doing one on Oscar Wilde just to have the material. There were about twenty people traipsing around Wildean landscapes. I noticed how brilliant he was and we became friends and then we did a small film called The Battle of Blythe Road, which was a temple dedicated to the goddess Isis in Hammersmith that W.B Yeats used to run, and where he got into feats of daring do with Aleister Crowley, who was into black magic. Nobody knew about this place in London.
Before telling you how the Joyce film happened, I’ll backtrack a bit. I came to London to show some films, documentaries I had made in The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith and while I was here I ended up making a feature documentary called The Knitting Ring featuring older Irish women, and then Covid-19 hit and the whole place got locked down. Then the Irish Cultural Centre decided to start a digital channel. So we got together lots of musicians, poets, and writers. I was coordinating this with Rosalind Scanlon who’s the cultural director. So since then we’ve been posting weekly on ICC Digital.
The Battle of Blythe Road was my first commissioned piece for them and I went out with Niall. It was just shot on the iPhone, rough and ready but became a viral hit let’s say. Then we decided to take on James Joyce after Niall told me the story. Again the attraction was that it was just me, Niall, and the iPhone with some sound editing. So it was perfect in a Covid-19 world.
It’s about James Joyce coming to London in 1931 to get married because of a law saying you had to live there for a year beforehand. So he came for a year with his wife Nora and his daughter Lucia, and his son Giorgio came over quite a lot as well.
AR: How have current circumstances had an impact on your work?
SMD: Funnily enough before I came to London, I was living in Abbeyleix in Co. Laois, with my daughter and there wasn’t much work. I don’t want to be negative about Ireland, but there was very little happening and I felt like I couldn’t afford to live in Dublin anymore and that’s why I had to move out. I found the environment slightly hostile whenever I tried to put anything out, but then I came to London, and all of a sudden all these people were asking: do you make documentaries and would you make this and that? It felt like a breath of fresh air. People admired me for what I could do and I didn’t have to go out for a pint with someone and find nothing would happen afterwards.
Since Covid-19 in a way I’ve been busier than ever. I go out and shoot little films for ICC Digital. We’re filming some stuff next week under controlled measures. Then I return to my editing suite and balcony near Wimbledon Woods. So my environment is safe from Covid-19.
I see the Joyce film as something that could sit very well on RTE, even though it’s shot on an iPhone; a half-hour film produced extremely economically. So I’m enjoying this new relationship with my iPhone and I’ve been filming poets and actors like Nora Connolly. She did a Bloomsday event. I know certain musicians are having a terrible time right now. Musicians are suffering more than others in the pandemic. They are out there all the time. Now I like going out as well. I like nothing more than bringing all the material back. So, it’s suiting my particular field.
AR: How would you say that independent differ from mainstream films?
In the last couple of years I’ve been mainly working on feature-length documentaries films that are 70-75 minutes long and do well on the festival circuit. I did a film recently on Simon Walker’s father the architect Robin Walker; also on the famous animator Jimmy Murakami who animated When the Wind Blows and The Snowman, and came to Ireland and married. His childhood secret is that he was interned in a Concentration Camp in America for Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbour.
At least in the Covid-19 era RTE are starting to show feature-length documentaries again. So I would say there is a very fine line between mainstream and non-mainstream. I think TV stations are in danger of losing a large audience though who are not necessarily all intellectuals, but who like a good story and don’t want to be spoon fed: they want to engage with the material and to think for themselves. I think if they took more chances they’d have more success. Fine, at 8 o’clock schedule Coronation Street, but after 9.30 let’s make it a little more loose. We are seeing the same trends is Britain. My colleagues tell me that BBC Four is closing soon or being ‘dumped’ as Boris puts it.
Media is a very complex. A lot of people are streaming, and don’t watch TV any more. I still like watching TV. I like saying “oh this is on now” and just sitting back.
It’s a huge world for our little film on James Joyce. It’s reliant on word of mouth. It’s very hard to know where to place yourself. I think it’s a film that could easily sit in the mainstream. The story is very well told, Nial McDevitt doesn’t over intellectualise. He’s joyous. But finding outlets is extremely hard.
AR: Do you think that 28 Campden Grove, James Joyce’s London residence should hold greater significance?
SMD: I don’t know. London always was the flight path for Irish artists, going back to Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and all sorts of people. London was a jewel of a city for extending creativity. And you see all the blue plaques around the place. A lot of the film involved Niall talking but then he encountered the man who lived there (on Campden Grove) and another guy was moving out. It’s moments like these when a documentary comes alive: somebody coming into the frame unexpectedly, and if you’re a good documentarian you hope to capture that. Another person might say “oh no somebody’s moving out, you better stop filming you know,” but I prefer to take all that in. Films that are set on the street involve people telling a story. All of a sudden somebody reveals a whole lot of things that you never knew. It makes the street much more interesting to be able to say: “oh look, James Joyce lived here for a year.”
It is interesting with all the statues being pulled down. A statue is not a blue plaque, but it is something saying this person fought in India, or where ever, and it may be contentious, but should we take it down?
I did a film long ago about the sculptor John Henry Foley called ‘Sculpture to the Empire.’ But John Henry Foley also made ones of Daniel O’Connell and Henry Grattan and Oliver Goldsmith too. He probably has more statues standing in Ireland than anybody else. But a couple of his statues like the one of Field Marshall Gough in the Phoenix Park were attacked several times by the IRA. Eventually it was moved out of Ireland. So you have this dichotomy around what to do. In India one guy said that we should leave the statues and say that this person was a bastard, and he can bring his children to tell a history. Maybe we have to find a way to absorb them and so in India they put them all in sculptured graveyards. Most of the films I’ve done are set in Dublin. You walk out the door and you can find a story in five minutes. It’s all around you.
AR: In October 2019 it was proposed that Joyce’s remains should be repatriated for the centenary of the publication of Ulysses in 2022. It was not met with enthusiasm. What are your thoughts on the matter?
SMD: I always wanted to see his statue in Trieste. I liked the fact that he wandered the Earth. Removing his remains at this stage is not a big deal for me. It’s a sideline issue. I was running Bloomsday for a number of years in Dublin in a Duke Street Gallery and various poets and people would come on that day to sing a song or read a poem. John Behan, Ireland’s most famous sculptor always had this fascination with Leopold Bloom and we’re part of a little campaign now to get a statue of Leopold Bloom erected in Dublin. He is one of the most famous fictional characters in the world and is emblematic of fair play and experiences racism too. We thought that this would be a great subject for a statue. I’d love to get Leopold more into the consciousness of Dublin. Joyce used to imagine Dublin in his consciousness and he gave us that great gift in Ulysses. It’s more the atmosphere of Joyce and his works that should be celebrated I think. So leave him be and let him rest in peace wherever he is and God bless him.
AR: James Joyce never set foot on Irish soil after he left the country for the last time in 1912. Do you think his exile and the fact that he has no living descendents as of January 2020 has an impact on his legacy in Ireland?
SMD: I think he’ll shine on. He broke the mould like Shakespeare. He had a tragic life in lots of ways. I was just discussing his daughter Lucia suffering from schizophrenia. He dictated most of Finnegans Wake to her; a fairly incomprehensible book for a lot of people, but Joyce said it should be read aloud, and I think the schizophrenia in the language uses Lucia’s fragmented mind. She lived and died in an asylum in Northampton, leaving no children. Giorgio gave us Stephen who was a very difficult character in terms of Joyce’s legacy.
AR: Did the documentary turn out differently to what you had envisioned?
SMD: The Battle of Blythe Road was a rehearsal for doing this one, but It was odd for me as I’d normally have Paddy Jordan on camera. A lot of technical stuff has terrified me. And I remember the iPhone ran out of memory at one point and it started deleting shots, and we also had to go to a café to get a bit of charge, but I got through it, and really enjoyed the experience. I’m not saying I’d like to take this approach all the time. I’d like to have somebody on sound. It was just me and Niall and I’d never experienced that before and I enjoyed it, but it’s nicer having a crew, but needs must.
AR: Do you have any further plans for collaborating with Niall McDevitt?
SMD: We’re planning an Oscar Wilde film, and are currently at the drawing board stage as to what that might entail. Again it’s going to a product of this Covid-19 period. With Joyce we were talking about going to Dublin, Zurich, Trieste, Paris – you know the story of James Joyce’s life – but until Covid-19 abates we’ll stay in an area that we can control, but we’re out filming again on the 27th of July. We’re bringing a lot of artists into The Irish Cultural Centre for lectures and poetry. It’s just three days of filming with people. It’s a very strange time for everyone as you have social distancing. Nobody’s working properly. We don’t know when it’s going to end. So everyone has to find new outlets and new ways of keeping going.