Northern Ireland

A City Dreaming: Gerry Anderson's love letter to Derry

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Media captionGerry Anderson's recollections of his childhood in Derry are central to A City Dreaming. Here he narrates the film's opening scene

"This city beyond my window was awash with adventure, past, present and a future that was about to be revealed to me. In many ways, those were the happiest of days. I felt blessed."

It's a heartfelt love letter like no other, one penned not for a sweetheart but for home.

A series of personal and intimate recollections of his hometown Londonderry, which he christened Stroke City, A City Dreaming is the final work of the late, well-loved BBC Northern Ireland broadcaster Gerry Anderson.

Already screened at festivals in Derry, Galway, Washington and Rome, the documentary feature will now be shown at the Belfast Film Festival, almost nine months after the death of its writer and narrator.

Using archive footage and amateur home movies, the film weaves through half-a-century of history, charting the city's rise from poverty and neglect in the 1940s and 1950s, to hitting global headlines with the dark days of the Troubles.

And Gerry tells it all in his own inimitable way.

Digging

The film's director Mark McCauley says his and Gerry's joint desire to tell the story of "ordinary, decent people" was the genesis of the idea.

"We never really had a proper script - we would just talk about experiences that he had, and I would go off and find footage," he says.

"Other times, I would find footage from a part of history he hadn't really thought about and then he would write something in his own style."

Image copyright Mark McCauley
Image caption The working women of Derry are one of the key themes of A City Dreaming

It took a full year of digging through hundreds of tapes from decades past to find the pictures that best illustrated the city's history.

From the lives of the women working in the city's shirt factories and the Luftwaffe bombings to Amelia Earhart's unexpected landing and the first civil rights protests, everything that mattered to Derry people during those decades is touched upon.

"It was magical to find home movie footage because people reacted in a very intimate way with the camera," Mark says.

"It was almost a spine-tingling feeling when they looked at the camera - you felt you were back in their lives 50 years ago."

Unique

Central to the film is Gerry's observation that Derry was - and perhaps still is - a place apart, an "independent statelet, like Monaco without the money," he quips.

"I think he's trying to define what he felt about that place," Mark says.

"Derry found itself in a no-man's land.

"When you add in the lack of economic prosperity it felt like it was just this wee walled place that people were trapped in.

"They were not, on the face of it, very unhappy about being trapped there, but you could tell that at some stage the power of human spirit, given a chance, would rise up and win out in the end."

Image caption Gerry Anderson described Derry as an "independent statelet, like Monaco without the money"

One of the most striking elements of the film is Gerry's narration.

While work on the production began when he was in good health, his voiceover was recorded much later and is clearly ravaged by illness.

Epitaph

And even though the film has taken on an added poignancy after his death, Mark insists Gerry never viewed the project as his final goodbye.

"Throughout his illness he never lost that excitement about the film, he was genuinely excited by the interchange of ideas.

"It was difficult for him but he didn't ever complain.

"We started to make a film about a people from a city and it developed into being a lot about his personal experiences.

"But it was never meant to be his epitaph, even though it may have turned out to be that way."

Image caption Gerry never viewed the film as his "epitaph", its director Mark McCauley says

At its first screening in Derry, Gerry received two standing ovations after the audience had laughed and cried as they watched.

"People were touched by the film," Mark explains.

"It's very gratifying to think that a simple thing with words, music and pictures can actually move people so strongly."

Listening

Mark was, like many others in Northern Ireland, a fan of Gerry's but he was also a close friend.

To him, Gerry is irreplaceable, and he counts himself lucky that he had the chance to work with him on something so personal.

Image caption Gerry "lived for sitting in that chair, broadcasting", according to Mark McCauley

"I was the same as everybody - I loved listening to him because he could reduce the problems that we've had here to almost nothing in the space of a sentence.

"He lived for sitting in that chair, broadcasting.

"I knew Gerry was capable of something like this. I'm only sorry we didn't get the chance to do more."

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