Bernard Canavan The Backward Glance

Bernard Canavan documentary Backward Glance

David Kelly speaks to Fiona O’Brien on his quest to make a documentary film about renowned London Irish artist Bernard Canavan’s life and work

Bernard Canavan has been described as the Edward Hopper of recording the Irish in London experience, with his paintings depicting everything from the 1950s emigrant to the Celtic Tiger boom. A constant presence at Irish functions in the capital, the historian and painter’s work and views on the emigrant experience in London is commended and unwavering, having moved here himself as a teenager in the 1960s.

And now the Longford native is to be the subject of a documentary, which its makers hope will be commissioned for BBC or RTE. David P. Kelly Films has been a developing documentary about the life and work of Canavan as a labour of love.

Top Irish drama director David Caffrey, whose TV credits include Love/Hate and Line of Duty is already on board.

Bernard Canavan documentary Backward Glance

Caffrey says: “Bernard Canavan is the charismatic and unofficial ‘society artist’ of Ireland’s cultural and social forces at play within economic migration and mass emigration. His work has echoes with L.S. Lowry, Edward Hopper, and the ’Street-politicised’ work of G.Grosz in German expressionism.

“This self taught artist believes that art and the imagination has the power to change the world and wants his work to redress the lack of contemporary comment and acknowledgment around mass migration.

“The film I envisage will recalibrate our perception about the 900,000 people who emigrated from Ireland between 1940s to the late 1980s and look at this universal topic with a fresh approach; I will take a modern approach to this for a modern audience.”

Wheels in motion

David Kelly was aware of Canavan’s work for a while, and once he started to speak to the artist, who will celebrate his 70th birthday this year, he began to put the wheels in motion for making his work the theme of a documentary. And while most people could jump at the opportunity, it was a little bit more delicate to get Canavan on board.

“There are so many documentaries these days, and a lot of the time they are just in an old-fashioned presenter-subject interview format, that don’t really get to the heart or soul of the topic,” says David. “So once we spoke with Bernard and let him know how we would like to do it, and any ideas he had, I think he was convinced then it would be fitting and he agreed.

Bernard Canavan documentary Backward Glance

“He is such a fascinating character himself. He moved to London aged 15 to look after his father here, and then returned home, and put himself through college, and eventually enrolled at Oxford. For a man who never finished formal education at school that is astonishing.”

The working title of the documentary is The Blackward Glance, which is the title of one of Bernard’s exhibitions a decade ago. It featured works that depicted Irish emigrants tumbling out of the sky, and out of Ireland, men getting ready for a night out in a derelict Camden bedsit and couples leaving dance-halls on bicycles.

“I love the name because it is light. Yes we are looking backwards, but we’re not dwelling there. It is a glance, we are always moving forward. And I think that is true of Bernard himself, he is not condescending or depicting the negative any time.

Bernard Canavan documentary Backward Glance

“He is still working now, still painting, as well as teaching history. So the documentary will follow that too rather than sticking in the past. I think that is important.

“And Bernard’s works aren’t like a stranger looking in and telling people ‘this is how it is’. He is a part of that, he is one of those people.”

David can relate to Bernard’s own emigrant experience himself, as his mother and father also moved over from Ireland in the 1960s, from north Kerry and Ballymun in Dublin respectively.

Music is another theme that has been explored well with the documentary. “I have listened and have wanted to use the BibleCode Sundays’ music in other projects before. But this seemed like the ideal opportunity for our first proper collaboration.

“But having heard their most recent material, I listened to it while looking at Bernard’s paintings. And they seem to fit. Their songs and compositions echoes and compliments Bernard’s new paintings in an uncanny and highly sensitive way.

“I asked Bernard his thoughts and he really liked their emigrant style and agreed that it worked well with his art, and they are executive producers now too.”


Finbar Holian, proprietor of the Claddagh Ring in Hendon, also has an executive producer credit for the documentary, and is helping out with a special ‘movie fundraiser’ night this week that will bring the art and music together.

“He has kindly contributed the use of his wonderful venue for the evening. He is interested in seeing how he can use the refurbished function room upstairs as an exhibition space.

Bernard Canavan documentary Backward Glance


“He has put in special lighting and hooks for hanging, and it all looks really well, so on the night there will be a selection of Bernard’s work on show. And the BibleCode Sundays will play downstairs.

“I suppose it makes sense in this day and age to open up licenced premises for other uses, so hopefully this is the start of something good for Finbar, and it may alert people to his venue that wouldn’t necessarily have been familiar with it before.”

Bernard Canavan documentary Backward Glance
The BibleCode Sundays

The fundraiser night, which takes place this Friday, 21 April, from 8pm, is being curated by Kilkenny native Dee Haughney, who works at the prestigious October Gallery in Bloomsbury. Dee has just moved to London from Ireland and says: “Bernard’s work is eminent of master painters of the 1940’s, Frank Auerbach, Gerard Dillon etc with their thick impasto lines and figurative representation. Adopting this style Bernard’s work is a comment and record of racial struggle, and a compilation of emigrational experiences.

“This method of representing political or social happenings, whether past or present is common in contemporary art and is adopted by many prolific artists . While never deviating from oil paint, Bernard’s work is a unified voice which forces the viewer not only to look but to analyse, understand and comment.”

So as the development process goes on, David’s plan is to shoot the pilot this summer, before showing it to the top television networks, and hopefully develop it into a full-length documentary in the autumn.

“Making TV documentaries has become highly competitive and expensive since Netflix, Amazon and the Hollywood studios entered the arena of making them.

“In the commissioning process of new documentaries by the large TV corporations, making a stylish and strong TV pilot is now the prerequisite for companies. And the competition for TV documentaries is fierce. When you go up against the likes of feature documentaries such as Amy, Senna, Being AP and Older Than Ireland, you have to construct these high-end TV pilots to get noticed and stand out.

“That is why we are starting things off this Friday to assist us all in making the best TV pilot possible and to kick-start the overall financing. And to get people’s interest in it.

“We are also aware of the responsibility of making a very worthwhile thus important feature documentary about Bernard and his work, which we feel has deep resonances with the many Irish ‘communities’ around the UK and hopefully beyond.”

• The Claddagh Ring: Friday, 21 April: Movie Fundraiser Selected pieces of Bernard’s work will be on display from 8pm onwards in the function hall upstairs.

The BibleCode Sundays will perform downstairs in the public bar from 10pm. DJ until 2am. £10 entry.


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