Gregory’s Girl: How to ruin a story without changing a word of it

The news that Bill Forsyth’s debut film as Director, That Sinking Feeling has finally been released on DVD with the originally, naturally accented soundtrack, has sparked off a chain of thought that has brought back to mind a long ago experience.
Forsyth followed That Sinking Feeling with the famous Gregory’s Girl, the high point of his career, sadly, again drawing strongly for its cast upon the Scottish Youth Theatre. Gregory’s Girl appeared in 1981, and was immensely popular in its own right, and latterly as the lower half of the best cinema double bill I’ve ever seen, with Chariots of Fire. Before it finally made it to TV, I saw the film five times in the cinema.
And in 1985, I took a young lady, on the last date of a short-lived relationship, to see a stage version of Gregory’s Girl at the Coliseum Theatre, Oldham. Which is the memory that has prompted this blog.
For those who are not familiar with Gregory’s Girl, first of all, shame on you. The film is a wry, sweet, naturalistic and very funny portrayal of a teenage boy-girl relationship, in a comprehensive school in Cumbernauld New Town, on the fringes of Glasgow.
It’s three principals are Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair, in the role that he has sadly never bettered: it is also still the best material he has ever had), Dorothy (Dee Hepburn, whose crippling shyness as to publicity prevented her career from developing) and Susan (Clare Grogan, of Altered Images, and Red Dwarf).
Gregory is a 16 year old schoolboy, lanky, unfocussed, unformed. He’s striker for the school football team until the coach gets fed up with too many heavy defeats. He puts Gregory in goal and holds trials for a new striker. The outstanding applicant is Dorothy, who goes into the team and is a hit. Gregory gets a crush on her on sight, but is tongue-tied and even more hopeless than usual in her presence.
Eventually, he manages to ask her out, to which Dorothy agrees with suspicious casualness. However, when he turns up, Dorothy can’t make it. Instead, he’s led by, successively, Carol and Margo to a meeting with Susan. Susan actually likes Gregory, but has remained unnoticed by him. The whole thing has been a set-up with Dorothy to bring Gregory to Susan.
By now, he’s terminally confused, Susan’s quiet patience allows him to relax. The two have a gentle, enjoyable evening together, ending with kisses on the doorstep and the promise of a continuing relationship, whilst Dorothy pounds away on her evening run, unconcerned.
There’s a lot more to the film, an awful lot. Forsyth paints a broad, sometimes almost surrealist picture of teenage life (the penguin is brilliant, as is Chic Murray’s piano playing cameo as the Headmaster), but above all, it’s warm, it’s realistic, it totally avoids cliche and, whilst appearing slight, is deceptive in its lightness.
Where Gregory’s Girl scores is in the subtlety of the principals characters and their relationships. Gregory is gangly in body and mind. He’s completely unformed, naive, confused by the first signs of his own sexuality. Dorothy, in contrast, is a self-contained, secure and settled girl. She’s not interested in Gregory, and has no reason to be. She’s mentally and emotionally more advanced than him, and her interests (such as they are beyond her football) are directed towards more fully-formed and mature characters..
Susan, in contrast, is interested in Gregory for both himself, and for his potential. She’s equally self-contained, aware and secure, but she can see how unformed Gregory is and is interested in playing a part in growing him into the adult he’s capable of becoming (trust me on this analysis, I’ve been where Gregory is and am indebted eternally to my ‘Susan’). She’ll invest the time that he needs, and will knock off his rough edges.
What’s most impressive about the film is how low-key the ending is. Forsyth allows no suggestion that this is IT! The love of Gregory’s life, his future wife, etc. What we see is that he’s going to be in for a great time, learning, that he’ll become a human being through this, and that maybe things will last or maybe they won’t, it doesn’t matter. He’s taking a step that Susan’s already taken, and she’s generous enough to lead him in the right direction.

I’ve gone on at such lengths about the film to set up key elements relating to the stage performance.
I was a relatively regular visitor to Oldham Coliseum in the Eighties: it was a fine little theatre with a strong track record, and whilst it didn’t attract big stage names, it usually offered a very high standard of performance. I once saw a version of J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, with quite the best performance of the title role I’ve yet seen.

She’s not on the poster but there’s no way I’m leaving her out

Translating the play onto the stage posed considerable problems. The Theatre used a young cast, from the Oldham youth theatre, and I’m not knocking them to say that the cast were not as strong nor as attractive as the film. However, the Director dealt brilliantly with most of the inherent problems, especially the difficulty of presenting actual football matches on stage!
This was solved a having a single, mobile, set of goals (with net) at stage right, facing the wings, whereby the ‘game’ was enacted by the cast rushing on and off out of the wings. This even led to a moment of brilliance in producing an effect not in the film, but which fitted seamlessly into the action: in the film there is a changing room scene where Gregory (nervously) and Dorothy (unconcernedly) have their first solo conversation. It’s interrupted by the slimy Gordon, reporting for the school paper, wanting to interview Dorothy, but using this as a cover for speedily working up to asking her on a date.
The play transferred this scene to ‘on the pitch’ as Gregory and Dorothy conferred behind the goal. Gregory was holding the ball. As the questions multiplied, Dorothy and the reporter faced the audience with Gregory stood behind them: at the moment the date question was asked, he spun on his heel, dropped the ball and, in a beautifully realised moment of anger and frustration, volleyed it powerfully into the roof of the net. It was a perfect representation of his inarticulacy.
That the Director could produced an individual moment so in keeping with the film, and with Forsyth’s thinking made what followed all the more painful. The play continued to follow the film with very little deviation, certainly not in dialogue. But as the end approached, the play started to take a different course, entirely in its interpretation of the situation and the characters, and it destroyed the story by turning it firmly in the direction of cliche and melodrama.
Gregory was not changed in himself, but he had to react differently because of Susan’s character. She was no longer the ordinary, everyday girl, interested in Gregory for himself, because Susan was now a man-eater (boy-eater). Susan wasn’t interested in Gregory, but rather in conquest, in her own, exclusive aims.
Instead of the normal girl, she became the teenage male fantasy, both scary and attractive, the woman who won’t take no for an answer, who’ll give them what they want but are scared of.
It was an appalling misjudgement, and it was compounded in the play’s final moment, crassly emphasising this crude and fantasy oriented interpretation.
In the film, Gregory relaxed with Susan in the park, growing in self-confidence as she let him begin to blossom. They ended up kissing, several times, but Forsyth was canny about this: he cut in to the pair on Gregory’s doorstep, in mid-kiss. And not their first for, when they break, Susan impishly praised Gregory for getting better: “You’ve stopped kissing me like I were your Auntie”. (And it’s a measure of how far Gregory had already come that he kissed her again, then asked what his Auntie is going to say when he kisses her at Christmas?)
Not so on the stage: the first kiss was the only kiss, and was the climax. It was conducted in the middle of the stage, with the cast sitting and lying around, an audience for this momentous, all but ritual event. And it was a full-on clinch, wrapped in each others arms, clinging on for ever.
And then, to emphasise this horrendously adolescent wish-fulfilment bullshit, Dorothy arrived on stage, at the end of her training jog. She took one look at Gregory and Susan in their clinch. She realised, now that he has been taken, now that another woman has him, that she wanted him all along, but it’s too late, and she burst into tears, and at this moment, if the play were a book, it would have been flying across the room en route to splattering against the wall, because this is rampant, arrogant, male-centric shite.
The ending ruined the play for me, for its crassness, and grossness, which made a mockery of a beautifully judged story. It was also an object lesson in interpretation since this was done, as I said, simply by changing the emphasis of the performance, and without changing the dialogue in any way.
The film remains a perfectly realised example of Forsyth’s talent. He went on to equal success with two other Scotland set films, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy (the latter featuring Clare Grogan again), before moving to Hollywood and directing the criminally underrated Housekeeping, after which his career stalled terminally. In 1999, he directed a sequel to his most famous film, Gregory’s Two Girls, again starring John Gordon Sinclair. It was received badly, and flopped: I’ve never seen it and all reports suggest that that would be wise to maintain: no-one likes to have their visions of glory compromised, and the Oldham Coliseum production of Gregory’s Girl is enough for me.

3 thoughts on “Gregory’s Girl: How to ruin a story without changing a word of it

  1. I cannot be the only person to think that this film is/always was a load of rubbish. Even at a young age (which I was when I first saw it) it was lightweight, unoriginal, dull, plodding, uninvolving, and above all simply unfunny. When I saw it a second time when I was a few years older (hoping to notice things I had missed as a boy) it had not got any better, if anything it was even worse.

    1. Probably you’re not. However, I disagree. It would have made for a more interesting comment if you could have articulated why instead of merely insulting it.

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