Oh, but this takes me back.
I first saw Gregory’s Girl in the cinema either late in 1980 or early 1981, and during the first half of the Eighties I would go on to pay to see it again a good five times, either in its own rate or as the bottom half of probably the best cinema bill I ever saw, supporting Chariots of Fire (not half bad a film to watch multiple times). In those days before VHS and DVD, even with more films shown on general TV channels than we get nowadays, that’s what you had to do.
Gregory’s Girl was the second film from Scottish Director and Writer Bill Forsyth, and I’m semi-certain that I was lucky enough to see his first, That Sinking Feeling, one Sunday BBC2 night before catching this. Several of That Sinking Feeling‘s cast, former members of Glasgow Youth Theatre, reappear in Gregory, mainly in supporting roles, with only one of the three principal roles a former alumni. This is the title role of Gregory Underwood, played by John Gordon Sinclair (credited under his real name of Gordon John Sinclair: Equity, eh?).
The other two main parts go to Dee Hepburn (discovered dancing in a TV commercial) and Altered Images singer Clare Grogan (credited under her original spelling of Claire but mostly known in her acting career as C.P. Grogan: Equity, eh?). They’re also supported by a cast of adults, in minor but vital roles, mostly teachers, amongst whom is best known is comedian Chic Murray, making a peach of a cameo as the Headmaster.
The film is a time-bubble, the hairstyles of the boys and the skirt-lengths of the girls locking it into place as inexorably as anything produced during the Swinging Sixties. It’s gentle, unhurried, almost meandering, a miniaturist of a film composed of small scenes and moments, not all of which are connected to the theme, that give it a very naturalist tone, as well as allowing for some brilliant, low-key absurdism. It’s a shoestring film, in which members of the cast brought their own clothes in to wear.
But though perhaps its archaic nature isn’t solely confined to the look of things, it’s also timeless. It’s a film – very much a boy’s film, mind you – about that time when boys are just starting to notice that girls are different from them but also to start wanting to get some idea of what that difference entails. Forsyth’s individuality lies in directing that urge away from the simply sexual by overlaying with that peculiar teenage anxiety about everything you don’t know – what do you talk to girls about, anyway? – and concentrating on that innocence without any overt crudity.
Girls are, of course, different. For one thing, they’re already much more mature, more sophisticated, and that’s another way in which this is a boy’s film. It’s about the first stage of a journey on which the girls are already three bus-stops ahead.
Reducing the story to a simple outline involves stripping away much of the subtlety and all of the wonderful irrelevance, but let’s do that anyway. Gregory, a Fourth Year boy, gangly, awkward, head-in-the-clouds, is non-scoring striker for a school football team that’s just lost eight matches in a row. Coach Phil Menzies (Jake D’Arcy: real name John Sinclair: Equity, eh?) is growing despondent. He drops goalkeeper Andy (Robert Buchanan), shoves Gregory into the nets and holds trials for a new striker.
The trials are invaded by Dorothy (Hepburn), who, despite being a girl, is better than all the rest out together. She makes the team. She’s also attractive, with long hair, a neat figure and great legs. Gregory is smitten. Being a boy of that age, as well as being particularly awkward in himself, he does nothing more at first than go on about her to his friends, Andy, silent Charlie and Steve, the star of cookery classes.
But, under the tutelage of his precocious and utterly calm 10-year old sister Madeleine (Allison Forster), Gregory manages to work up the nerve to ask Dorothy out. On a date. Which she readily accepts, despite it being abundantly clear, without nastiness or anything overt, that she isn’t interested in him in the slightest.
So we’re not surprised that Dorothy doesn’t turn up. However, Carol does. She gets Gregory to walk her to the chipshop, where she hands him over to Margo. Who gets him to walk a bit further to where we already know Susan (Grogan) is dressed up rather nicely and waiting for him. We’ve had only one scene where Dorothy and Susan talk, during dissection in Biology classes, into which it’s slipped, casually, that Susan thinks Gregory has a nice laugh. And there’s been a second scene, silent, through windows, of the pair discussing something that we now understand, even as Susan explains to Gregory: It’s just the way girls work. They help each other.
So Susan and Gregory go down the Country Park, and Gregory still doesn’t know what to talk about, until he stops trying to please her and indulges his silly self in a wonderfully subtle visual pun, because he shows Susan how to dance, by lying down on your back, shuffling your shoulders and waving your arms about, and she lies down beside him, and gives in to the moment, and the music starts up and they ‘dance’ on towards sunset, relaxed in each other’s company, for isn’t the term ‘horizontal dancing’ another euphemism for sex?
And it takes them into that first stage of the relationship, where the thrill is being around someone, sharing things that, however unimportant they may be, are important because they’re shared, and become cause for giggles unintelligible to outsiders: A million and nine: How come you know all the good numbers?
By then, they’re kissing, and whilst it’s perhaps a touch psychologically improbable this soon, Gregory’s relaxed enough to make jokes about it, though his joke – that’s better, you’ve finally stopped kissing me like I was your aunt at Xmas: (kiss): but what’s my aunt going to say when I kiss her at Xmas? – is perfectly in Gregory’s wheelhouse.
Meanwhile, Dorothy jogs on her evening run, perfectly self-contained, not even thinking of Gregory, whilst Madeleine sums it all up by sympathising with her daft, awkward, but somehow not all that bad, hope for him yet brother: Poor Gregory. It’s awful being in Love. Especially when you don’t know which girl you’re in love with.
Even an outline of the story requires so many details even as it leaves so many more out. And some of these are little moments of sheer genius, a few seconds of film that build up this real world into something as real and absurd as the one we lie in every day, below the radar of events. And that’s without the touches that envelop the world that means nothing to Gregory and his misdirected romance.
Late on, there’s a silent cameo of Phil Menzies – who has only been seen as obsessed with his football – inside a greenhouse, tending plants, spraying them and, guess what, talking to them. There’s a found moment, when Chic Murray, hired for only one scene as the Head, was noodling a jaunty little melody on a piano in the rehearsal room that Forsyth had him do for the film: about thirty seconds of serene absorption, nifty little fingerwork, then a turn, as much to the camera as to the kids looking in the door, and the golden words, “Off you go, you small boys.”
And there’s the penguin. Everyone mentions the penguin. It’s still hilarious, nearly forty years later, a moment of inspiration, of genius.
I’ve alluded throughout this review to this being a boy’s story and it’s got to be acknowledged. Good as it is, sweet and funny and kind as it is, this is all about Gregory, and even the two young women of the story, in all their self-sufficiency, their obviously greater maturity, their effortless independence, are only a part of the story as defined in their relationship with Gregory.
The film would fail the Bechdel Test with a crunch. There are very few conversations between the women and none that don’t relate to the men – boys rather – around them. And whilst Susan acts upon her own agency, with the help of her friends, it is only to get herself a boyfriend, and the best that can be said of it is, and this is where the Oldham Coliseum adaptation crashed so spectacularly, it is Gregory specifically in whom she is interested.
True, the girls are positioned as being more mature than the boys, who are all comic figures to one degree or another, are treated more respectfully, especially Dorothy, who is always well aware of her own qualities. But ultimately, this is about Gregory, and what he wants and what he learns and Susan is his reward for looking a little below the surface. It’s still a wonderful film, whose refusal to go beyond a typically ignorant, near cartoon view of sex and dating (on the boy’s side) is what gives it wisdom at it’s core, and you can argue that it’s major problem in this respect was that nobody was making (or being allowed to make?) anything comparable from a female perspective. But in this day and age, I’m just that little bit too aware that this is a boy’s story.
Still, it’s one of the few to really represent my bit of boy’s life, without the Susan in it? I was very like Gregory in some respects, even down to the football lack-of-talent.
John Gordon Sinclair has gone on to a long and bust career. I’ve not followed it, and especially not watched the apparently awful twenty-years-later sequel, Gregory’s Two Girls. What I have seen him in suggests that this film still is, and probably always will be, the best thing he’s ever done.
Dee Hepburn still acts, and was in Crossroads for four years. At first, her career was held up by crippling shyness, especially as the tabloid press wanted to see her as a fit bird in sexy clothing, which she loathed,
Clare Grogan was successful with Altered Images, and was in Red Dwarf. She still performs and she’s still bloody gorgeous.
Bill Forsyth made two more Scotland set films, both highly regarded (one of which we’ll have here one Sunday) before moving to America, which killed his career. He hasn’t directed since Gregory’s Two Girls.
In a list of ten films I would take with me to a desert island, Gregory’s Girl is a must.
Oh, but this takes me back.