Writer-Director Bill Forsyth made four Scottish films in the first half of the Eighties, all made on various lengths of shoestring, the first two of which being dominated by various members of the Glasgow Youth Theatre, who popped up in his later two in small parts. After that, he was poached by Hollywood, where he made the well-received Housekeeping, then seemed to disappear from public consciousness (two later films, at lengthening intervals, were flops).
Comfort and Joy is the last of those Scottish films. The first three, That Sinking Feeling, Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, all featured in Film 2018. I’d seen Comfort and Joy when it was in the cinema (probably my local cinema, the Burnage Odeon) and found it very funny, but it’s noticeable that I don’t think I’ve seen it again since, and it was only the watching of the other three last year that impressed on me that I’d never bought the film on DVD. So, here it is.
I remembered enjoying it, and thinking it was Forsyth back on track after the disappointment of Local Hero (which, three decades later, I thoroughly enjoy), and being under the impression that it had been as big a success as Gregory’s Girl, which I now find it wasn’t. And, three decades later, watching the film for what may only be the second time ever, I find it a tremendous disappointment.
Some of that is obviously personal. Bill Patterson stars as Allan ‘Dicky’ Bird, a local radio DJ, whose shows are as empty-headed and fluffy as you can imagine. Not that we know him at first: in a cleverpiece of misdirection, Forsyth opens on a tall, elegant, well-dressed, gorgeous redhead (Eleanor David) shoplifting in a Glasgow Shopping Centre in the run-up to Xmas. Allan drifts in and out of the background, observing Maddie’s actions. As she leaves, he follows her, catches up to her, Store Detective about to arrest her, but no. He tells her she’ll be the death of him, they both pile into his car, they actually live together and have done for four years. They’re in love. I’d be in love with her (though I’d be a lot more worried about the kleptomania that Allan).
They fit well together. There’s an air of ease about them together, comfort and joy. They share a wavelength, their conversation is light and bantering, a pair who know each other and speak that private language all couples do, based in shaared emotion and happenstance.
And then Maddie starts going around their flat, removing ornaments from shelves and putting them in a box. Allan waches her amused for a while, Maddie’s eccentric, it’s part of why he loves her. Even so, eventually he has too ask what she’s doing. She’s leaving him. Tonight. She’d meant to talk to him about it for months but the opportunity never came up. There’s a truck due tonight, she’s taking all his things.
The abruptness of it all, in the midst of genuine content, the fact that the flat is practically stripped to the bare bones because everything is hers, and that Maddie won’t tell him why, it being a done thing, decided upon, it’s too late to talk now, is meant to be disruptively funny. It’s shocking, to the point of absurdity. It’s meant to be funny, I found it funny in 1984 but I don’t find it funny now. Because I’ve had a marital breakdown, I’ve been where Allan is here, being the one that was still in love. I don’t find it funny, becaue I can’t find it funny.
Forsyth never gives a reason or a hint of a reason, but then that’s not the point of the break-up. It’s not what the film’s about, it’s the catalyst, the MacGuffin. The point is to put Allan ‘Dicky’ Bird into a state of turmil, to empty out his comfortable life, to make him suggestible. It hasn’t affected his professional career, he’s just as empty-headed as usual on the radio. Mind you, we don’t hear him till after so we don’t get to do a before-or-after, which I think would have made the film stronger in that respect, maybe he is down.
The point is, Allan himself feels his show, his clownish on-air persona, to be empty-headed. He’s looking for something new, something to be a change of direction, a change of flavour as he and the film put it. And it comes at random, taking us into the meat of the film.
Stuck in a traffic jam, Allan finds himself next to an ice cream van, Mr Bunny, in which there’s a very pretty girl with long curly hair (of course she’s pretty, she’s Clare Grogan, here billed under her Equity name of C.P. Grogan). On a whim, and because she smiled at him, and despite her being in her early twenties and Allan being early Forties, he follows the van, out into the Wild West suburbs of North Glasgow. There’s even a railway bridge tunnel to go through or, in Alice in Wonderland symbolism, a rabbit-hole to drop down.
Because just after Allan succumbs to temptation and buys a 99, with raspberry, from talkative Trevor (Alex Norton, later of Taggart) and the silent Charlotte, two guys in ski-masks pull up and start attacking the van with iron bars: whee, we really are in Glasgow, aren’t we? And just before driving off, one of them wants Dicky Bird’s autograph.
What the film is segueing into is Forsyth’s take on the infamous Glasgow Ice Cream Wars (a topic introduced to him by Peter Capaldi, who comes from a Scottish ice cream family). It’s the old, established Mr McCool line, run by an impeccably Italian family who give off the old Mafiaair, and the independent, semi-cowboy Mr Bunny (formerly Mr Softy) upcomers.
Allan can’t believe that so violent a war is taking place in suburban Glasgow, under his DJ nose, and about something so trivial as ice cream. The McCool’s ask him to arrange a meeting, as a neutral, but all they’re doing is using him to find the Mr Bunny factory so they can smash it up. Allan’s trying to impress Charlotte, except that Grogan is being woefully underused in the film: she gets to hang around looking decorative, one lengthy speech all in Italian, and the would-be relationship dies an unstarted death when Forsyth seems to forget it.
Because the ‘twist’ is, and it falls as flat as everything is now becoming, that these two sides are family: Charlotte is Mr McCool’s daughter, Trevor – who comes from an old-established fisn’n’chip shop background – his nephew. Allan’s completely irrelevant.
But he’s also essential to solving this problem, by steering both families into a highly-profitable joint venture, ice-cream fritters. That’s it, a cold but intact ball of ice-cream in a deep-fried batter. Everybody goes nuts for it. And Allan gets 30% off the top on account of a) it’s his idea – even if he stole it from a station on-air recipe and a thriving Chinese industry and b) only he holds the secret of the ingredient that preserves the ice-cream from melting in the deep-fat fryer: the Chinese don’t give this secret out to just anyone, he points out, hoping to flim-flam the audience past the fact that Forsyth can’t come up with a reason they’d share it with him.
(I think we’re meant to assume it’s because he’s Dicky Bird, local personality, has his autograph requested everywhere he goes.)
So, that’s the war over. And we leave Dicky Bird in the studio on Christmas Day afternoon, volunteering to cover the shift of a colleague married with children, and just presenting a relaxed, unhurried, lightweight show. He’s still without the mysterious Maddie, he hasn’t tried to get anywhere with Charlotte, he’s just a local radio DJ again, without a thought in his head.
Which isn’t necessarily that bad. It’s not my sort of thing and you’d have to strap me onto a rack before you could get me to listen to it, but Forsyth slips in a scene, in a quiet and almost irrelevant section of the film, where Allan visits his surgeon friend, Colin (a laid-back to the point of being almost horizontal Patrick Mallahide), whilst he’s doing his rounds. He introduces Dicky to an eldeerly lady who’s been there two months. She’s quietly delighted. She listens to his show every morning, she’s always up early, and she enjoys it immensely.
It’s a reminder to us, and implicitly to Dicky, that even being an empty-headed local radio DJ isn’t meaningless, that there are folk for whom this is a welcome pleasue, a comfort and joy, and that they and he are not to be despised because our tastes and preferences are different.
No, Comfort and Joy now doesn’t work for me, at all. Whilst the lead players are all good actors, there are two many awkward and stilted players in the minor roles, who bring a wooden aspect to the film, whilst the look of the film, from its film-stock to its sweeping vistas of Glasgow inner-city motorways, conveys the impression of a TV film, even though this was a full commercial cinema release. It’s definitely the weakest of Forsyth’s Scottish films (I have heard, from every source I’ve seen, that the belated sequel, Gregory’s Two Girls, is awfy bad, but as not even the rack could get me to profane my love for the original film by watching that, I’ll never have to decide).
So: almost fourteen months since I started this Sunday morning film series, and this is my first all-out disappointment, I shalln’t rush to give ita third spin.