Film 2019: Comfort and Joy

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.

Film 2018: Gregory’s Girl

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.

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.