Film 2018: That Sinking Feeling


Year’s full end is rounding out, with apologies to Tom Yeates, and for a third and final time, my Sunday morning DVD choice turns to Bill Forsyth. That Sinking Feeling, which he wrote and directed, was made in 1979, on location in Glasgow (which is another way of saying that the film could not afford sets) and starred members of the GlasgowYouth Theatre, who took part unpaid. There are low-budget films and then there’s That Sinking Feeling, which Forsyth himself described as ‘no-budget’.

And it shows, in the film stock, in the absence of sets, in the way the cast, talented though they are, are nevertheless rough and awkward, and the setting of Glasgow – albeit, as Forsyth quickly asserts, a fictional Glasgow bearing no resemblance to the real Glasgow, yeah, right – is grimy, wet and unprepossessing. Yet that’s the film’s strength. Slickness and high-res quality would break this slight but absurd tale of unemployed youngsters setting out to fill in some time, and get rich beyond their wildest (limited) dreams by steeling 93 stainless steel sinks.

The no-budget retriction makes a story that’s deftly tuned to its soft-edged surrality by grounding everything in a naturalism that’s enfirced by every cel of the film. Forsyth gets his points in quickly to set everything up: first a scene where the gangly Vic (John Hughes) hesitantly approaches a hamburger van, asking the price of a burger, is told it’s 35p, thinks it over very carefully, then says he’ll come back tomorrow. Then Ronnie (Robert Buchanan, the film’s prime mover) talking in the Park, in the rain, to the statue of Earl Roberts, disparagingly comparing the luminary’s honours with his own two O-levels before kicking a bench in frustration at not having a job. And lastly Wal (Billy Greenlees) and Simmy (Douglas Sannachan) standing in a warehouse doorway, sheltering from the rain, until Wal just wanders off, shoulders hunched into the collar of an inadequate jacket.

It’s a concise indication that these lads, all school-leavers in their late teens, have nothing. They’re going nowhere, with no money on which to do it, and the days are very long when there’s nothing to do. Sensibly, Forsyth presents this without commentary, beyond Ronnie’s reference to having (only) two O-levels and, later on, Alec (Allan Love) having been sacked from a job in the accounts section of the warehouse they rob. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the socio-economic conditions of the back half of the Seventies or the personal failings of these inexperienced kids. The point is that they are ordinary people, and they are screwed.

Which is the justification for Ronnie’s ambitious plan to rob a local warehouse of stainless steel sinks, going for £60 a pop in the stores.

Of course it’s absurd. Nicking sinks? With no plans to cash them in afterwards? It’s silly, and more than slightly desperate. But that’s the point. What the lads have got is nothing to do. They have no point or purpose. They have long days in which to exist. We see them in a bubble, without families to detract from their directionless state. They compare notes on the best way to kill themselves, a lightweight moment but a serious consideration, about which Forsyth comes up with the film’s best line, “There’s gotto be more to life than killing yourself.”

And that’s what we understand about the robbery. It’s a job, it gives them something to do, it fulfills something that life isn’t doing for them. Forsyth never goes there, never waves it in our face, but it’s plain to see. The scheme rapidly expands to encompass a dozen or so old schoolmates, including a couple of girls, though they don’t play an active or significant part.

It’s a very simple plot, one that we instinctively know would never work in real life, even in these ramshackle, downtrodden years. Vic suggests two of them dressed up as cleaning women to distract the guard whilst a key is smuggled out to the waiting gang. They have a van, a baker’s van, semi-nicked by Bobby (Derek Millar, the oonly one who has a job), they have ample hands to carry, not to mention a ninja look-out in the shape of Andy (John Gordon Sinclair, here appearing just as Gordon Sinclair, who has a minor and mainly sily role but who steals every minute he’s onscreen, as the most naturally talented actor in the bunch). What could go wrong?

Well, that’s the sort of question that dogs a Dortmunder Gang book, and That Sinking Feeling knows it well, but the job is pulled off successfully, the gang get away with it, and you last see them enjoying the cakes and rolls from a stolen bread van and conjuring up a second job, stealing gallons of Irn Bru and selling it out of their own tanker.

But it’s in the details that the film enjoys its most comic moments. Vic volunteers to dress up as one of the cleaning ladies, embracing the idea of dressing up as a woman with far too much enthusiasm, especially for his girlfriend Mary (Vic seems to be the only one with a girlfriend: Mary – Janette Rankin – is the only named female role in the film and her role is strictly limited but you can easily imagine her into Gregory’s Girl as a Carol or a Margot). Wal’s the other woman and, of course, when the watchman (Gerry Clark) turns out to be a greasy and pathetic sleaseball, it’s Wal he fancies his chances with, to Vic’s steaming frustration.

Alec is the complete dumbhead, forever getting things wrong. Ronnie is hooked on cornflakes and milk. Andy complains about Ronnie promising him endless riches and touching him for 37p to pay for their coffees: the lady at the counter is symapthetic, agreeing that you need money to carry out a robbery.

But the film effortlessly elevates itself into straight-out surreality with the Van Driver (Eddie Burt). Bobby, who’s studying chemistry at Night School, concocts a sleeping potion to put in his thermos of tea. What he doesn’t tell Ronnie is that his only experiment was on a mouse, which slept for four months.

Eddie the driver falls asleep in an instant, behind the wheel. He has to be lugged all the way through the robbery, snoring stentoriously, his right hand raised, gripping an invisible thermos cup. Bobby, anxious to test his his potion, gives some to the warehouse cat, which is found snoring. Both wind up in hospital, where it’s worked out that Eddie will wake up in 2068, asking for his breakfast. The Doctor spirals off into a resonant fantasy of the world eighty years on – the ring road will be finished! – whilst all the patient in the next bed can do is complain about the (clearly dubbed) snoring.

This isn’t a laugh out loud movie. It’s a film of chuckles, the odd chortle and, as we get more and more into the characters, a decent amount of giggling. In a silly way, it’s almost a feelgood film. We are on the gang’s side, and wish them well. They won’t get rich. Wal sells four sinks to a gallery owner (Richard Demaco, sportingly playing himself, who mistakes them for an art installation) for £200, and the film’s brief closing shot is of the minor gang member whose ambition is to buy an electric guitar and decent amps, who we see sat in his bedsit, playing his guitar with an expression of quiet contentment.

But they’ve had fun, they’ve shared a purpose, they’ve had something to do. For a few days, a couple of weeks maybe, they’ve mattered, if only to themselves. The job has been a success because it’s been a job. If they do it again, it’ll probably blow up in their faces. Maybe they’ll give up the Irn Bru idea for something a bit more practical? Or maybe this is the height of theirambitions and the experience of working towards a goal will alter their lives to the extent that they’ll be fit for whatever real jobs there may be.

That we can speculate in such a manner about the future lives of a bunch of absurd kids is a testament to Forsyth’s writing and direction. That Sinking Feeling is no Gregory’s Girl, and it’s completely of its time – the massively flared jeans, the long hair make it almost into a social documentary – but it’s underlying situation is more serious than his later, more popular, more successful films. Maybe that’s why it never showed a profit?

For America, where the film came out in 1983, the film was dubbed with less overtly Scottish accents – Edinburgh voices, not Glasgow – and that’s the version that came out on DVD in 2009, but the BFI remastered two-disc set from 2014 restores the original soundtrack, and yes it’s occasionally incomprehensile, but it feels righter.

Film 2018: Local Hero


Local Hero was Bill Forsyth’s third film as writer and director and his first to move beyond working with the Scottish Youth Theatre (though the connection is not entirely forgotten, with John Gordon Sinclair and Caroline Guthrie having minor but amusing roles). It stars Burt Lancaster, in a typically graceful role, though the film actually belongs to the unlikely duo of Peter Reigert and Denis Lawson, the latter of whom doesn’t even get billed as a star.

Like Forsyth’s first two films, the story is about, and largely takes part in Scotland, in the fictional fishing village of Ferness on the West coast. Knox Oil, a big American company owned by Felix Happer (Lancaster), plans to build an oil refinery in the only suitable place, Ferness. ‘Mac’ Macintyre (Reigart), a skilled negotiator, is sent to buy the place, everything between both headlands and up to a mile inland.

Mac is your fish out of water, complaining from the outset at having to actually go to Scotland: he calls himself a telex man (seriously dating the film or what?) and that he could wrap up the deal in an afternoon by telex. In Aberdeen he finds local Know representative Danny Oldsen (a young and fresh-faced Peter Capaldi) wished upon him as an assistant. They also meet and admire, Oldsen especially, a marine biologist named Marina (Jenny Seagrove in a dark-blue swimsuit).

The pair drive westward to Ferness. Forsyth adds a Brigadoon touch, having the pair stuck in mist after hitting a rabbit with the car (Oldsen names it Harry, Mac Trudy, after his ex-, and whilst they think they’re nursing it back to health, they end up with it being served to them as Casserole de lapin). After a night in the car, in the mist, they wake to a beautiful coastline and clear air. The nod to the magical village, which is accessible only once a year, sets the tone for the externally idyllic village, set in a place of immense beauty, and gives us expectations that Forsyth will quickly puncture.

You see, this tine, enclosed village, this home to families whose roots in the land go back centuries, this backwater of peace and stillness, where people do all that’s needed and time ceases to be a concern, can’t wait for the Americans to buy them out and make them stinking rich.

That’s the central joke of the film, and one that negates the traditional tension that stories of this kind tend to portray. Mac and Oldsen book in to the hotel, run by Gordon (Lawson) and Stella Urquhart (Jennifer Black), a married couple with a healthy appetite for each other that, in keeping with Forsyth’s approach, is treated as a semi-comic, semi-admirable joke. Gordon also turns out to be the Chartered Accountant Mac’s here to negotiate with, playing things cool on behalf of the village, who all want the money: Gordon’s just doing everything he can to make sure that they squeeze out everything they realistically can, rather than undersell themselves.

But it all takes time, and that’s the point. Mac begins as the fish out of water, chafing at having to work to Scottish pace, with nothing realistically to do except to hang around and wait, and gradually let the atmosphere of Ferness seep into him. His problem becomes that Ferness is unspoiled, that he is there to spoil it irrecoverably, that he doesn’t want to see that happen, but that the villagers want it passionately.

Typically, Forsyth throws in a Russian fishing boat captain, Victor (Christopher Rozycki), a regular and celebrated visitor, not to mention a closet capitalist whose portfolio Gordon manages, to remind Mac that the villagers lead a hard life, that the money he represents is a godsend to them, making life incredibly easy for them, and that at the end of the day they have the right to make decisions for themselves. Mac remains troubled however. He even offers to swap lives with Gordon: Gordon can have Houston, the Porsche, the salary and the stocks, Mac will have Ferness. And Stella, of course, don’t forget Stella.

I’ll come back to Stella, and Marina, and Caroline Guthrie’s part, but the story demands a twist. We’ve been expecting all along, because there’s always one in real life, and stories like this demand one to make them into stories as opposed to still pictures, but with everything going swimmingly, Gordon discovers the hitch; the beach itself, four miles of seafront, is owned by old Ben, the beachcomber, Ben Knox to give him his full name. Ben is played by Fulton Mackay, the third named star, in gently obtuse bucolic manner. And Ben won’t sell. There has to be one.

Ben’s attitude is that he needs to work the beach for its benefit, and it is his living. The idea that the money he could make by selling it would make him secure for the rest of his life doesn’t seem to penetrate. Not need to work: We  all have to work, he chides, gently.

We’ve already had the nod to Brigadoon, and without being in any way explicit we’re being invited to see Ben in a mythical light too, a protector of the beach, its guardian. He’s not the only figure we’re invited to see in such a subtle light: Marina keeps popping up out of the water, in ankle to neck wet suit, appearing to the faithful and besotted Danny. She’s proposed a marine biology study for the bay, and is convinced Mac and Danny are there to study its financial aspects. Even after Danny confesses about the refinery, she’s blithely convinced it won’t happen. And, like the water goddess we’re meant to see her as, she has webbed feet.

Everything’s being set up for a fairy-tale ending. Mac has a second task, direct from Felix Happer himself. Happer’s obsessed with astronomy and his legacy (which is played on in an unfortunately weak and unfunny strand in which his psychiatrist practices humiliation therapy). He wants a comet to name after himself and wants Mac studying the skies in Scotland. Mac starts off ignorant and bemused, but ends ignorant and enthused by the sight of meteor showers and the Aurora Borealis, the latter of which triggers the film’s denouement.

Again, there’s a gentle hint towards the mythical. Ben’s refusal to sell threatens the whole deal. The villagers start to converge on his beach hut at eve: give them pitchforks and flaming torches and the place could be Castle Frankenstein. Something bad could happen, but not in this film. Enter Happer, Burt Lancaster, arriving by helicopter, literally the deus ex machina, which means ‘the God in the machine’.

Happer’s here to see the skies Mac has raved over, and to talk to Ben, Ben Knox. We don’t get to hear that talk but when Happer emerges, the onshore refinery is dead. An astronomical institute instead. The gangling Oldsen seizes his chance to push Marina’s proposal, inverting the whole prospect: a happy ending. Ferness will remain unspoiled, there’ll still be money in it, though we sense that that will be less all round than for the refinery. Oldsen will stay on with Happer to plan things, Mac is sent back to Houston. That day. Danny, the non-swimmer, commits an act of propitiation, swimming out to greet his goddess with the glad tidings of her worship (though she promptly dives beneath the water).

The ending is deliberately downbeat, with a comic twist that is never more than wry. Mac, who’s come to love Ferness, is wrenched away. We sense it will be his Brigadoon: once gone, he can never return. Clean-shave, suit-and-tie, refusing a private farewell with Stella, helicopter, plane, return to his empty, modern, cold apartment in the Houston night: it’s overbearingly miserable which makes the last touch – the Ferness phone box ringing unanswered, impliedly Macs call – too slight to overcome the melancholy.

It’s not that the ending is bad: like the irony of the title, which makes the ultimate stranger Mac, who isn’t even of Scottish extraction despite his name, the ‘local’ hero to the villagers of Ferness, the ending is an ironic inversion of the theme: the village is not spoiled but Mac is. Completing the under-structure of myth, Brigadoon has been saved. Mac is the sacrifice that preserves the way things should be.

Watching Local Hero the first time, I eagerly expected more of the fun I’d had out of Gregory’s Girl, but these are two different films. Forsyth is dealing with adults and a much more adult situation, and whilst there’s a mild comic inflexion to much of the film, especially in the background, the humour aims more for irony than out and out laughs. The film’s deliberately slow, which sometimes, especially in its American sequences, drags. I’ve already mentioned the abusive psychiatrist, Moritz, which is a crashing mistake, and I’ve got to be honest and say that I don’t find Peter Reigart convincing, especially in his voice: for an American, his American accent sounds like a bad attempt at faking it. Reigart’s lack of energy plays true to the overall feel of the film, but given what he is, it’s unconvincing, especially in the American segment, at the beginning. Reigart has no dynamics, which detracts from his absorption into the life of Ferness less impressive: he comes over as ready for a rest, making the village’s quasi-mythical conversion of him less impressive.

I said I’d return to the ladies, MesDames Seagrove, Black and Guthrie. Watching the film this time, I was struck at just how much a male-dominated film it it (and by extension Forsyth’s first two films are). Apart from a middle-aged shopkeeper with an implied relationship with Victor, these are the only female roles of any note in the film and Guthrie (who was Carol in Gregory’s Girl) has a minimal part as the village’s spiky-haired punk girl who tries to get off with Danny at the ceilidh.

So that leaves two women. Of the two, Seagrove gets the better deal, as the biologist-cum-water goddess. The lady was a beautiful young woman, long hair, clear blue eyes, a slim figure, but she’s out of the loop as far as the story is concerned. With the exception of a few seconds in a lab-coat, and a slightly longer scene in a beautiful gown, she’s only ever seen in swimsuit or wet-suit, in the water. Seagrove looks lovely, plays otherworldly, and after her introductory scene, interacts with  nobody but the gangly, inexperienced Danny (Capaldi makes him into a miracle of loose-limbed unco-ordinated movement, a gem of a performance).

And Jennifer Black gets even less. She’s ever better than a background figure, cool, composed, always fully in control, but she’s nothing to do with the story, despite a last minute attempt to portray her as the Boss. All Stella has to do is stand around, looking pretty, at which she excels, with a natural understated charm that shines through big cardigans and ankle-length practical skirts.

Whereas Seagrove’s Marina was always intended to be a slightly unrealistic character, the film does fall down in failing to capitalise upon Stella, or indeed offering any kind of substantial female role, even though it suspends itself between two very masculine cultures.

So: a film mostly of parts that, for me, never quite wholly coalesce. Still, I wouldn’t get rid of Local Hero, even despite its bloody soundtrack, lauded by many but not me because I mostly cannot stand Mark Knopfler. It was the third of four Scottish films by Forsyth, that led to David Puttnam taking him to Hollywood and basically crashing his career terminally. I think this film stands testament that, limited as it sounds, Forsyth was at his best as a Local Hero.

 

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.