It’s 40 years since the Scottish romcom, starring a cast of unknowns, became a surprise hit – and paved the way for talents like Danny Boyle
By Tim Robey
“The British are coming!”. With these infamous words at the 1982 Oscars, Colin Welland collected his trophy for the Chariots of Fire screenplay. Perhaps surprisingly, though, he lost the Bafta that year to a proudly Scottish success story.
That film was Gregory’s Girl, the tale of a shy, lanky schoolboy (John Gordon Sinclair) and his hapless attempts to woo the girl (Dee Hepburn) who has taken his place on the football team. This unassuming romantic comedy, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month, is a classic example of a low-key production which could have disappeared, but won such enthusiastic word-of-mouth acclaim that it ended up becoming a far bigger hit than its Glaswegian director, 34-year-old Bill Forsyth, ever dreamed of.
Cast largely with unknown 18-year-olds plucked from Glasgow’s Youth Theatre, it was shot in 35mm over the summer of 1980 in Cumbernauld, the 1950s New Town best-known as an administrative base for the Inland Revenue. From a budget of £200,000, Gregory’s Girl would end up grossing £25.8 million around the world (not that far off the worldwide take for The Shining the previous year), and played in some London cinemas for an astounding 75 weeks.
In fact, Forsyth had intended it as an even smaller, 16mm venture when he first wrote it in 1977. But when another of his films, a larky teen heist movie called That Sinking Feeling, was a hit at the Glasgow Film Festival, he was able to put together Gregory’s Girl on a fuller scale.
John Gordon Sinclair, an apprentice electrician, had appeared in That Sinking Feeling, but was amazed to be offered the all-important role of Gregory, especially opposite Dee Hepburn, a charismatic blonde bombshell and pin-up-in-waiting who already had some acting experience on television.
“Everyone was a bit in awe of Dee,” Sinclair has admitted. Forsyth, who had noticed Hepburn in an advert, arranged for the actress to have six weeks of intensive football training at Partick Thistle FC, so that her character, Dorothy, could believably come bounding onto the pitch and leave Gregory’s dreams of being the star striker in tatters.
Ironically, despite the attention she gained here, Hepburn’s later acting career was the shortest-lived of the three main players. As well as establishing Sinclair as a familiar face on film and TV, the film launched the career of Clare Grogan, who plays Susan, the other lass waiting on the sidelines while Gregory’s infatuation with Dorothy sputters out. Susan, as anyone who has seen the film knows, is the real Gregory’s Girl.
Perhaps the freshest conceit of Forsyth’s script is that all this basically happens over the course of a single day, as Gregory dons a borrowed jacket in a nervy state to meet Dorothy, but gets stood up, and winds up having an impromptu date with Susan instead. As the afternoon fades, they find themselves lying on the grass, swapping favourite numbers, and arm-dancing at the base of a tree. It feels very true to the whimsical, slightly makeshift quality of teenage dalliances and the pains of growing up.
“I think it worked because it didn’t patronise anyone; there was a level of honesty that you don’t normally get in teen films,” Forsyth has said.
Grogan, now 59, was a part-time waitress at the Spaghetti Factory in Glasgow, when the director spotted her, mentioned he was casting a new film, and asked for her number. “My mum had warned me about strange men, so I said no! But then he contacted my manageress, who convinced me I should think about it,” she says.
She would go on to have a rambunctious performing career, not only as a stage and screen actress, but as the lead singer of the 1980s new wave band Altered Images, who got signed by CBS Records while the film was in production. Her role in Gregory’s Girl is smaller than the other two leads, but she’s the ace up its sleeve, because of Susan’s wise-beyond-her-years demeanour and her magical chemistry with Sinclair, with whom she has remained close friends over the years.
Her Louise Brooks-esque bob was a convenient way to conceal a recent facial wound, but also – like her beret – sprang fully formed from Grogan’s own precocious aesthetic. Essentially functioning as her own costume designer, she created an iconic look.
“I was really quite fond of silent movie stars,” she tells me. “I mean, I had delusions of grandeur beyond belief, even at that age! So I was quite into the style.
“I didn’t realise what an incredibly privileged position I’d ended up in until afterwards, when the reality of having a career in this business suddenly hits you. When you’re that age, and you think, ‘When I leave school, I’d like to be a film star and a pop star’? That’s what happened. And I will never understand that.”
Despite her self-confident style, Grogan, for many years, was unable to watch herself in the film and, in fact, only watched the full thing in 2015, when the BFI included Gregory’s Girl in a special Love season. She saw it with her then-ten-year-old daughter Ellie, realising that opportunities to catch it on a big screen might not come along too often again, with a child who was “just old enough to get it.”
Idyllic though Cumbernauld looks in Gregory’s Girl, 1980 was actually the worst summer in the area since 1907, and the colour of the football pitch kept changing in the rain. Nevertheless, the cast have fond memories of filming.
“Shooting never felt like work,” Sinclair told a journalist in 2015. “You knew you were getting it right because you’d see Bill’s shoulders shaking with laughter behind the camera. I had to ask him to move out of my eyeline, because it would get quite distracting.”
Grogan says she remembers a lot of it “really clearly.” “I particularly remember the part with me sitting on a bollard whistling, waiting for John Gordon to arrive. Bill had been determined that I had to be a whistler. And of course I couldn’t whistle. I was a seriously crap whistler! So I had to practice considerably.”
As for lying on the grass, trading pet integers with her co-star as they waved their hands in the air, “that very much came from Bill. I’ve been asked to do that in many places, by many different people, to recreate that moment. Including on the Tube.”
It was thanks to Gregory’s Girl’s success that a number of Scottish financing bodies sprang up in the 1980s, paving the way for the first features of Danny Boyle and Lynne Ramsay, among others. The film, as Grogan once learned, is a firm favourite of Martin Scorsese, and the influence of its quirky humanism on the likes of Wes Anderson and Shane Meadows is obvious.
Forsyth would become a critical darling with the likes of Local Hero (1983), Comfort and Joy (1984) and the sublime Housekeeping (1987), but would never again reach these heights at the box office.
With its mischievous first scene of Gregory and pals ogling an undressing girl through her bedroom window, the film’s formula is that it starts out as the Scottish, small-town equivalent of a Porky’s-esque adolescent sex comedy, and then, with an ever more tender trajectory, gets real.