Bill Forsyth was born on July 29, 1946 in Glasgow, Strathclyde, Scotland as William David Forsyth. He is a director and writer, known for Local Hero (1983), Comfort and Joy (1984), Gregory’s Girl (1980), Housekeeping (1987)
Amid the coronavirus crisis, grassroots comedy in Scotland faces potential ‘extinction’ without a lifeline from the government, writes Brian Ferguson.
Can you remember the first time you saw yourself reflected back from a television screen or at the cinema?
It’s quite vivid in my memory as an awkward, hapless schoolboy, watching Gregory’s Girl at home in the mid-1980s. I was agog at not how achingly funny it was, from almost the first frame to the last, but also how true to life it felt to the harsh realities of teenage years when almost everything feels like a total mystery.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Gregory’s Girl recently, partly because it is 40 years old next year. It is undoubtedly a touchstone for my generation, but is still seen as one of the greatest Scottish films of all-time. Director Bill Forsyth is revered as one of the nation’s leading filmmakers, not just for Gregory’s Girl, which was famously honoured in the opening ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012, but for his two other best-known movies, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy. All three comfortably fit into the category of comedy.
Yet 40 years on, the current crop of Scottish comics have had to go into battle to try to secure official recognition for their art form for the first time and a share of the £107m lifeline funding to secure the future of arts and culture north of the border. I’ve come across some bizarre scenarios, but the sight of Scottish stand-ups pleading for fair treatment from the government of a country of Billy Connolly, Frankie Boyle, Still Game, Chewin’ the Fat, Elaine C Smith and Karen Dunbar is right up there.
In the village of Pennan on the Aberdeenshire coast of Scotland, a red, glass-windowed telephone box marks a solitary vigil … a guardian between the encroach of society and the aurora-borealis horizon above the oft-treacherous North Sea.
For nearly 40 years, the telephone box — it is decidedly NOT a “phone booth” — has been one of the most unlikely tourist attractions in Scotland … or anywhere else.
Thousands have come to Pennan (pop. 50, give or take) to visit the box — to have their pictures taken next to it, to make a phone call, to attempt to recapture the well of emotional attachment that began when last they saw it.
When the indispensable Alissa Corman sounded her own clarion call recently, asking her cohorts and co-workers to submit movie choices for the cover story in this week’s Tempo, I immediately found myself on the Aberdeenshire coast — and my last sight of the telephone.
It was ringing. And ringing. And ringing some more. It was pre-dawn in Scotland, and the early evening on the other end of the call in the Houston, Texas, high-rise apartment of “Mac” MacIntyre — the junior executive of Knox Oil and Gas who is the unlikely protagonist of the 1983 cult classic “Local Hero.”
Mac was chosen to go to Pennan (dubbed “Ferness” in the film) to negotiate a deal to buy the town because of the misassumption that, because of his surname, he was Scottish (he actually comes from a line of Hungarians).
He also has a secondary assignment from the company’s owner, Felix Happer, to watch the skies over Ferness, particularly near the constellation of Virgo — and to call Happer immediately if he spots anything unusual.
Which is how Mac, and the audience, meets the telephone box.
Deciding which movies people should watch during a quarantine is a trickier nut to crack than you might think.
Go the route of mindless entertainment, unbridled joy, pure escapism? Get people lost in the tension of a thriller, root for heroines and outcasts against impossible odds, or maybe just let folks settle in for an hour or two of non-stop laughs or goofiness?
Although my thoughts first went to “Local Hero,” I put it aside for a moment to consider other possibilities.
The next name to come up was “The Wrong Trousers” — the Oscar-winning 1993 stop-motion short starring Wallace & Gromit, and featuring a dastardly penguin and one of the great train scenes of any film … even those that aren’t a mere 30 minutes long.
“The Wrong Trousers” brings tears to the eyes and a stitch to the side. You’ll want to watch it again immediately, but err on the side of caution — wait an hour before diving back in.
I almost (you’ll thank me later) suggested the 2008 version of the stage musical “Mamma Mia!” … a nonsensical guilty pleasure not just for the ABBA soundtrack, but for how the Meryl Streep-led cast of stars threw themselves into the material without regard for life and limb, or reputation.
But when deadline approached and Alissa’s call needed to be answered, I was on my way to Scotland.
I have an internet-friend named Martyn — a playwright and proud Scot — and more than once we have gone at it online about the relative merits of what we agree on are writer-director Bill Forsyth’s two best films … “Local Hero” and “Gregory’s Girl.”
I will bore Martyn on-end propping up “Local Hero,” with him responding politely but defiantly explaining how and why and where I have gone wrong with my thinking, and that “Gregory’s Girl” — a comedy about young love and soccer — is far superior.
When he tires of the latest round of the debate, he drops the rhetorical hammer.
“You’re an American. I get it,” he’ll type. “All Americans prefer ‘Local Hero’ because it puts Americans front-and-center. You won’t understand until you become a Scot.”
Martyn, however, is in the midst of rewrite-hell on his latest play, so I win this round.
When we last saw Mac MacIntyre, he was calling the telephone box and — despite the time difference — hopeful that someone would pick up.
“Local Hero” is about how the typical brash junior exec would get to that point.
Well, it involves the stars in the Ferness sky … and a rabbit … and a baby that no one seems to claim parentage of … and a motorcycle that roars through town exactly once a day … and (maybe) a mermaid.
It involves townspeople nearly unanimous in their desire to sell their property to the oil company and move away, and the lone holdout … a man named Knox who owns the beach.
But those are plot points. They get us from A to somewhere close to Z. Forsyth isn’t interested in that journey forward; “Local Hero” is about the journey inward — primarily for Mac, but also for those in his orbit.
Burt Lancaster (in the twilight, character role phase of his career) plays Happer the oil baron as a seeker of truth trapped in the shell of society-enforced protocol. Mac wants to learn the business from him; Happer wants to share other lessons.
Forsyth’s dialogue is sharp and casual.
“We won’t have anywhere to call home,” the town accountant says about the company’s offer, “but we’ll be stinkin’ rich.”
In the end, though, “Local Hero” — backed by a transcendent score from Mark Knopfler — takes us somewhere we haven’t been, then sends us home somehow changed.
And it’s about that phone call.
Story goes that the ending was a compromise with the film’s financial backers … but if so, it plays like found poetry.
Mark Knopfler’s score for the comedy-drama Local Hero saw the artist’s own name on the UK album chart for the first time on 16 April 1983.
Taking the 1996 album Golden Heart as the official starting point, Mark Knopfler‘s solo career span easily outstretches the time he spent at the helm of Dire Straits. But even before that staging post, and during the band’s active service, he made frequent forays into the world of film composing.
The first such project is one that became so dear to his heart, he returned to the theme some 35 years later to write for a musical with the same inspiration. The proposed June 2020 opening of Local Hero at London’s Old Vic, threatened at writing by the coronavirus pandemic, follows the warm critical and public embrace of a fringe production at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh in 2019.
Between ‘Love Over Gold’ and ‘Brothers In Arms’
Prolific as ever, Knopfler was writing for that new presentation at the same time that his ninth solo studio album, Down The Road Wherever, was taking shape. The original commission came as Dire Straits were en route to a reluctant role as global ambassadors of British rock, in the wake of their Love Over Gold set and before Brothers In Arms. His original, self-produced score for director Bill Forsyth’s charming comedy-drama saw his own name on the UK album chart for the first time on 16 April 1983.
The singer, songwriter and guitarist worked on the soundtrack in 1982 sessions at New York’s Power Station and at the now-defunct Eden Studios in west London. The latter’s Chiswick location was a ten-minute drive from the facility he now owns proudly, British Grove Studios, Knopfler’s regular, latter-day recording base.
The release of the Local Hero album was previewed by a single that has become uniquely associated with the Glasgow-born, Newcastle-raised musician. The charming instrumental ‘Going Home’ had memorable lead saxophone lines by the late American jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker. It has especial resonance for fans of English football and in particular those of Knopfler’s home town club, Newcastle United, as it’s played as the team runs out before every home game. It also remains the valedictory closing song of his live set.
The ‘Going Home’ single made a modest UK chart showing in March 1983. The album also featured Knopfler’s acoustic guitar interpretation of the melody on the equally delightful ‘Wild Theme.’ The tune recurred again on the deeply atmospheric ‘The Ceilidh & The Northern Lights’ and ‘Smooching.’ Another memorable moment was provided by Gerry Rafferty’s unmistakable guest vocals on ‘The Way It Always Starts.’
Forsyth’s film, produced and brought to the screen by David Puttman, won the director a BAFTA Award and starred Burt Lancaster, Peter Riegert, Denis Lawson and Fulton Mackay. Its stunning settings were filmed on the Aberdeenshire coast and on the beaches at Morar and Arisaig, on Scotland’s west coast. Continue reading →