Bill Forsyth was born William David Forsyth in Glasgow on 29 July 1946 and educated at Knightswood School. On leaving school, aged 17, he answered an advertisement for a “Lad required for film company” and spent the next eight years making short documentary films.
Leaving documentary production in 1977, Forsyth wrote the scripts for Gregory’s Girl and That Sinking Feeling in the hope of breaking into feature films. Obtaining finance, however, proved frustrating and problematic. The BFI Production Board rejected Gregory’s Girl three times. Forsyth later observed, “I remember one torment of a meeting when I tried to explain that Gregory’s Girl was really a structuralist comedy… I suspect my script was too conventional although nobody actually told me as much.”.
That Sinking Feeling was eventually made in 1979 with amateur actors from the Glasgow Youth Theatre, including John Gordon Sinclair (who later took the lead in Gregory’s Girl (1981)), its tiny budget raised from a variety of sources. Forsyth’s distinctive voice as writer-director is already apparent in this tale of a robbery of stainless steel sinks by a gang of unemployed Glasgow teenagers – intensely humanistic and humorous yet with an underlying seriousness of purpose. This ability to create a self-contained yet believable world with a keen sense of the absurd and bizarre in the everyday is perhaps only rivalled by the work of British television writer Alan Plater. The film opened to great popular and critical success at the Edinburgh and London Film Festivals but was unable to secure more widespread distribution.
Gregory’s Girl was Forsyth’s breakthrough film. This acutely observed story of adolescence and first love set in a Scottish new town was rapturously received by both critics and public alike. Forsyth’s reputation seemed to be secured by the success of his next venture, Local Hero (1983), a first collaboration with producer David Puttnam.
The film has been compared to the great comedies of Ealing Studios, to Forsyth’s sometime irritation. He has complained of being labelled as “whimsical” by a film establishment that fails to see the more serious aspects of his work. However, it is perhaps fair to say that there remains an affinity between Forsyth’s early work and that of certain Ealing directors, notably Alexander Mackendrick and Robert Hamer, whose comedies also had their darker side.
Forsyth’s next film, Comfort and Joy (1984) was indeed an altogether more sombre work, detailing the trials and tribulations of a local radio DJ whose long-term partner leaves him and who becomes embroiled in the Glasgow “ice cream wars” between competing families of ice cream vendors.
His first American film, shot in Canada and produced by Puttnam during his brief tenure as head of Columbia Pictures, was Housekeeping (1987), a faithful and affectionate adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s acclaimed first novel. Although well received by the critics, it was not a huge success at the box-office. Furthermore, the difficulties in production, with Diane Keaton withdrawing from the film, closely followed by financiers Cannon, were a foretaste of things to come.
Breaking In (US, 1989) was blighted by arguments over tone and casting, with the consequence that for Forsyth the film was “a bastard child. The saddest thing is that it’s now a film that none of us wanted.”. His experiences of his third American film, Being Human (1993) were even worse. Production was dogged by arguments between director and studio, and the film was a major flop at the box-office, with Forsyth later observing “I began to feel like a fifth columnist or someone who had been parachuted behind enemy lines. It’s a very strange experience to embark on a collaboration with people and then find you’re in a battle with them”. That said, Forsyth’s attitude that “The only ambitions I have for the films I make is that they’re appreciated as poetical works” was hardly likely to have endeared him to Hollywood.
Forsyth returned to Britain when the producers of Gregory’s Girl approached him with the idea of making a television series based around the character of Gregory. The series never materialised, but Forsyth reworked the material into the long-awaited sequel to his first hit. However, with typical Forsythian perversity, Gregory’s Two Girls (1999) is more of a deliberate non-sequel. Of the original cast and characters, only John Gordon Sinclair remains, the 35-year-old Gregory still single, still in Cumbernauld, and working as a teacher at his old school. Nevertheless, the film adeptly blends humour, drama, and close observation of character in a way which shows that Forsyth, despite his American experiences, has lost none of his earlier humanism or skill.
The difficulties in obtaining finance, the problems in securing distribution, and the ill-fated encounter with the American film industry are unfortunately all too typical of the experience of a number of British film-makers in recent years. As early as 1983, Colin Vaines spoke of Forsyth’s “unique style: a combination of off-beat humour, precise observation of character, considerable warmth and charm, and an underlying seriousness”. That such a director has been restricted to eight feature films in twenty-three years is indicative of the structural defects relating to production, distribution and exhibition that have hampered British filmmakers since the 1960s.
Clare Grogan was a waitress at the Spaghetti Factory in the West End – where Stravaigan is now – in 1980 when she was discovered by director Bill Forsyth, who cast her alongside members of the Glasgow Youth Theatre in Gregory’s Girl. Shortly afterwards, her band, Altered Images, signed a record deal for their debut LP, Happy Birthday.
Altered Images went on to tour and release music until 1984 when Clare went solo. She has continued her acting and performing career, adding television presenting and writing a children’s novel, Tallulah and the Teenstars, about a girl who forms a pop band.
I have travelled the world and although I’m biased, I think Glasgow has an amazing amount to offer. The buildings are spectacular, the arts, music and culture scene is incredibly diverse and inclusive. And the curries are the best.
My daughter Elle asked me when she was little if everyone in Glasgow knew each other – I explained that people in Glasgow are the friendliest people I’ve ever come across. We try to keep that flag waving in London where we live.
My earliest memories here are of growing up in Hill Street and being afraid of the Art School building around the corner. I remember my great aunt Winnie playing the organ at St Aloysius Church and watching films sitting on my mum’s knee at the ABC cinema on Sauchiehall Street.
Our neighbours, the Capaldis, gave me and my sisters Margaret and Kathleen chewing gum – which we were not allowed. I also remember my Dad’s spag bols. And new shoes from Clarks at the start of every school term.
I had my first cappuccino in Cafe Gandolfi – still one of my favourite places to meet and eat.
I also love the Kelvingrove Gallery – my parents took us when we were little and I go every year. It’s particularly amazing if someone is playing the organ.
I love the Centre for Contemporary Arts and I love the Citizens Theatre – where I saw my first naked man!
I can’t leave out the No 59 bus…don’t know if it’s still a thing, but it took me everywhere I needed to go and I had the best laughs at the back of the bus on it.
When I think of Glasgow I think of crossing the Kingston Bridge and looking both ways down the Clyde.
It’s still one of my favourite places to shop and I still love running occasionally to all the corners of Bellahouston Park where I used to run when we moved to the Southside.
I love Glasgow every which way – it’s in every bit of me.
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.
Set in the 1950s, the movie is a lesson in the suffocating domesticity that women of that time faced.
A picture is worth a thousand words, but what of a poster? The poster for Bill Forsyth’s1987 film Housekeeping, based on Marilynne Robinson’s celebrated first novel, features an illustration of a youngish woman with curly brown hair. She’s plonked in an upholstered armchair, the armchair marooned in the middle of a flooded living room. Her calves are submerged in water: an errant teapot, two unlabelled tin cans and an umbrella float about her ankles. “The story of a woman slightly distracted by the possibilities of life”, announces the poster’s tag line. Look closely and she’s smirking. Continue reading →
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 →