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.
The teenage romantic comedy set in a Scottish new town has been an enduring success for 40 years.
Hardly a day goes by without somebody asking Clare Grogan to quote a line from Gregory’s Girl, the teenage romantic comedy set in a Scottish new town which became an unlikely hit when it was released 40 years ago this week.
“Sometimes they ask me if I can lie down in a bank of grass and dance,” says Grogan, who was just 18 when she filmed that scene in the film four decades ago.
Grogan, whose career also included huge success as a pop star in the band Altered Images, told BBC Scotland she does not mind the constant reminders of a film she made when she was a teenager.
The sweet coming of age film, written and directed by Bill Forsyth and set in the new town of Cumbernauld, was released four decades ago on April 23, 1981.
Then, it felt like a story of our times and gave Scottish life a lighter, more modern feel. A dreamy synth soundtrack unfolded over scenes of fresh housing, concrete walkways and wide open spaces shaped by the promise of a new way of new town living.
The sun always seemed to be shining – or setting – on this place where pretty girls in cool clothes played football and did science experiments at a gargantuan comprehensive, the real-life Abronhill High. Boys were gangly geeks, children were more grown up than the teachers and little sisters were the boss.
Dee Hepburn as Dorothy and John Gordon Sinclair as Gregory in the 1981 classic movie, Gregory’s Girl. It was released 40 years ago today. PIC: Contributed.
For those who saw the film as a kid in the early 80s – possibly on one of the first VHS tapes to come into the house – it seemed to mark a moment. Forty years on, the same still seems true.
Dr Jonny Murray, Senior Lecturer in Film and Visual Culture at Edinburgh College of Art, said: “For many people from a certain generation there is an undying affection for Gregory’s Girl mainly because, for many of us, it was everyday Scottish life as we recognised it put on a cinema screen.
John Gordon Sinclair as Gregory, the gangly schoolboy who got his girl in the end. PIC: Contributed.
“You have the pleasure of watching the film and being able to recognise this incredibly imaginative and humorous depiction of how we lived our lives.”
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 →