Dir. Bill Forsyth (1981)
With John Gordon Sinclair, Clare Grogan, Dee Hepburn, Rab Buchanan, Alex Norton, John Bett, Jake D’Arcy, Dave Anderson and Chic Murray
“Off you go, you small boys!”
I was only a small boy myself when Gregory’s Girl was released in 1981. I’ve seen it so often now, know its lines, its characters, know the world it describes so well, that watching it again feels a bit like putting on one of the family cinefilm reels that my Dad used to make.
Not that my Dad was a film maker of Bill Forsyth’s calibre, of course, but just to let you know that it may be impossible to gain any kind of critical distance from a film that is so close to my heart, that I’ve grown old with like a brother – but, who ever cared for bloodless rationality when it comes to art.
Gregory’s Girl is a coming-of-age film that was shot and set in Cumbernauld, a New Town in the west middle of Scotland’s conurbated belly band (a Canadian friend of mine who once worked there called it ‘cumberbund’) and was made at around the same time as I was coming of age myself in another Scottish New Town, 20 odd miles away.
Watching it for the first time – in a cinema in London in 1982 on a weekend family city break – it felt real. This was us on screen. That town was our town. My school looked just like that one. Those accents were our accents.
And while Gregory’s adolescent growing pains were similar in lots of ways to my growing pains, I wasn’t really a boy like Gregory: I didn’t play football, didn’t play the drums, didn’t gangle the way he did, didn’t have the friends he did, couldn’t speak to teachers the way he did. If Gregory was, according to Susan, “slow and awkward”, I was slower and awkwarder, socially, as well as physically. If Gregory was struggling to get the girl, I was struggling to even speak to them.
I have heard the story is loosely based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I once taught to a class of button-bright second years when I was training to be a teacher, so I do know it a bit. But other than Andy’s clumsy rendering of the play’s dialogue in the window cleaner scene at the high school, the film owes less of a debt to Shakespeare’s topsy-turvy rom-com, than it does to goofy boy-meets-girl caper movies in the Billy Wilder tradition. Besides, Bill Forsyth’s script is much funnier than the bard.
The script is as sharp, as affecting, as clever as it ever was. It certainly hasn’t aged as badly as Cumbernauld has. And if some of the more inexperienced actors can be a bit stagey and am-dram, you barely notice, or even mind, because every other element of the film is so perfectly realised. Watching it again (again, again), it’s clear that the film is as much about that particular ensemble of actors who came together to make the film as it is about the characters they portray: Forsyth has tailored the film for them, in most cases he’s written the parts for them (you get some insight from the cast here). This tailoring may also explain the many scenes that seem to exist only to showcase the talents of the few professional actors in them and which do nothing to advance the plot of the film: Chic Murray at the piano; Jake D’arcy, John Bett and Alex Norton in the staff-room; Dave Anderson in the car.
It’s a film that still brings my brother and I closer, despite the years and the miles and the kids. We can still quote chunks of it at each other, its lines of dialogue can still provide punchlines for decades old family in-jokes. I haven’t watched the film with my brother in a long while but I know for a fact that we could recreate the entire film word for word from memory, and probably crack each other up repeatedly in the process.
It’s because of this deep connection with the film and the way it has become spliced with my relationship with my brother, that I’ve always held Gregory’s Girl up as a useful barometer of a friendship – I’ve watched it and shared it with friends and prospective girlfriends: if you’re laughing along, we’re going to get along. And so it has proved. The one exception was my Italian friend Luca (no, not bella bella), who struggled with the accents, despite his excellent command of English.
Other times the film has become spliced with real life involved meeting “Andy” – actor Rab Buchanan – at Stirling Castle in 1998 where he was directing a history play in the grand salon. I was with a group of foreign language students and was watching the play with some of the other teachers – none of whom could understand why I was so giddy with excitement. At the end, I walked up to him, nervous and beaming, and blurted out something like, “It’s a total honour to shake your hand, Andy. I think you’re brilliant. You were a big part of my childhood.” Or something like that. Embarrassing for everyone, but he was gracious and seemed genuinely flattered and thanked me and that was that.
A few years later, I met “Gordon” – Would you like to do something special this Saturday night? – in the staff room of King’s Park Secondary, the same day it was being shown on TV. I was a supply teacher; he was evidently the drama teacher, and he made absolutely sure everyone knew he was going to be on telly that night. I didn’t introduce myself.
More recently, in 2012, my partner & I went to hear the soundtrack being performed by its composer, Colin Tully. The poster wasn’t saying much beyond that, the date and the venue. But the familiar artwork – John Gordon Sinclair thumbs aloft, Dee Hepburn in her football kit, leaping up for a header – was all the draw we needed. We imagined a projection of the film on stage with a live band. Brilliant!
It didn’t quite turn out like that. The first half was a set of tunes by Colin Tully who was on tour to promote his new album – his band kicked around some technically excellent but quite dated jazz tropes, in a style familiar to fans of, say, early Tommy Smith or late Kenny G. The Gregory’s Girl stuff was condensed into a 30 minute second half, and no film clips – not that you really needed a projector. As soon as you hear that familiar cheeky soprano sax theme, your heart warms and you’re instantly there, walking out onto the red blaze pitch, saying to yourself, “She is gorgeous. She is absolutely gorgeous”.
Weirdly, Tully seemed almost resentful having to play this stuff, annoyed (at us, it felt at times) that he hadn’t been able to shake his association with the film, or at least translate the fame it brought him into something more. . .
If only he’d loved Gregory’s Girl a bit more; perhaps she’d have loved him back.