Where to begin with Bill Forsyth

With a 4K restoration of Gregory’s Girl coming to Blu-ray and UHD, we pick a path through the whimsical comedies and darker turns in the career of the great Scottish director Bill Forsyth.

Gregory’s Girl (1980)

Why this might not be so easy

One of the great injustices of the British film industry over the last 25 years is that there has been no place in it for the cockeyed perspective of Scottish director Bill Forsyth. His last film was 1999’s Gregory’s 2 Girls, a belated sequel to his breakthrough second feature, and its critical mauling seemed to put a stake through his career. 

Forsyth was once considered among the shining lights of British cinema, but while his two biggest successes – Gregory’s Girl (1980) and Local Hero (1983) – have never wanted for acclaim or affection, his other six films, all witty and strange and worthy of attention, have teetered on obscurity since their release, with a couple of them falling through the cracks completely.

Perhaps one reason Forsyth hasn’t been taken as seriously as his peers (Ken Loach or Mike Leigh, say, or Alan Clarke) is that his films – on the surface at least – are often comedies of the most whimsical variety. There’s also the perceived wisdom that Forsyth’s move across the pond to seek his fortunes in Hollywood resulted in a dilution of the charming quirks that made his early Scottish films so special. As such, his three American features are particularly underappreciated.

Look a little harder, though, and you’ll find a fascinating body of work. Despite an eclectic career spanning daft comedies made on shoestring budgets (That Sinking Feeling, 1979), classy literary adaptations (Housekeeping, 1987), director-for-hire gigs (Breaking In, 1989) and century-spanning epics (Being Human, 1994), Forsyth’s films have an instantly recognisable off-beat rhythm. They hum with humanity, even when delving into the themes of depression and loneliness that permeate his work.

The best place to start – Gregory’s Girl

That Sinking Feeling announced his talents, Local Hero is the more celebrated critically, but Forsyth’s breakthrough second feature is the perfect introduction to his skew-whiff comic sensibility. 

Gregory’s Girl (1980)

It’s easy to see why this 1980 film is so beloved. With great humour and humanity, it charts the awkward first kindlings of romantic desire experienced by the schoolboy of the title, a gangly beanpole of a lad played wonderfully by John Gordon Sinclair. At the start of the film, Gregory suffers the indignity of being relegated to goalkeeper on his school’s football team after a talented new student takes his position as striker. This new player just happens to be a girl, and Gregory is smitten after admiring her delicate first touch at tryouts. 

There’s no shortage of films about first love, but what makes Gregory’s Girl stand apart from the endless parade of American teen movies in the 80s is the unlikeliness of this romantic hero and the gently absurdist sensibility of Forsyth’s cinema, which eschews a traditional structure for a more lackadaisical plot full of playful digressions. A head teacher with a fondness for sweet pastries and a mysterious penguin wandering the school halls are among the delightful running gags. Despite mining much humour from Gregory’s hopeless wooing, Forsyth performs magic in the film’s final moments: some of the sweetest and most romantic in all of cinema.

What to watch next

After the success of Gregory’s Girl, Forsyth teamed up with David Puttnam, the UK’s golden boy producer of the 80s, for his third feature, Local Hero. Essentially a culture clash comedy, it follows a hard-nosed oil executive from Texas who’s shipped to a remote fishing village in Scotland to convince the locals to sell their homes to make way for a huge oil refinery. Stories of yuppies finding a soul were all the rage in the 80s, but Forsyth’s wrinkle is that the locals are even more avaricious than the oil man, and are very happy to take the cash; it’s the yuppie who becomes moon-eyed for the town and its idyllic way of life. Local Hero still feels fresh, partly because it delivers its schmaltz with a dollop of cynicism. Forty years later, its message of community over capitalism is more potent than ever.

Local Hero (1983)

You’ll find darker tones in Forsyth’s 1979 debut That Sinking Feeling, a cheap-as-chips heist movie made with greenhorn actors from Glasgow’s Youth Theatre, many of whom would go on to fill out the cast in Gregory’s Girl. It paints a rather bleak picture for its teen characters at the dawn of Thatcher’s Britain: unemployment in Glasgow is soaring, leaving one of the film’s youngsters so depressed he considers drowning himself in a bowl of cornflakes. 

That Sinking Feeling (1979)

As would become Forsyth’s trademark, fantasy soon bleeds into reality. The teens hatch a cockamamy plan to escape destitution through an audacious heist of stainless steel sinks that involves an unlikely cross-dressing seduction and a homemade sleeping potion straight out of Sleeping Beauty. For all That Sinking Feeling’s flights of fancy, there’s a gritty realism to the protagonists’ predicament – and to the city itself. Forsyth finds the most dilapidated corners of Glasgow to film in, suggesting his hometown needs a cash injection as much as the broke teens.

Comfort and Joy (1984) concerns the existential crisis facing Alan ‘Dicky’ Bird, a callow DJ at a Glasgow radio station, during the run-up to Christmas. As with That Sinking Feeling, deep pathos is married with a goofy crime story as Dicky becomes embroiled in a turf war between two rival ice cream vendors. Dicky sees this ice cream war – not to be confused with the real and incredibly violent ice cream wars of 80s Glasgow involving rival gangs who would move drugs using ice cream vans – as an opportunity to escape the shallow banter of morning radio and move into serious investigative journalism. In a similar way, Comfort and Joy was Forsyth exploring a more serious tone, which would only get darker and more contemplative in the second half of his career in America.

Housekeeping (1987)

There’s a case to be made for Housekeeping, Forsyth’s first film made outside Scotland and his only literary adaptation, as his masterpiece. It’s certainly his most beautiful and gracefully constructed film – critic Jonathan Rosenbaum accurately described its storybook depiction of the Pacific Northwest in the 1950s as almost Terrence Malick-like. It’s easy to see what drew Forsyth to Marilynne Robinson’s novel. It concerns many of the themes Forsyth returned to throughout his career – mental illness, depression, a rejection of social norms. Working in a more serious mode here enabled him to explore them in greater depth.

Breaking In is the Forsyth film most in need of discovery. Its breezy script is by John Sayles and concerns the partnership that forms between ageing safecracker Ernie (played by Burt Reynolds, giving one of his warmest performances) and Mike, the young ne’er-do-well that he takes under his wing, after they attempt to burgle the same house – Ernie to raid the family’s safe, Mike to raid the fridge for a bite to eat. The tender relationship that forms between the old pro and his impetuous apprentice is the backbone of the film, but, as is Forsyth’s way, this is not your typical 80s buddy movie. He subverts the idea that common ground can be formed between the odd couple, and again we’re left with a sweet movie with a bitter aftertaste. 

Being Human (1994)

Forsyth’s Hollywood career came to an acrimonious end with Being Human, an epic portmanteau starring Robin Williams as five men across different eras of human history: a caveman, a slave during the Roman Empire, a medieval traveller, a shipwreck survivor, and a divorced landlord in contemporary Manhattan. The film was much compromised by studio interference and essentially taken out of Forsyth’s hands. It would be a generous viewer that said the resulting film succeeds in its grand attempt to investigate the meaning of human existence, but Forsyth’s ambition cannot be faulted and Williams’ performance brims over with compassion.

Where not to start

After the failure of Being Human, Forsyth returned to Scotland for Gregory’s 2 Girls. The film is not the unmitigated disaster that it was reported to be on its release, but it never reaches the comedic heights of Forsyth’s earlier homegrown efforts. Its main failing, however, is souring the memory of the original film’s romantic hero. According to the sequel, Gregory Underwood never grew up: he’s still gauche and still obsessing over high school girls. It was endearing when Gregory was a gangly 15-year-old high school student, but beyond creepy when he’s a thirtysomething high school teacher. Sometimes you can’t go home again. 

Gregory’s Girl will be released on Blu-ray and 4K UHD on 11 September 2023.

That Sinking Feeling is available as a dual format edition (Blu-ray and DVD).

A selection of Bill Forsyth films are available on BFI Player.

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