Gregory’s Girl was released in 1981, the third full length movie from writer/director Bill Forsyth. Its success allowed him to move onto Local Hero, produced by David Putnam and distributed by Fox and Warner Brothers, but his first two movies were low budget features. Gregory’s Girl was produced by Scottish Television (more commonly referred to as STV) and distributed by the now-defunct ITC. Set in Cumbernauld, it tells the tale of Gregory’s first teenage infatuation with Dorothy, the girl who has taken his place in the school football team.
Forsyth had made an impression with his 1979 low budget comedy That Sinking Feeling, where he’d got the younger members of his cast from the Glasgow Youth Theatre, some of whom ended up in the cast of Gregory’s Girl. Of these actors, John Gordon Sinclair remembers Bill Forsyth turning up on his doorstep and telling him he’d got the money together for his new movie, and that he’d like Sinclair to star in it. An apprentice electrician at the time, Sinclair was able to become a full time actor as a result, deemed worthy enough to narrate the 1982 Scotland World Cup Song We Have A Dream.
With a budget of around £200,000, Forsyth was keen to cast unknown and unprofessional actors for budgetary reasons, but also due to the pragmatism of not knowing many at the time. The Glasgow Youth Theatre was a walk-in organisation where people could join without auditioning, and so Forsyth was able to come to an arrangement in visiting their rehearsals. Claire Grogan (who played Susan in the film) attended the more formal Scottish Youth Theatre, but was actually spotted by Forsyth when she was working as a waitress (not at a cocktail bar, but at a restaurant called the Spaghetti Factory, though she was dressed as a South American ballroom dancer at the time). Dee Hepburn, who trained with Partick Thistle to hone her football skills for the movie, was spotted in a commercial for a local business.
The film itself is similarly lo-fi, shot on location in Cumbernauld. That Sinking Feeling was set in inner-city Glasgow, so as a contrast – and because it was an appropriate setting for a film about youth – the town of Cumbernauld was chosen as a setting. Constructed as a new town to relieve post-war housing shortages in Glasgow, it was itself a teenager at the time of filming, and is a unique setting: on a windswept hillside in the Central Belt of Scotland, designed with flyovers and underpasses instead of pedestrian crossings, people leave Cumbernauld both sure-footed and with no sense of road safety whatsoever. The town has a reputation as being, aesthetically speaking, a bit pish. That is not the Cumbernauld you see in Gregory’s Girl, which is almost another character; a sunny and idyllic place with a fresh young cast, it belies both the town’s reputation and the fact that filming took place in the wettest summer since 1907.
It begins, as do so many coming of age movies, with some horny teenage boys. Where Gregory’s Girl succeeds is that, yes, they come across as pervy, but also idiots. Well meaning idiots, but at the age where that’s basically what boys are. It doesn’t come across as judgemental, but accurate. If anything it’s made with great warmth and empathy, an understanding of the idiocy. Even Andy and Charlie’s catastrophically awful attempts to flirt and hitchhike to Caracas is done affectionately, and while the girls in this film seem to be superhuman in their ability to cope with all the boys’ nonsense, there’s a shared vulnerability when it comes to Gregory’s actual date.
It isn’t merely that the girls are depicted as more level-headed and sensible than the boys, but the younger children are as well. Especially Gregory’s sister, who is possibly the wisest person ever committed to celluloid, with her sanguine attitude towards entropy and ageing. What’s interesting is that all the adults seem to be merely differently childish, and possibly just as horny as the teenage boys. There’s also a quiet dismissal of traditional gender roles throughout, which doesn’t shout its message but gently insinuates it. This less is more technique is carried through to the title character, who gets the girl without any massive gesture but just by being his jaunty, lanky self.
Gregory is the weird kid, more of an aspiring romantic than anything else. This is now an established cinematic cliché, but this is one of the best instances of it. Sinclair’s performance of Forsyth’s dialogue manages to make Gregory gallus, petulant and endearing. His proclamations of love are as misguided as Adrian Mole’s but he has no pretensions of intellectualism, apart from short-lived ones that he hopes will impress Dorothy. In his immediate social group he’s one of the more mature boys, which says a lot considering how incredibly awkward he is around women. He does at least manage to talk to them about better subjects than making veal.
While the situation is familiar, the low key, deadpan sensibilities of the film are uniquely Bill Forsyth’s. While there are other Scottish writers who depict their characters with a wry honesty (William McIlvanney, the crime writer, has a surprising amount of overlap), there’s a certain tone that belongs to Bill Forsyth films: whimsical, outlandish, slightly twee, but always undershot with enough verisimilitude to evoke recognition in the viewer. It’s a really funny film, but not through big set pieces or constant quips. It has a slight screwball vibe, albeit toned down; that sort of delivery of strangeness as if it’s perfectly reasonable. It’s so restrained and low key that it makes The Mighty Boosh sound like Lee Mack.
A reason this film has persisted in public consciousness for 35 years is that it changes with age. Watching it on the cusp of going to high school, the depiction of high school made it seem vastly more exciting than the reality. It seemed like a place you could pretend to be an adult, Bugsy Malone style, with dark rooms, rackets and endless cakes. As a teenager, you’re probably closer to Andy or Carol, and may not take the life lesson of the finale on board. Once you’re technically an adult, anything that so warmly depicts high school years and the idiocy of initial infatuation is most likely shot through with melancholy. The awkward comedy isn’t excruciating, and the inability of Gregory to be self-aware doesn’t make him unlikeable, but there’s also that knowledge – as an adult – that this relationship is probably a short term thing (like a summer, like youth) which makes the romance both precious and bittersweet as we only see its beginning.
Gregory’s Girl has a wide appeal, and will keep on being handed down to younger audiences. This change in meaning will keep on happening, but whatever you take from it, the key thing is that it is still entertaining. A lo fi, wet hot North Lanarkshire summer preserved for everyone. Bill Forsyth made a film about youth that lives forever, and it doesn’t matter what age you are when you watch it.
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