The Herald - The Herald Magazine
Celebrating 40 years of the iconic Scottish film
WHO would have thought the world would adore a film in which the romantic lead is an acned, confused 16-year-old Scot who’s as awkward as a blindfolded stork and growing faster than weeds? (“Five inches in the past year!”)
Who could have imagined, 40 years ago, that Gregory’s Girl would go on to make the British Film Institute Top 50 movies of all time – and be acclaimed by Martin Scorsese?
Until Gregory’s Girl’s release, the great teen angst-relationship films were filmed in Cinemascope and set in suburban America, not in a breezeblock high school in Scotland. They featured the likes of Natalie Wood in Splendour in the Grass and Richard Dreyfuss in American Graffiti and Cybill Shepherd in The Last Picture Show. And they revealed hot rods and hot women and hot tempers and were breezy and flash.
Gregory’s Girl, by comparison, looked to be filmed in Greyscope – at a pace slower than a pensioner’s broken mobility scooter.
Yet, somehow, the likes of John Gordon Sinclair, Clare Grogan and Dee Hepburn conspired to be perfect in this tale of the lovelorn Gregory, the gawky desperate who dreams of tackling school football talent Dorothy (Hepburn), yet finds himself captivated by the clever and funny Susan (Grogan).
But why did this cheap-as-chips film (made for just £200,000) go on to take more than £25million at the box office? How could a quirky Scottish film script become part of the English schools curriculum?
And would Gregory’s Girl still hit the back of the net today?
ALEX Norton, the former Taggart lead and now star of BBC1’s Two Doors Down, who played teacher Alec in the movie, answers the first question. “The film had a real charm,” he says. “It was lovely. And it was one of the first films to portray ordinary people in Scotland. It came out at a time when theatre was starting to reflect Scottish audiences back at themselves, with the likes of Billy Connolly’s Great Northern Welly Boot Show and the arrival of 7:84 theatre company.”
What Bill Forsyth used cleverly was the untouched talent of young Scottish actors. He didn’t plunder Scottish Youth Theatre for precocious performers. Instead, he rode his bike to Bridgeton and sat in on workshops at the more down-to-earth Glasgow Youth Theatre, the unfunded community hall group.
“Bill always had a wee notebook in his hands, watching us, writing down things we said,” says John Gordon Sinclair. “Then later things would turn up in the script and we’d think, ‘Ah, that’s one of our stories’.”
Forsyth’s hand-picked team of acting innocents were perfect. Sinclair (then an apprentice electrician) captured perfectly the intelligent idiocy of the teenage boy. (Axiomatically, the film reveals the relative maturity and emotional intelligence of the teenage girl.)
And there’s a honesty about the film. Yes, Forsyth’s film fronts the idea that teenage boys are little Vesuviuses, ready to erupt at the mere sight of female flesh. But they are, or certainly can be, romantics, captivated by the idea of love. Gregory’s two pals, for example, on discovering the female-to-male ratio was eight-to-one in Venezuela, determine to hitchhike to Caracas.
And rather than objectify females, Gregory, we discovered, adores them. First, he’s head over heels in love with Dorothy. By the end of the film, shot over two days, he’s fallen for Susan.
Norton agrees that teenage boys can fall in love in less time than it takes to brush a single tooth, a love that can be so ephemeral. “It’s so honest,” he says of the film. I was Gregory. I did well academically at primary school but when I went to Shawlands Academy and saw all these gorgeous lassies my education took an express lift to the basement. And it was a love that was forever shifting.”
Teen angst films didn’t need to feature the likes of Shepherd. You could be Scottish and stunning. “Dee Hepburn was exactly the sort of lassie I’d fancy at school, and never manage to talk to,” says Norton, smiling. “I tried writing love poems – but couldn’t send them. These girls were so far out my league, an exotic species, most likely from another planet.”
He adds with a grin: “It was at this point I realised I had to learn to play guitar, to impress them at parties. And rather than become a plumber like my dad, I knew I had to act.”
Norton’s plan worked. And so too did Forsyth’s ability to capture teen confusion. American film critic Roger Ebert once wrote: “It is an unwritten law of the universe that no 16-year-old ever falls instantly in love with the right person at the right time.” Forsyth, via Gregory and his chums, reflects the essence of this.
And the casting of Cumbernauld helped procure success. Even though Forsyth’s film was set in a time of undiluted despair (Thatcher’s rubber bullet attacks on trades unionists, Aids and having to endure the Royal Wedding), nevertheless it suggests a positive, forward-moving Scotland. Like the film cast, the town itself was adolescent, it’s oldest trees barely into double figures themselves.
Yes, it was set in a time of the worst rainfall since 1907, and Cumbernauld was a town of concrete flyovers and underpasses, but its little houses had little gardens and were packed with little people on little bikes and scooters. It didn’t have hot rods, but Gregory’s dad (Dave Anderson) not only owned a car, he was also a driving instructor.
Gregory’s Girl also raised a flag for equal opportunity. Grogan recalled: “I love all the role reversal in the film: girls playing football, me and Dorothy doing experiments in the science lab, the boys taking baking lessons.”
She smiles: “And it’s the girls who manipulate all the events in the film.”
It is also, Grogan revealed, one of Scorsese’s favourite films
But there are other reasons why Gregory and Co captured hearts and minds. The film’s portrayal of school life looks all too real.
Forsyth recalled: “Schools are little worlds where anything can happen.” Such as the vignette featuring the lost penguin, which, although surreal, is strangely what you could expect to see in a modern high school.
And the teachers were believably idiosyncratic. Chic Murray’s brilliantly eccentric headmaster rang a bell with everyone who’d ever attended high school in Scotland.
And Forsyth featured little kids wonderfully, gifting them the gift of insight that wouldn’t be replicated on British screen until the arrival of BBC sitcom Outnumbered 20 years later.
“Bill knew what he wanted to achieve,” says Norton. “In one scene I had with Chic Murray, Chic suggested we add a bit where we go for a big laugh. I thought it was really funny but Bill didn’t laugh during filming and it didn’t make the final cut. Still, you can’t argue with that sort of success.”
NEAT writing and Sinclair’s performance proved to be irresistible. When Gregory falls in love with Dorothy, he loses the power of cognitive thought, the basic knowledge that deodorant should be applied to underarm, but not via a school shirt.
And Forsyth’s script genius was in not allowing Gregory to end up with the girl in the tight fitba’ shorts after all.
But would Gregory’s Girl be successful today? We still have tales of unrequited love and anxiety in our schools. However, it hinted at an aspect of school life that wouldn’t be glossed over in modern times.
There was a hint of trysts between male teachers and female pupils. And when one female teacher asked her former pupil-turned-window cleaner to come up and see her some time, you suspected she had more on her mind than his chammy. The pace is also too slow for a modern audience.
And, as Norton, a father of three boys points out, relationships between boys and girls nowadays has been reformulated. “The attitudes are so different. My boys have had lassies as pals. The mystique isn’t the same. They’re real friends and they hang about with them.”
Youngsters’ worlds now feature TikTok and Instagram. They don’t lie down on the grass and dance.
But Norton is right when he says Gregory’s Girl had “charm by the buckets”. It didn’t have the socioeconomic pathology of The Breakfast Club, but it had football pitched-sized helpings of warmth.
The New York Times agreed: “Gregory is one of fiction’s most appealing teenagers, a fellow to rank with JD Salinger’s Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye).”
Who could argue? “Yes, Gregory’s Girl was of its time,” says Norton, smiling. “But it’s a time the film captured perfectly.”
Chic suggested we add a bit where we go for a big laugh. I thought it was funny but it didn’t make the final cut