Friday 22 April 2016

Gregory's Girl, at 35

In April 1982 I went to see Chariots Of Fire at Kettering Ohio cinema with my friend Steve and his older sister Sharon.  It must have been her choice - the film didn’t interest me then and I haven’t seen it since - but that re-issue (launched in the wake of the films success at the March Oscars) was a double-bill with a little Scottish film I’d never heard of called Gregory’s Girl.  It might have been that I was thirteen, it might have been (according to my diary at the time) that I was in love with a French girl called Murial (Montsaye Comprehensive was in the middle of a French exchange and several of my school-mates were hosting students) but I loved it - everything from Gregory’s struggles to Clare Grogan in a beret to the penguin wandering the corridors.  I’ve seen it a lot since and a few weeks back picked up the Second Sight widescreen edition and fell in love with it all over again.  Incredibly, the film was originally released in 1981, making this year it’s 35th anniversary!  And I never need an excuse to write a retrospective!
After working for small production companies - making public information and training films - for thirteen years, Bill Forsyth decided to make a feature film and wrote an outline about a shy Scots lad who falls for the female striker in his school football team.  To find his cast, he began - in 1977 - to sit in on workshops at the Glasgow Youth Theatre, which was run by a friend.  The children were suspicious at first of “the quiet bloke at the back who never said anything” but he overcame his natural shyness and began to work with them on the script.  He later said, “they didn’t know anything, I didn’t know anything. But I discussed their parts with them in the same way as I came to discussing adult parts with adults and they demanded exactly the same as adult actors. It was a big lesson”

Unfortunately, the British Film Institute felt Gregory’s Girl was too commercial and declined to fund it.  Instead, Forsyth and the young actors made the (much) cheaper That Sinking Feeling (1979), about a group of unemployed teenagers who steal a lorry-load of kitchen sinks.  It cost a few thousand pounds and Forsyth felt it was his last shot - “if we hadn’t made a go of it, my plan was just to disappear.”  That Sinking Feeling turned out to be the surprise hit of the 1979 Edinburgh Film Festival and allowed him to raise the funds for Gregory’s Girl, using many of the same actors.

Gregory’s Girl “wrote itself,” he later said as he knew which buttons to press: “young love and football”.  Designed as a calling card, a ticket to bigger films and bigger budgets, he originally planned to make it on 16mm for £29,000 but ended up shooting on 35mm for £200,000.

Although Forsyth used many of the Glasgow Youth Theatre actors, he spotted Dee Hepburn (Dorothy) dancing in a TV advert for a department store, whilst Clare Grogan (Susan) was working as a waitress at the Spaghetti Factory restaurant in Glasgow.  “[Bill] asked me for my phone number,” she said in interview, “but my mum had warned me about strange men, so I just said: “You know where to find me.”  I was 17, very naive, yet had incredible delusions of grandeur and glamour. I realise now how lucky I was: Bill had faith in me and was brilliant at making us all feel relaxed on set, spoonfeeding us ideas.”

John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory) was an apprentice electrician at the time and although he’d appeared in That Sinking Feeling, was surprised to get the lead.  “”Everyone was a bit in awe of Dee Hepburn,” he said in interview, “she was already a professional actor.”  After being cast, Hepburn was given six weeks of intensive football training at Partick Thistle FC.

Susan (Clare Grogan) and Gordon (John Gordon Sinclair)
“The chemistry between myself and Clare Grogan was real,” said John, “and we’ve been friends ever since.  [She] was into bands and incredibly cool, whereas I was in a combat jacket with long hair, listening to Rush.”

“When I first met Gordon,” said Clare, “I was staggered to see he was still in flares.  But Gordy, as he’ll always be to me, is the funniest person to be around.”

Forsyth took notice of how his young cast talked and acted with one another.  “Bill always had a wee notebook in his hands, watching us, writing down things we said,” said John.  “Then later, things wound up in the script and we'd think, 'Ah, that's one of our stories.'”

The setting of the film was deliberate.  “I wanted a backdrop where nothing was touched or old,” Forsyth said and the film was shot in the new town of Cumbernauld, North Lanarkshire, created in 1956 as a population overspill for Glasgow.  A reaction against the gritty locations of That Sinking Feeling, this was “a deliberate attempt to show a different face to Scotland.”  Gregory waits by the big clock at New Town Plaza, the Fish & Chip shop is in a small shopping arcade next to the Abronhill High School used as the school in the film and the restaurant was called Capaldi’s and owned by a member of the actor Peter Capaldi’s family.  The nurses home, from the opening scene, was the Electricity Board training centre in Seafar, which is now a Christian centre.  Abronhill High School was opened in 1978, earmarked for closure in 2012 and demolished in 2014.  Apparently, a small crowd gathered to say goodbye.
from left - Andy (Robert Buchanan), Charlie (Graham Thompson) and Gregory watch Dorothy
After the guerrilla-style filming of That Sinking FeelingGregory’s Girl was a different experience, with rigorous schedules and a bigger budget.  It didn’t affect Forsyth or his young cast too badly though, as he said in interview, “we were living the dream.  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. It was hangdog, but very friendly.  [The cast’s] energy and enthusiasm was what carried it.”

A smitten Gregory examines Dorothy's injured knee
With the bigger canvas to work on, there were more compromises.  Forsyth found directing difficult and he “couldn’t deal with more than three people in a scene at any one time.”  It rained a lot, which changed the colour of the football pitch as they were filming and he felt like he “was killing the script, never bringing it to life” which I find odd, since it seems to buzz with life.

John later said in interview.  “Shooting was fun, it never felt like work. 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.”

Three months before filming began, Clare Grogan was an innocent bystander at a fight at the Glasgow Technical college.  A broken bottle hit her and she was severely injured, suffering a prominent scar on the left side of her face.  The film producers wanted to change actress but Forsyth refused to recast and she was filmed mostly in profile.  When close-ups were required, such as at the park, make-up artists covered her scar with morticians wax.
Bill Forsyth (right) chats through a scene with Mr Menzies (Jake D'Arcy) and Dorothy (Dee Hepburn)
Gregory’s Girl is wonderfully observational - as Forsyth said in 1985, “my style is to be as unobtrusive as possible.”  As the actors play out their scenes, the camera catches little nuances and mannerisms as well as embracing the life around them.  “I was just recording their acting,” he said.  “I didn’t have any cinematic ambition. It was an attempt to make a film I thought people might want to see, and quite divorced from the films I imagined myself making.”  Forsyth heard Chic Murray, a veteran of vaudeville who plays the headmaster, playing a piano in the school gym to entertain the cast between filming his scenes.  Delighted with this, Forsyth included the scene where two pupils watch him as he plays during lunch and shoos them away with “Off you go, you small boys!”

My favourite example of this humour is the penguin, never referred to but often seen wandering the corridors.  This came from Forsyth seeing someone at Abronhill High school carrying a papier-mâché head down a corridor.  “None batted an eyelid,” he said, “a school is a place where anything can happen.”  The person in the penguin suit was Christopher Higson, son of production supervisor Paddy Higson and is his only credited role.

The film is filled with affection for its characters and quickly establishes the idea that the younger you are, the sharper you are.  From the kids at the beginning, who witness the teenagers watch the nurse undress and brush it off with “a lot of fuss about a bit of tit” to Madeline (Allison Forster) being Gregory’s mentor and the teachers in the staff room, more like giggling kids than their pupils.  Gregory’s friends are never mocked, from his best friend Steve (William Greenless), a budding pastry chef who runs a black market business selling cakes from the boys toilet whilst taking orders from the teachers to Eric (Alan Love) the photographer who sells photo’s of Dorothy from the stall next to the cakes, conducting his conversation in terms of f-stops and lenses.  And Andy (Robert Buchanan) trotting out dubious trivia (often beginning with “It’s a well known fact…”) as attempted pick-up lines, never deterred by his lack of success.

Madeline (Allison Forster) fills Gregory in on love
“I love all the role reversal,” said Clare Grogan.  Generally naïve, the boys are fascinated and mystified by the girls who appear knowing and sophisticated - from Madeline to the well-meaning group who play matchmaker as he moves from one-to-another in a sense of confusion before ending up with Gregory’s Girl.

There’s also a wonderful use of the summer evening.  Forsyth wanted “something that was slightly magic but isn’t corny magic, it was just human magic. It could be something like this sudden midsummer’s atmosphere that overtakes people and even the two boys that are wandering around catch it. They say, ‘There’s something in the atmosphere.’  It was just allowing every individual their eccentricity without taking it to a point where it’s just pure comedy.”
Susan and Gregory in the park
For me, the perfect highlight of this is in the park, as the summer evening winds down when Gregory and Susan talk numbers and arm dance so as not to fall off the earth.  Their characters connect and it’s a cheering moment, the camera magically tilting with them (an effect created by tying it to a piece of rope).  Later, on his doorstep, Susan says “a million and nine”.  “How come you know all the good numbers?” he asks, a quizzical tone in his voice.  Superb.

“I especially remember the scene after our date in the park,” said John later, “where there’s a shot of us walking off into the sunset. We were both in tears. It was the last day of filming. It was all over. This magical bubble we’d been in was about to burst.”

“To this day, I’ve never seen Gregory’s Girl in its entirety,” said Clare at a 30th anniversary showing of the film.  “I always have to leave at some point because I find it too much.”

Gregory’s Girl was written and directed by Bill Forsyth and produced by Clive Parsons.  The music was written by Colin Tully, Michael Coulter was the cinematographer and John Gow was editor.

The film was released in the UK on 23rd April 1981 and distributed by ITC Entertainment.  Watching it at the 1981 London Film Festival, John was “mortified, I looked terrible and gangly” and suddenly understood why Forsyth had “made me exaggerate all those stretches and lunges when he was filming me exercising”, worried his performance “ruined the film”.  Clare, whose band Altered Images had signed with CBS during production, was a bit more used to showbusiness and recognised the charm of the film and its “smart, progressive view of a girl's world”.  Even though the film got a great reception, all involved thought the fuss would soon die down.

It never did, really.  The film Forsyth called “an act of desperation - I was in my early thirties, it was a last roll of the dice” was ranked number 30 in the British Film Institute's list of the top 100 British films and  number 29 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the 50 best high school movies.  It was nominated for three BAFTA’s - Best Newcomer (John Gordon Sinclair), Best Direction and Best Film - and won the BAFTA Best Original Screenplay, the London Critics Circle Film Award: Special Achievement and the Variety Club Actress Of The Year Award (Dee Hepburn).
Dee Hepburn, John Gordon Sinclair, Clare Grogan - at the 30th anniversary screening at the Glasgow Film Festival, 2011
At a special 30th anniversary screening at the Glasgow Film Theatre, John said “it was such a big part of my life, like watching my old diary.”  Clare said “It was just so pivotal in my life. Everywhere I go, all round the world, I always find myself in the company of somebody who loves it, and that is an amazing thing.”

The film was first shown on Channel 4 on 8th January 1985 and attracted 10.75 million viewers, Channel 4's third biggest audience of that year.  ITV repeated the film the following Christmas Day.

The film was released in America on 26th May 1982 by The Samuel Goldwyn Company, opening small and relying on word of mouth praise which was consistently good.  It performed well in New York and other US cities and whilst it wasn’t a blockbuster, at one point it was number 7 in the US Top Fifty.  Learning their lesson from Ken Loach’s Kes, which was withdrawn after two days because Americans couldn’t understand it, the film was re-dubbed with milder Scottish accents (with some of the original actors, thankfully - both versions are available on the US DVD).  Subtitles were originally suggested but Goldwyn’s Larry Jackson was quoted as saying “we thought it was a wholesome entertaining story with a general appeal, and we didn't want it to end up with an art house audience only.”  It’s said he loved the film the first time he saw it, though he did have a script to follow the dialogue.  Critic Richard Skorman wrote, “Unlike the film's American counterparts, Gregory’s Girl is refreshingly free of mean-spirited characters and horny young studs bemoaning their virginity.”

The success of Gregory’s Girl led to the development of the Scottish Film Production Fund, Glasgow Film Fund and other financing organisations which allowed for talents like Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, 1994) and Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, 1999) to get their first features made.  It was been cited as an influence on Wes Anderson and Shane Meadows and, according to Clare Grogan, is one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite films.

On its budget of £200,000, Gregory’s Girl went on to make £25.8m around the world and played in some London cinemas for an astonishing 75 weeks.

Watching it now in widescreen, I was delighted to find the film hadn’t really dated at all.  I was watching it as a different person, certainly, but it still spoke to me and even though some of that might have been nostalgia - from my first viewings, perhaps from my teenaged years - it was also because the film stands up well.  There is an air of youthful naivety, of course, but it’s warm and smart and the humour makes you smile.

Gregory’s Girl is a wonderful film.  If you’ve seen it before, watch it again and if you’ve never seen it, I envy you that first viewing experience.

Happy birthday Gregory, bella bella!

John Gordon Sinclair (born Gordon John Sinclair - Equity already had someone of that name registered - in Glasgow in 1962) also appeared in Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983) and reprised his title role in Gregory’s Two Girls (1999).  He has continued to act on TV, stage and screen, appeared on the 1982 Scottish squad's World Cup song We Have a Dream and won the Laurence Olivier Theatre Award in 1995 for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance in She Loves Me.  His first novel, Seventy Times Seven was published in 2012 and he lives in Surrey with his wife and two daughters.

Clare Grogan (born Claire Patricia Grogan in Glasgow in 1962) went on to play Charlotte in Bill Forsyth’s Comfort & Joy (1984) and was Kristine Kochanski in the 1st, 2nd and 6th series of Red Dwarf.  She is perhaps better known the lead singer of 80s new wave group Altered Images, whose debut album Happy Birthday was released in 1981.  Grogan continues to act and sing, presents on BBC 6 Music and her first book, a children’s novel called Tallulah And The Teenstars was published in October 2008.  She lives in Haringay with her husband Stephen Lironi (her former bandmate) and their adopted daughter.

Dee Hepburn (born in Airdrie in 1961) won the Variety Club Actress Of The Year Award for her performance as Dorothy.  After working in TV, she appeared in The Bruce (1996) with Oliver Reed but has now left showbusiness.  She lives in East Kilbride with her second husband and two children, working in business development.
Bill Forsyth, Clare Grogan, John Gordon Sinclair
Bill Forsyth (born William David Forsyth in Glasgow in 1946) started his career making short documentary films.  After the success of Gregory’s Girl (1981) he made Local Hero (1983), produced by David Puttnam and featuring Burt Lancaster and followed it up with Comfort & Joy (1984).  When Puttnam served as Columbia Studios chairman from 1986 to 1987, he picked up Housekeeping (1987) which was Forsyth’s first American film.  Following a poor critical reception to Being Human (1994), Forysth didn’t direct again until Gregory’s Two Girls (1999), which also received mixed reviews.  He hasn’t directed a film since.  Nominated for five BAFTAs, he won two (including Best Direction for Local Hero ), received the Special Achievement Award from the London Critics Circle in 1982 and Local Hero  won the 1983 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Screenplay.  He lives in Western Scotland with his partner and has two children from his first marriage.

Astonishingly, there isn't a trailer for the film on YouTube (apart from the Samuel Goldwyn version, which is mostly review quotes) so instead I'll leave you with one of my favourite moments...

The UK quad poster of the double-bill I went to see
The US release poster
Susan and Dorothy talk about Gregory in Chemistry
Susan, Gregory and Steve (William Greenlees) in cookery class
Dorothy on the pitch
The boys at the nurses home
I hope you've enjoyed this as much as I did researching and writing it.


  1. Fantastically detailed blog, Mark. All I remember of Gregory's Girl is the arm dancing and that I totally loved it.

  2. My imagination must be playing games with me. In the version I remember the PE teacher and Dorothy disappear into the showers when he demonstrates the trap ball bit (suggesting something riske) but in TV screenings it just cuts away to the next scene?? I am simply wrong or has an edit been made??

    1. I don't remember that at all - and it sounds out of keeping with the rest of the style, I think.

  3. My favourite film of all time. Saw it in December 1981, a Saturday night, at my local cinema. Loved it then, loved it now. I had seen "That Sinking Feeling" in August of that year...another classic.

    "A million and nine."

  4. As an aside, the new school building for Cumbernauld Academy (the merged Abronhill HS where the movie was shot & Cumbernauld HS) opened last Friday.

  5. Loved this film. Taught it so many times to English students - for review, media study, 20th century play etc. Always engaged students, who loved it and identified with e everything about it.

  6. hiya, This film had the lot..Sarky humour, love interest, daft bits and some seriously good bass lines ;)


  7. I absolutely love this movie. Made it my task to try and find as many of the filming locations as possible.

  8. I love this film, too! And "Happy Birthday" was the first single I ever bought!

  9. Just watched it today (Christmas Day) for the first time in years. With my kids, 18 and 14 - their first time. They were thrilled - as was I, not only to see it again (brilliant), also to see their reaction (they laughed non-stop), also to see that it hasn't aged!

    I had completely forgotten about the penguin in the school corridors!

    Thanks for the excellent history of the film, and the synopsis, Mark.