"The nicest part is just before you taste it,
but that can’t go on forever." (1)
The post-punk era of the late seventies and early eighties in Scotland was a time of artistic confidence and success. In fiction Alasdair Gray had his magnum-opus Lanark published, while James Kelman was working on the short stories of Not, Not While the Giro that would bring him acclaim and notoriety. Their fiction allowed Scotland to be seen with a new imagination as they reported on their surroundings in a fresh, extremely personal, way.
But it was in music and film that this new Scotland was brought to the attention of the majority of its populace. 'The Sound of Young Scotland' was the name given to a vibrant music scene exemplified by the music of bands such as Glasgow's Orange Juice and The Bluebells, East Kilbride's Aztec Camera and in Edinburgh, Josef K, and The Fire Engines. These bands became an inspiration not only to contemporary bands from Scotland, but worldwide. It was not only their music that was new. Here were musicians who wore their artistic affectations and fey haircuts with pride and who were not afraid to let audiences know that they had read Kafka, Mailer and Nietzsche.
Among the bands making waves were Altered Images and their singer, Clare Grogan, or C.P. Grogan as she was billed in her film and television work. She became the poster girl for 'Young Scotland' and Altered Images quickly became indie-darlings, with the single 'Dead Pop Stars' featuring in John Peel's end of year Festive Fifty round up. They then went on to have considerable chart success with songs such as 'Happy Birthday', 'See Those Eyes' and 'Don’t Talk to Me About Love', but, for many people Clare Grogan will always be Susan, the winsome schoolgirl who uses her scheming friends to eventually become Gregory's Girl (1981).
Director of Gregory's Girl Bill Forsyth's films showed the same confidence and disregard for previous stereotypes as the new music scene, with ideas about gender and class to the fore. In his first feature film That Sinking Feeling (1979) Forsyth showed a Glasgow gang who were not interested in casual violence, drink and sectarianism, but were involved in a plan to get rid of knock-off sinks, part of which involved two characters dressing as cleaning ladies, a role to which one really commits. The comments made were on unemployment and poverty, but the film showed a comedy and lightness of touch that had been missing from previous dramas that had dealt with such topics. Gregorys Girl takes the feeling of Forsyth's first feature and sets it in the then New Town of Cumbernauld.
By showing a part of Scotland that had never previously existed, Forsyth could present his characters without them being saddled with the cultural baggage that would have occurred had Gregory's Girl been set in other areas of the country. Forsyth's Cumbernauld is clean, new, desirable and safe. A place where teenagers could walk, and dance, in the park and the only worry was bumping into the lecherous school photographer and his mini-me assistant. These were images of a Scotland that would be unrecognisable to an outside audience, who were used to the contrasting images of No Mean City and Brigadoon, but to those living in Scotland this was an area and time they could place, and here were characters who were recognisable, but not stereotypical.
The obvious way that Forsyth plays with traditional images of Scotland is in terms of gender. In Gregory's Girl the best footballer is Dorothy and the best cook is Steve. Traditionally football was men-only, and for a boy to take Home Economics over Woodwork or Technical Drawing at that time was unheard of. But times were changing, and it is to Forsyth's credit that he was aware of this change. But in the film there are other, more subtle, subversions of society's expectations. In his book British Cinema in the 1980s John Hill acknowledges this subversion:
“Adults behave like children, children behave like adults, boys behave like girls and girls behave like boys. While this has a certain link with the theme of escape characteristic of British social realism, it is also the case that the desire to escape is not, in this case, motivated by poverty or hardship but by a wish to break free of the fixities of conventional social roles and identities (and especially those of gender)”. (2)
Hill is right about such role reversals, but other stereotypes are also burst - stereotypes which show social roles and identities that Forsyth wished to escape. A film set in the West of Scotland that contains football footage, but never mentions religion or the Old Firm (Gregory has a Partick Thistle scarf on his wall). A movie dealing with teenagers where they actually go to school, sober, and never mention drugs. While it would be foolish to pretend that such things are not a part of Scottish culture, or any European country's culture, to look at most representations of Scottish teenagers in the latter part of the 20th century you would think their lives were about nothing else.
The storyline, one that deliberately echoes Shakespeare's A Midsummer Nights Dream, is really about the manipulation of the naïve boys by the smarter girls. But such manipulation is not as a result of Lolita-esque teasing or promises of sex. This is a more innocent picture of romance, one where confused boys are willing participants in the girls' charming and amorous games. From Gregory's little sister Madeleine, to the Italian teacher who Gregory turns to in an afternoon of need, it is the women who are in control while letting the males believe the opposite. As Gregory states to disposed goalkeeper Andy while watching Dorothy play: “Modern girls, modern boys, it's tremendous”. (3)
Bill Forsyth went on to make Local Hero (1983) and Comfort and Joy (1984) which continued to present new visions of Scotland to their audience. Both are great films, but neither of them quite has the innocence and charm of Gregory's Girl. Innocence and charm are not words that usually spring to mind when talking about Scottish cinema and Forsyth proved that you don't need brutality, depravity or overt tartanry to make an impact. Gregory is right, it is terrific. What's really terrific is that Bill Forsyth had made a film for a new Scotland, one whose hope was to be destroyed as the mass-unemployment of the 1980's began to kick in. But for a while it seemed so near we could almost taste it.
Footnotes: (1) Madeline to Gregory in a café talking about lime and ginger beer, Gregory's Girl (1981) (2) John Hill, British Cinema in the 1980s (London: BFI, 1999) p 243 (3) Gregory speaks to Andy as he is supposed to be keeping goal for the school team, Gregory's Girl (1981)
Here's the trailer for the BFI's new 4K restoration: