Gregory’s Girl is available to rent, buy and stream.
In its preview run at the 1980 BFI London Film Festival, Gregory’s Girl must have seemed an unlikely candidate for a future classic, captained as it was by a former documentarian with only one modestly successful feature under his belt. But Bill Forsyth and his troupe of unknown teenage actors, most of whom were assembled from the Glasgow Youth Theatre, succeeded in capturing something almost intangible about the adolescent condition that resonated with audiences worldwide.
The film has been praised by viewers, critics, filmmakers and academics. Perhaps its crowning accolade is its inclusion in “Frankie and June say…thanks Tim”, the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony segment that saluted Britain’s contribution to pop culture with a tale of teen romance. But what’s been less remarked upon over the years is how the film broke new ground closer to home.
READ MORE: BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM
While Forsyth’s next feature, Local Hero, is often credited with jumpstarting the modern Scottish film industry, there were, of course, films made in or about Scotland before he began his career as a director. However, across the media of the day, the only alternative to the romanticised Highland idyll seen in the likes of Brigadoon and, more infamously, the BBC’s festival of tartan kitsch, The White Heather Club, seemed to be the Glasgow hard man.
Glasgow has a long and pervasive reputation for urban deprivation. Sociologist Dr Carol Craig wrote extensively in her book, The Tears that Made The Clyde, about the particular strain of toxic masculinity that evolved in the city over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In an environment rife with violence, alcoholism and the manifold indignities of poverty, the Glasgow hard man was quick to anger, free with his fists and selfish with what little he had to give, particularly when it came to the women in his life.
READ MORE: A TASTE OF HONEY
While Gregory’s Girl is set in Cumbernauld, located smack bang in the middle of Scotland’s densely populated Central Belt, spiritually, it belongs to Glasgow. Originally a village, Cumbernauld was designated a New Town in 1955 and underwent a significant expansion to provide homes for Glaswegians living in substandard housing or displaced by the Blitz. When those benevolent civic planners first took to their drafting boards, their vision could well have resembled what we see of Cumbernauld in Gregory’s Girl. Here, the children of the first post-war arrivals have grown alongside the town and are able to take their first steps towards adulthood in an environment where there is an implicit sense of safety and security in the future.
In the film, we watch as Gregory, played with an endearingly buoyant gawkiness by John Gordon Sinclair, takes his first steps towards adult self-actualisation without any hard-man posturing. Although understandably nervous, he isn’t afraid of revealing a flicker of vulnerability that he doesn’t shoot his shot with Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) after becoming instantly smitten with her. He wants her to like him because he’s grown up in a place where his survival didn’t depend on prioritising being feared, liked or kind. You couldn’t conceive of someone less likely to chib a stranger over a spilt pint.
READ MORE: IF…
While the film is undoubtedly a product of its time and place, its offbeat sensibility is quietly subversive. We see the kids nudging against prescribed gender roles. Dorothy is the school’s first female footballer. Gregory’s pal, Steve (Billy Greenlees), listens to Gregory gush about falling in love while the two of them prepare a biscuit mix in domestic science. The behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by the female cast to set Gregory up with Susan (Clare Grogan) implies a model of female friendship founded on a sense of cooperation that isn’t threatened by competition for male attention.
READ MORE: PAPER MOON
While this also plays into outmoded ideas about inept men who need to be puppeteered by sensible women rather than take any responsibility for their own lives, it doesn’t let Gregory off the hook. His ten-year-old sister, Madeline (Allison Forster), is the one to offer the film’s most direct life lesson. As they wander through the local shopping centre, she tells him not to overthink things but that a little self-regard goes a long way:
“If you don’t take an interest in yourself, how can you expect other people to take an interest in you?”
Sound advice – not just for a teenager, but for anyone. It’s also a far cry from the archetype of a man obsessed with projecting a hardened image of himself to the world while living in terror of any human frailty that might lie within.