Bill Forsyth: “Scotland is a little nation with an identity problem”

Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero helped shape how Scotland sees itself. But director Bill Forsyth says that was the last thing he aimed to do

There are plenty of Scottish actors and writers working in the movie business but strangely few directors. When you search for “Scottish film director”, top of the list is Bill Forsyth, who hasn’t made a film this century and is remembered primarily for two from the early 1980s – Gregory’s Girl (pictured below) and Local Hero (pictured above). Such is the rarity of quality films made in Scotland by Scottish auteurs that these are still celebrated as ones that forged the character of the nation.

“I wasn’t flying the flag for Scotland,” Forsyth says. “I wasn’t trying to say something culturally about Scotland – I don’t know what Scotland means to the guy next to me on the bus. It’s too dumb an idea to want to nail, a culture. It comes from making stuff, and the accumulation of that stuff finally reflects a culture.”

Yet in the wake of the independence referendum, political rhetoric has been obsessed by attempting to define a notion of nationalism. “Scotland’s always been one of these little countries that’s had an identity problem,” Forsyth says. “It’s either had an inferiority complex or the opposite. It’s just a little schizophrenic nation like most little nations seeking an identity. There’s nothing awfully special about it. There’s history but every place on Earth has its history. Beyond that it’s a place where people live and get on with things, like any other.”

It’s just a little schizophrenic nation like most little nations seeking an identity 

But isn’t Local Hero a film about a representative of a Texan oil company who comes to Scotland to buy over a village’s beach but is won over by the romanticism of the place and its people?

“It’s not about the landscape and the people in that sense,” Forsyth corrects, “it’s about what a life is. He wants to put a currency value on people’s existences, and that encompasses who they are, what their relationships are, what they think, what they feel, as well as where they live. It’s a very ordinary metaphor – someone who doesn’t have a lot of identity coming to a place and demanding people sell their lives to him. It’s not about Scotland being a lovely wee place to visit or anything like that.”

Gregory's Girl

Nevertheless, Forsyth recognises the parallels of the time presidential wannabe Donald Trump came to build his controversial golf development north of Aberdeen a couple of years ago. Though Trump did not seem to leave a changed, improved man.

“The ecology movement was just kicking off [when we made Local Hero]. I got to know quite a few of the instigators of Greenpeace. They said it was a key film because it set out the language of green issues. Environmental issues had a little novelty then but we’re living with them daily now.”

After Local Hero, Forsyth made Comfort and Joy, which is a lost little gem. Bill Paterson plays a local radio DJ in Glasgow who gets mixed up in a rivalry between two ice-cream impresarios.

“It’s a serious comedy,” Forsyth explains. “That was the tag I invented for it. The film business is such an obvious business, everything has to be labelled. Any comedy worth its salt is serious because that’s what comedy is, a way of dealing with things. Comedy is not about making people laugh, it’s not about diverting people, it’s about engaging people. I wouldn’t have made movies if it was a superficial matter of entertaining people. I never ever did that. I didn’t feel like a film-maker. I just had certain things I wanted to say and I ended up saying them in a few movies.”

DID YOU KNOW…

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Little did Forsyth know Comfort and Joy reflected a much darker real-life ice-cream war going on in the city through the 1980s, as violence between rival gangs using ice-cream vans to distribute drugs escalated.

“It was something I wasn’t aware of,” he says. “The first idea I had for the film was the local DJ. When local stations like Radio Clyde started, it was the first time we had the phenomenon of the local celebrity, famous in a radius of 10 miles, who would open supermarkets in Drumchapel. It was new to Scotland and it was soulful, a guy in his little pod broadcasting to a city in the middle of the night. It gave people a sense of local identity when they heard people on the radio who talked like them.

“I knew I didn’t have enough, I needed other things like the broken love story. But that was not enough either, and it was Peter Capaldi, who comes from an ice cream family in Glasgow, who told me stories of what happened. But the way he was telling it, the rivalry was simply over who had the best ice cream…”

Comedy is not about making people laugh, it’s not about diverting people, it’s about engaging people 

At this point an ice-cream van serendipitously drives past the window, making Forsyth chuckle. “The whole tenor of the film was fluffiness and silliness because that’s what local radio was. While the real ice-cream wars in Glasgow were about territories for offloading drugs – they weren’t getting antsy about someone else’s ice cream tasting better – the film was a metaphor for the empty-headed niceness of local radio.”

Removed from the industry, Forsyth still writes a lot but it seems unlikely that Scotland’s most famous film-maker will direct another movie. “I don’t know how people could get away with making the films I made any more,” he says. “It’s so codified now – you need this kind of character, you need that kind of arc – film-makers have been spoonfeeding audiences and that’s what you have to do. It’s uninteresting to me.

“Sometimes I wish I’d been living in Germany in the ’70s instead of Glasgow. I might have carved out a career as a video installation maker or something. That would have suited me down to the ground.”

Comfort and Joy is out on Blu-ray and DVD on February 29