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Forsyth, Bill (1946-)

Director, Actor, Writer

Main image of Forsyth, Bill (1946-)

Bill Forsyth was born William David Forsyth in Glasgow on 29 July 1946 and educated at Knightswood School. On leaving school, aged 17, he answered an advertisement for a "Lad required for film company" and spent the next eight years making short documentary films.

Leaving documentary production in 1977, Forsyth wrote the scripts for Gregory's Girl and That Sinking Feeling in the hope of breaking into feature films. Obtaining finance, however, proved frustrating and problematic. The BFI Production Board rejected Gregory's Girl three times. Forsyth later observed, "I remember one torment of a meeting when I tried to explain that Gregory's Girl was really a structuralist comedy... I suspect my script was too conventional although nobody actually told me as much.".

That Sinking Feeling was eventually made in 1979 with amateur actors from the Glasgow Youth Theatre, including John Gordon Sinclair (who later took the lead in Gregory's Girl (1981)), its tiny budget raised from a variety of sources. Forsyth's distinctive voice as writer-director is already apparent in this tale of a robbery of stainless steel sinks by a gang of unemployed Glasgow teenagers - intensely humanistic and humorous yet with an underlying seriousness of purpose. This ability to create a self-contained yet believable world with a keen sense of the absurd and bizarre in the everyday is perhaps only rivalled by the work of British television writer Alan Plater. The film opened to great popular and critical success at the Edinburgh and London Film Festivals but was unable to secure more widespread distribution.

Gregory's Girl was Forsyth's breakthrough film. This acutely observed story of adolescence and first love set in a Scottish new town was rapturously received by both critics and public alike. Forsyth's reputation seemed to be secured by the success of his next venture, Local Hero (1983), a first collaboration with producer David Puttnam.

The film has been compared to the great comedies of Ealing Studios, to Forsyth's sometime irritation. He has complained of being labelled as "whimsical" by a film establishment that fails to see the more serious aspects of his work. However, it is perhaps fair to say that there remains an affinity between Forsyth's early work and that of certain Ealing directors, notably Alexander Mackendrick and Robert Hamer, whose comedies also had their darker side.

Forsyth's next film, Comfort and Joy (1984) was indeed an altogether more sombre work, detailing the trials and tribulations of a local radio DJ whose long-term partner leaves him and who becomes embroiled in the Glasgow "ice cream wars" between competing families of ice cream vendors.

His first American film, shot in Canada and produced by Puttnam during his brief tenure as head of Columbia Pictures, was Housekeeping (1987), a faithful and affectionate adaptation of Marilynne Robinson's acclaimed first novel. Although well received by the critics, it was not a huge success at the box-office. Furthermore, the difficulties in production, with Diane Keaton withdrawing from the film, closely followed by financiers Cannon, were a foretaste of things to come.

Breaking In (US, 1989) was blighted by arguments over tone and casting, with the consequence that for Forsyth the film was "a bastard child. The saddest thing is that it's now a film that none of us wanted.". His experiences of his third American film, Being Human (1993) were even worse. Production was dogged by arguments between director and studio, and the film was a major flop at the box-office, with Forsyth later observing "I began to feel like a fifth columnist or someone who had been parachuted behind enemy lines. It's a very strange experience to embark on a collaboration with people and then find you're in a battle with them". That said, Forsyth's attitude that "The only ambitions I have for the films I make is that they're appreciated as poetical works" was hardly likely to have endeared him to Hollywood.

Forsyth returned to Britain when the producers of Gregory's Girl approached him with the idea of making a television series based around the character of Gregory. The series never materialised, but Forsyth reworked the material into the long-awaited sequel to his first hit. However, with typical Forsythian perversity, Gregory's Two Girls (1999) is more of a deliberate non-sequel. Of the original cast and characters, only John Gordon Sinclair remains, the 35-year-old Gregory still single, still in Cumbernauld, and working as a teacher at his old school. Nevertheless, the film adeptly blends humour, drama, and close observation of character in a way which shows that Forsyth, despite his American experiences, has lost none of his earlier humanism or skill.

The difficulties in obtaining finance, the problems in securing distribution, and the ill-fated encounter with the American film industry are unfortunately all too typical of the experience of a number of British film-makers in recent years. As early as 1983, Colin Vaines spoke of Forsyth's "unique style: a combination of off-beat humour, precise observation of character, considerable warmth and charm, and an underlying seriousness". That such a director has been restricted to eight feature films in twenty-three years is indicative of the structural defects relating to production, distribution and exhibition that have hampered British filmmakers since the 1960s.

Flynn, Bob, 'Local hero in Hollywood', Guardian Weekend, 13 August 1994, pp. 8-9
Forsyth, Bill, 'Bill Forsyth: Director', Sight and Sound, Autumn 1981, p. 243
Green, William, 'Housekeeping', Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 6 December 1987, pp. 16-18
Green, William, 'The Forsyth Saga', Sunday Telegraph 7 Days Magazine, 24 July 1990 pp. 21-23
Hacker, Jonathan and David Price, Take Ten: Contemporary British Film Directors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), pp. 107-145
Hunter, Allan, 'Being Human', Sight and Sound, August 1994, pp. 24-27
Malcomson, Scott L, 'Modernism Comes to the Cabbage Patch: Bill Forsyth and the "Scottish Cinema"', Film Quarterly, Spring 1985, pp. 16-21
Sinyard, Neil, 'The Forsyth Saga', Films Illustrated, August 1981, pp. 424-427
Vaines, Colin, 'Interview with Bill Forsyth', Screen International, 12 March 1983, p. 16

Martin Hunt, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Comfort and Joy (1984)Comfort and Joy (1984)

Mournful comedy about a Glasgow DJ caught up in an ice-cream war

Thumbnail image of Gregory's Girl (1980)Gregory's Girl (1980)

Affectionate Scottish school comedy about an amiable loser in love

Thumbnail image of Local Hero (1983)Local Hero (1983)

Bill Forsyth's gentle comedy about a Texan oilman in Scotland

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Thumbnail image of Puttnam, Lord David (1941-)Puttnam, Lord David (1941-)