The growing pains of Gregory

Everyone knows that sequels are risky. But Bill Forsyth has gone back in search of the sweet comedy that made his name in 'Gregory's Girl'. Jasper Rees reports
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In the summer of 1997 a Californian production company called Wildside mustered in Glasgow to make a film called Post Mortem. The plot was about an American detective who has retired "to the north of Scotland, just outside Glasgow". The economics of a film like that are simple: the company shoots outside America to save on actors' fees, and pins all its commercial hopes on one star. Thus half the $5m budget paid for five days of Charlie Sheen's time. For the rest of the cast, Wildside decided to assemble as many actors as it could from Gregory's Girl. You can see why. Until Trainspotting, Bill Forsyth's comedy about the sheer mystery of teenage sexuality was the only Glaswegian film anyone in Hollywood would have heard of. Unfortunately, they could find only one of the original cast: Dave Anderson, a regular figure in Scottish sitcoms, who played Gregory's father.

What Wildside hadn't realised was that few of the original cast of Gregory's Girl are full-time actors. Not many were in the first place. They were mostly pupils from the secondary school in Cumbernauld where the film was set, or youth-theatre kids Forsyth first used in his debut, That Sinking Feeling. Clare Grogan, who played the sweetly vampish Susan, was a pop star at the time, and is now a video jockey on VH1. She has cropped up in EastEnders. Robert Buchanan, who was Andy, one of the pair of doltish schoolboys who tried to hitchhike from Cumbernauld to Caracas in search of girls, is a freelance stage manager. Dee Hepburn, who played Dorothy, the breezy blonde who takes Gregory's place in the school football team, is a medical sales advisor. Not long ago she returned to acting in a film called The Bruce starring Oliver Reed. It flopped. Only John Gordon Sinclair has graduated to a full-blown career as an actor, and although he later won an Olivier award, even he has never managed to find another script that so perfectly feeds his talent for wry puzzlement and gawky charm.

Post Mortem went straight to video. Last summer another production company gathered in Glasgow with a similar budget of pounds 3.3m and a single actor from Gregory's Girl. In Gregory's Two Girls, Sinclair revisits the character 18 years on. Gregory has matured into Greg. He has a trimmer haircut, a fuller face and his elbows are slightly less pointy. At a deeper level, though, he is unaltered. The years have jogged along, leaving a nonplussed Greg in the starting blocks. Everyone has flown from Cumbernauld; even his lippy little sister works for the UN in Geneva. But he is now teaching English at the school he attended as a teenager. He is 35, and the haplessness with girls has curdled into something slightly darker. As a teenager life was a simple case of girls being unobtainable. Now it's the other way round. He has an on-off relationship with a colleagueto whom he won't commit, partly because he lusts after one of his pupils. She is no older than Susan was when, in the original film's idyllic finale, Gregory finally managed to get his tongue into a girl's mouth.

You'll recall the scene. Gregory and Susan have spent a long evening dreamily kissing and listing their favourite numbers. "A million and nine," says Grogan, after a long last smooch by her front door. "How come you know all the good numbers?" says Gregory, and you can hear the witty and the quizzical mingling in his voice. The exchange captures all the sweetness and mystery of teenage enchantment, but from an angle all its own. Only Bill Forsyth, a writer who hears the syncopations of chat both accurately and somehow differently, could have written it, and no one could have spoken it as perfectly as Sinclair.

But if a million and nine is a good number, in cinema two is not. Sequels rarely generate the wattage of their originals, especially after such a vast interval. Think of the follow-ups to Chinatown, or The Last Picture Show, or Psycho. Each revisited the scene of an older original, without recapturing the spirit. Why are Forsyth and Sinclair going back?

It's perfectly obvious why. Forsyth had not made a film in the five years since his return from Hollywood, where he moved after his bleak, bucolic masterpiece, Local Hero (1983). In America he wrote and directed three films with decreasing commercial impact. Being Human, which lost more than $25m, was the last straw. Gregory's Two Girls should be a safe way to recover, yet it still took work to persuade Film Four to stump up the bulk of the money (the Scottish Arts Council supplied a third). Likewise Sinclair. While his career has by no means gone into serious decline, he admits that "it's been quite a while since I've done a major feature film in a leading role. I haven't been spoiled for choice."

But the line both actor and writer-director are taking is that they are not going back. For a long time Forsyth referred to the script as Untitled and seemed reluctant to admit that he was revisiting the same character. "People always say you should never go back," says Sinclair. "This is why it's a gamble worth taking, because we're not. After the opening scene it's got nothing to do with the original."

Gregory's Girl was largely narrative-free. But for this film Forsyth has foisted a plot about the morals of the arms trade on to a comedy about the trussed-up sexuality of a single man in his mid-30s. Fraser, a millionaire contemporary of Greg's who was not in the original film, has opened a factory in Cumbernauld. Two of Greg's female pupils think Fraser is using Scottish Office grants to make torture equipment for iffy Third World regimes. For Greg, both sex and politics have always been spectator sports, but when his pupils confront him with this information, he is forced to get down on to the pitch.

One day last August I stood on the touchline of the school football pitch where Gregory, watching from the same spot, fell in lust with Dorothy. In its own small way, it occupies an iconic space in British cinema. There is something oddly Forsythian about it, something not quite normal in the salmon-pink asphalt. In the new film Fraser, who went to Harvard, wants to create an American football team, and as the cheerleaders prance on the far side of the pitch, Greg tells Fraser it will never work, what with the lack of available opposition. Fans of Forsyth's Local Hero can anticipate another arm-wrestle between an American can-doer and a Caledonian sceptic.

When Gregory's Girl was filmed, Cumbernauld was only 22 years old. It was one of those experiments in civic planning in which modern white blocks squat on the islands between a delta of dual carriageways. criss-crossed by thin pedestrian bridges no one ever uses. A Scottish television advertisement encouraging people to decamp there was still fresh in the memory: "What's it called? Cumbernauld." Gregory's Girl was like a feature-length version of that ad, where the girls are (nearly) all beautiful, the sun reliably shines and love is in the air.

The reality is rather different. Behind the football field, the grim concrete of Abronhill, the famous school, wears its years less lightly. Black smears disfigure its flanks, the deposit of three decades of Scottish wind and rain. Throughout the 60-day shoot, the weather was appalling. There had never been any form of settlement in this location until Cumbernauld was built. "Within several months they realised why," says Christopher Young, the producer of Gregory's Two Girls, who first met Forsyth when he was assistant editor on Comfort and Joy (1984). "There was a reason why the Picts never moved here. This is a rubbish place to set up camp."

The sun shone during Sinclair's last afternoon on set, when they filmed a tricky scene involving Greg and a small dog outside the chip shop. It's the chip shop where the young Gregory pitched up for his first date, and even the sun doesn't do its armour-plated frontage any favours. Sinclair perspired under a layer of make-up. "This film has probably been the most intense thing I've ever done," he said. "There's 133 scenes and I'm in 132 of them."

Did it felt like putting on an old suit? "In some respects. The original film was just me really, and I identified with it very strongly. My life experience at that point was very similar to Gregory's - the conundrum I was in at that time in terms of relating to girls, that stage between adolescence and adulthood where you're just mad. I was exactly like that. I was lost really. I had finished my apprenticeship as an electrician but I had no idea what I wanted to do. Whereas this guy I don't identify with. His world view is based on things that he reads in magazines, as opposed to anything that he's experienced outside in the real world. My life experience is completely different. I've moved out of Scotland." Unlike Greg, he has also married, though it is worth noting that in looks his actress wife Ruthie Henshall is not a million and nine miles away from Susan.

But the film is not just about how Greg has weathered. Gregory's Two Girls is partly about how Cumbernauld itself has been getting along. Underneath, it hasn't changed at all. Gregory's Girl is itself the main event in its short history, and many who flitted through the first film are still there. For one scene Greg has to press a buzzer to a block of flats several times. When they sought permission to ring his bell, the occupant told them that his brother had been in the original. An actor who plays a policeman in the sequel goes out with a woman who played one of the kids the young Gregory shoos from his front door. Even the road signs seem to have been composed by a Forsythian wit. A signpost in the thicket of carriageways reads, "Carlisle: 95 3/4". Another of the good numbers.

And yet, however big the film was, the two teenage actresses who play the young leads in Gregory's Two Girls had never heard of it. You can't even get it on video. When he made Gregory's Girl, Bill Forsyth, the gnarled man with the grey hair outside the chip shop, was younger than Greg is now. Is it possible that this could become the cinematic version of Michael Apted's Seven Up, a narrative series which parachutes into the lives of characters in slow but constant evolution? Sinclair has been in four of Forsyth's eight films. In another 18 years, Forsyth will be in his late 60s, and Sinclair in his early 50s. Perhaps Greg will by then be headmaster and father of a puzzled teenager gagging to meet girls. "We've joked about that," says Sinclair. "But I believe that this is the end of the circle. And I think Bill thinks the same way."