Hardeep Singh Kohli: For me, it is all about 'Gregory's Girl', a record of first love

Ken Loach's new film is a candidate to win the Palme d'Or in Cannes. It revives a happy tradition – and brings back memories for our writer


Sundays were always a very special day for us. It was antithetical to every other day of our Glasgow week. Monday to Friday we immersed ourselves in Western life. Saturdays the same. We would enjoy a more than occasional visit to Arnotts to get a bag of discounted broken biscuits; the added benefit of Saturday was that it was school-free. But Sundays. Sundays felt like a week crammed, concertina'd, crushed into a day. Sundays were the one day we eschewed all things Western, all things White Scottish. Sunday was 100 per cent, 100 miles an hour Indian.

The morning started at the Gurdwara on Nithsdale Road. At the Sikh temple where we were told to be holy and to both fear and respect God. We preferred to run around like dervishes and guzzle our body weight in samosas. The check of piety was balanced by the magic of sheer unbridled entertainment. After lunch, we left thoughts of the spiritual to bathe in the warming waters of the temporal. Welcome to dreamland.

In the 1970s, cinemas never opened to the public on a Sunday. In truth, very little traded on Sundays with the exception of the kirks and chapels. The happy event of closed cinemas meant that the Indians could hire them for their own heathen Sunday use. The smell of popcorn and sweets was soon replaced by the aroma of spiced, sweet tea and deep-fried gram flour snacks. These silver screens that had the day before shown the latest Hollywood blockbusters now had their projectors whirling to the myriad delights of Hindi Cinema. A double bill; six indulgent, unrequited-love-ing, melodramatic hours of pure escape. Strings swirled, heroines danced on broken glass, heroes hurled themselves in front of any number of flying bullets, mothers disowned sons, sons cried for mothers. The gamut of emotions was displayed in City Centre Glasgow to a completely brown-skinned audience.

What I hadn't fully appreciated was that, while I was lost in a Technicolor world of monsoon-ridded sari blouses from a world I barely knew, Scotland – the land I was growing up in – was making its own films. It seemed a beautiful irony that movies imported from the other side of the world gave me the language, the understanding, to appreciate the films from the country of my upbringing. And now Scottish cinema is back in the zeitgeist again.

Scotland has a long and varied tradition in matters cinematic. More often than not we were used as a beautiful backdrop, either figuratively or metaphorically. Both The 39 Steps and Braveheart pulled on the notion of Scotland, yet neither felt very Scottish, much like Mel Gibson's accent. (Interesting to note that, given the tax breaks of the Celtic Tiger, Braveheart was mostly shot in Ireland). Even Whisky Galore, that cinematic attempt at stereotyping the Scots, was shot on location in Scotland only because Ealing Studios were full to bursting with other productions.

Now a "Scottish" film, The Angel's Share, directed by Ken Loach, finds itself in the running for the Palme d'Or tonight, although I fear it may not be either dark enough or funny enough or worthy enough to win.

This feel-good film, isn't perhaps what the Midlander Loach and co-writer/collaborator Paul Laverty are best known for. The film charts the self-realisation of Robbie, who turns his back on a life of criminality and vows to his new-born son that things will change. As a man with a criminal record, Robbie struggles to get work and he and a few similarly placed recovering criminals end up heading to the Highlands to learn how to make whisky. A rare occurrence of drink in Scotland changing someone's life for the better. (Incidentally the angel's share is the small percentage of whisky that is "lost in distillation"). The film reconnects Loach to Glasgow and Scotland, a relationship both seem very proud of.

While some films have parachuted into Scotland, it feels as if Loach has bought into the sentiment of the people, the sense of the country. It is this honesty that the Scottish film industry has built its reputation on. I suppose for me it all started with Bill Forsyth and Gregory's Girl. This was the writer/director's second feature film. His debut movie, That Sinking Feeling, was a comedy about the unemployed. Shot in 1980, it was the first of four films by Forsyth that defined Scottish cinema for a decade. Gregory's Girl was followed by the highly successful Local Hero, a film that tackled big business's impact on the rural beauty of Scotland. The last of the four, Comfort and Joy, perhaps his darkest, was about the Glasgow Ice Cream Wars, organised crime, drug abuse and murder.

But for me it really is all about Gregory. At the time, football was my life. I played every day of the week and, like Gregory, I found myself in goal. This is a study of innocence, a portrait of teenage angst, a record of first love. It's 35mm charm.

Forsyth, for all his film-making training, rejected the established way of doing things. Most of his cast came from informal youth acting groups, the non-drama school kids. This gave all of Forsyth's films a naturalistic edge; these were real people speaking and that helped to cut through any over-sentimentalism. John Gordon Sinclair couldn't have been any gawkier. Clare Grogan couldn't have been any wilier or cuter. In many ways the perfect romantic comedy, up there with Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally. The film taught me the most valuable of all lessons, a lesson I still refer to 26 years on. Men have absolutely no idea what women are thinking. None whatsoever.

Move beyond the narrative and Forsyth is telling a more political story. The film was shot in Cumbernauld, one of Scotland's much vaunted new towns. No doubt the energy of the film matched the energy of the town itself. The film tackles gender equality, albeit in a humorous way; it was unusual to have a British film that empowered women the way Dorothy, aka Gregory's Girl, was portrayed. Yet more special and touching was Gregory's relationship with his wee sister. She may have been younger but she was great deal wiser, offering Gregory all sorts of relationship advice.

For me, the film's greatest gift was the penguin. In various scenes, a child (one imagines it was a child) is seen wandering in full penguin attire. These were never directly alluded to, making the image funnier still. So when I wrote and directed Meet the Magoons, for the Comedy Lab on Channel 4 in 2002, it featured the self-same, unexplained penguin.

These four Forsyth films captured a moment in Scottish cultural history. What the writer/director achieved was to let Scotland look at itself in a real way, a non-Whisky Galore way. We recognised these people and liked them, even the rogues. It wasn't all Highland vistas and rolling glens. Forsyth showed us ourselves. And we liked very much what we saw. Scotland was confident, at ease with itself. It ought to be pointing out that this purple patch in Scottish cinema came immediately after the failed (and for many, gerrymandered) independence vote of 1979. While Scotland had declared itself a country it hadn't managed to fulfil the strict arithmetic diktats of the Westminster Labour Government.

Perhaps there is some synchronicity in the career of Forsyth and what Scotland might expect as the inexorable Devolution tide roars ever nearer the sands of Independence.

Why only four Forsyth films of repute and celebration? Unfortunately Hollywood plucked Forsyth (Local Hero in reverse) and his talent was lost amongst the heathens. But I'm thankful for the four he gave us, most especially for Gregory's Girl. It's tricky to talk about a film that has had such a profound effect on you. Like lovers, films are as much about the time you met in your life as anything else. Gregory's Girl was my first love and, in the words of the song, first love never dies. That and the penguin.

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