Comfort and Joy: the anatomy of melancholy

Bill Forsyth: Underappreciated Auteur

by Philip Gillett Volume 9, Issue 7 / July 2005 23 minutes (5541 words)

Bill Forsyth came to public and critical attention with his second film, Gregory’s Girl (1981), a quirky look at secondary school life and the pangs of puberty, which retains its place in the nation’s affections judging by its frequent screenings on television and its regular appearance in lists of favourite films. Equally quirky and a comparable commercial success on its first release was Local Hero (1983), which had among its selling points Scottish scenery and an international star in Burt Lancaster. Forsyth’s subsequent films failed to make a comparable impact commercially or critically and became increasingly sporadic, but to dismiss him as a two-hit wonder would be to ignore some original and thought-provoking work. Comfort and Joy (1984), which he wrote and directed, displays his distinctive approach to storytelling, concealing serious issues beneath a veneer of comedy.

The scenario has the whimsical quality found in all Forsyth’s Scottish films. This does not mean that his works are insubstantial, but that his interest is in mood and how people are transformed rather than being driven by plot. Alan ‘Dicky’ Bird hosts an early morning show on a Glasgow radio station and lives with the kleptomaniac Maddy. When she leaves him just before Christmas, a distraught Alan takes to driving around the city, which is how he comes to witness an ice-cream van being attacked. His journalistic instincts are aroused and he uncovers a war between rival ice cream sellers, Mr Bunny and Mr McCool. When he tries to mediate, he becomes drawn into their dispute. His anger is fuelled by the realisation that he is being used by both sides. He finds a product they can co-operate on – ice cream fritters – but keeps the recipe to himself so that he can retain a controlling interest in the enterprise. As the film closes, he is in the studio on Christmas morning, fortified by a bottle of whisky and a piece of Christmas pudding. All is right with the world.

The opening scene establishes the mood. The camera looks out from a display of animated Father Christmas figures to catch the wonderment of the children whose faces are pressed against the glass. We hear a synthesised voice telling them that the workers are making sweets for Christmas stockings. Reality and fantasy are never far apart in the world of children, or that of Bill Forsyth.

The scene opens out to a panorama of serious adult shopping. A woman shoplifter is being tailed by a man who appears to be a store detective, but when the pair meet outside, it becomes clear that he is her partner. This is our introduction to Maddy (Eleanor David) and Alan (Bill Paterson). Maddy’s presence pervades the film, though she only makes two brief appearances after the opening scenes. The luminous Eleanor David shares with Isabelle Huppert the ability to convey a teeming inner world beneath a placid exterior. It is not difficult to understand Alan’s attraction to the self-possessed, stylish Maddy with her Pre-Raphaelite looks, or his devastation at losing her. Their four-year relationship is not explored in detail, but its warmth and complexity are evident and root the film in everyday experience. Some questions are left to tease us. Does he normally follow her on these shoplifting sprees? Is he an unwilling accomplice, or is he hoping to shield her from arrest by watching over her? Outside the store he pleads, ‘Maddy, I can’t stand the strain,’ which suggests acquiescence in her activities, if not active support. Maddy retorts, ‘You’re going slow. It must be nerves.’ His attitude is ambivalent. ‘You’ll be the death of me, Maddy,’ he complains when they are in his car. ‘If you want to steal, then at least be practical. We needed onions, not Christmas gifts.’ If not condoning her habit, he is willing to share the spoils.

Maddy takes items which have little practical use, so what motivates her? That enigmatic face gives little away except that she is enjoying herself. Her triumph is evident in Alan’s beloved BMW as she lights her cigarette with a hideous ornamental lighter she has stolen. When Alan objects to her smoking (he is always fussing about the velure upholstery), her response is to blow smoke in his face before nibbling his ear. The couple’s closeness seems incontrovertible.

On their return to Alan’s modest flat, Maddy drifts around the living room, draping tinsel over the Christmas tree before sorting through her day’s haul. She makes a present of a sweater to Alan, who duly thanks her. He grapples with the Christmas tree lights which she has bought (or more probably stolen). In the cooing tones and gestures of a lover, he probes how they will spend the evening. The lights hanging around his chest flash as he leans forward to kiss her. Events look set to become more intimate.

After dinner, Alan is reading as Maddy wanders around the flat collecting ornaments in a box. At first he pays little attention. When she takes down a picture, he asks what she is doing. She announces that she is leaving. ‘I meant to tell you ages ago, but the moment didn’t arise,’ she excuses herself in unemphatic tones. Alan is baffled. Only when the removal men arrive and one takes his book does he become irritated, demanding the return of his sweater which Maddy is wearing. She wanted it as a keepsake, she reproaches, but magnanimously she lets him keep it, along with the book. His mood of bewilderment and passive acceptance returns as the reality of the situation sinks in. He even helps to load her furniture into the van.

Alan’s muted response suggests that the couple have been through similar scenes before, even if events have never gone this far. It is easy to imagine the phlegmatic Alan living with the mercurial Maddy. They complement each other, though his low-key response and pernickety nature provide clues as to why Maddy might tire of him. She takes risks, where Alan tags along in her wake. Their relationship is captured with rare economy and it is to the credit of Forsyth and his actors that it remains credible and intriguing, with neither character losing our sympathy.

With Maddy gone, Alan has to accustom himself to life on his own. The next morning he is seen wiping bird droppings off the roof of his car. It is an inauspicious start to his new life. Shorn of decorations and much of its furniture, his home takes on the impersonal look of a service flat. He treats it that way: a place for sleeping and drinking whisky. Other devices underline his loneliness. One is Mark Knopfler’s introspective jazz score which accompanies Alan’s journey of the soul. It contrasts with the Christmas jingles of the opening and the faster tempo of the final scenes as his attitude becomes more positive – a response fuelled by anger at the way he has been used by the ice cream sellers rather than any coming to terms with Maddy’s departure. In an interview with Allan Hunter published on the film’s release, Forsyth explained that he was trying to mirror the tone of the Dire Straits album Love Over Gold, written by Knopfler. The tracks which Forsyth singled out were ‘Telegraph Road’, charting a city’s decay, and ‘Private Investigations’, which follows a solitary individual trying to solve an enigma which may be of his own creation.1 The world of Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1967) seems not far away.

The solitary driver cruising the city is another symbol of isolation suited to films and used memorably in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). Glass insulates the protagonist from the rest of humanity as surely as it separates children from the fantasy world of Santa’s workshop in the opening scenes of Comfort and Joy. Like the children, the driver can let his imagination roam free. Most of Alan’s cruising takes place at dusk and on urban motorways devoid of people. Pools of light from street lamps make little impact on the gloom; when combined with the speeding traffic, they reinforce the sense of isolation. Forsyth does offer a glimmer of hope. As Alan waits at traffic lights, he glimpses an attractive girl in an ice cream van. She notices his interest and smiles back. That prompts him to follow the van. The irony is that the promise of a new relationship precipitates his involvement in the ice cream war. And he never gets the girl.

Pools of artificial light recur elsewhere, notably when Alan watches the van loaded with Maddy’s possessions pulling away from his flat. Sunlight never brightens the film; even during the day, the skies are leaden. The contrast is with the warm, yellow glow suffusing the flat in the opening scenes, which gives the illusion of candlelight. After Maddy leaves, the flat is seen in the cold light of dawn. Scenes set at dawn and dusk keep recurring in the film, providing visual cues to Alan’s mood.

Radio should dispel solitude, but not for Alan. His work on a local radio station involves rising at dawn: he walks through the doors as the six o’clock news is being read. In the studio, as in the car, he is isolated by glass. From here he talks to his invisible audience, trying to create a rapport with people he has never seen. When he cruises the city streets, the car radio keeps silence at bay with news bulletins, but these are uniformly downbeat, with talk of international tension and threats of war. Even the story of a pregnant panda ends with the animal’s death. There is no incentive to engage with world events when everything is going wrong.

Music, driving, darkness and the use of radio emphasise Alan’s loneliness. There are moments which offer a more direct insight into his state of mind, their common features being economy and an absence of sentimentality. One occurs as he tries to make a documentary about the ice cream war. His impromptu commentary recorded on location, starts well enough, but his voice breaks as he pleads, ‘Maddy, please come home. I want to see you today. I want to see what you’re wearing. I want you to tell me a joke. I want to make you something nice to eat.’ The mood is broken before it becomes maudlin, with a cut to the flat where he continues with his work.

The other moments which reveal Alan’s feelings are visual. The first occurs when he returns to his flat the evening after Maddy’s departure. He is drinking whisky when he is disturbed by the sound of the door opening. Maddy is wearing a fur coat. The couple kiss; they are still kissing as they fall on the bed. Only then does he realise that she is a chimera. The next night he tries to avoid a repeat of the incident by staying with his old friend, Colin (Patrick Malahide). In the morning as Alan brushes his windscreen clear of snow, he sees Maddy smiling at him from inside the car. When he opens the door, she tells him that she has come back. He nuzzles against her, prolonging their kiss. Then he awakens to find himself in bed and talking to himself in the darkness. In neither sequence are we forewarned that Maddy’s presence is in his imagination. Our discovery mirrors Alan’s realisation that his mind is playing tricks.

The final moment of raw emotion is the simplest in filmic terms, but testing for the actor. After chancing on Maddy’s shoe in the bedroom, Alan pushes the bed aside, finding the detritus of clothing and photographs from their life together. His sense of loss is tangible.

If this were a Woody Allen film, our hero would take himself off to his analyst. A reluctant Alan does visit a psychiatrist after prompting from his employer, Hilary (Rikki Fulton), but the session proves inconclusive. This is hardly surprising given that Arnold Brown’s psychiatrist is one of the film’s more eccentric characters. Alan finds more support from Colin, who visits the flat on the morning after Maddy’s departure. Colin tries to be positive as he prowls the charmless rooms: ‘Do you realise how lucky you are?… Don’t you see what an opportunity you have? How many people our age would give an arm and a leg to break out and start all over again? A new life – that’s what you’ve been handed on a plate. Look around you. Everything here is yours… It’s you. There’s nothing but you here now. What a chance.’ Colin opens the door to the balcony. A Christmas star clings to the glass as a legacy of Maddy’s presence. As the men stand outside, looking over Glasgow, their contrasting attitudes to the nature of relationships become clear:

COLIN: Maddy was utterly fantastic and special, and you deserved as much of her as you were going to get. But now you’ve had it. Your turn now. Anyway, there was always something unreal about you two. You were like kids, playing
and fighting. It was a bit of a caper, wasn’t it?

ALAN: Don’t say that. I worshipped her.

COLIN: Not the nicest thing you can do to somebody, is it? I hope you don’t worship me.

ALAN: No, you’re my friend.

Friendship is different from other relationships. It is treated more seriously by Forsyth than Alan’s relationship with his employer, Hilary – a distinction already apparent in Local Hero. The closeness of the two friends becomes apparent when Alan stays with Colin and his family. ‘You lucky bugger,’ Alan says as the two men sit by the fire. ‘You get it all together. You’re so productive.’ In turn, Colin confesses to being jealous of his friend’s colourful life at university, arranging hops and pulling the girls, as he puts it. As with Alan and Maddy, the two men are drawn together by their complementary personalities; the difference is that their friendship endures. Alan puts Colin’s six-year-old daughter to bed at her request and shares her bedroom. Within a decade, mores swung against depicting such a scene even if treated as unselfconsciously as this. In context, it illustrates how easily Alan is assimilated into Colin’s family life, which offers a temporary haven of stability and warmth.

Forsyth handles the scenes of Alan’s disintegration with assurance. When other Scottish directors emulate his work, too often it is the jokey aspects which come to the fore rather than the emotional control. Paterson shares the credit for his refusal to play for sympathy. His responses are always right, always hinting at confusion, grief and love, inextricably combined and close beneath the surface. Alan’s relationship with Maddy may be built on fantasy like Gregory’s amorous liaisons in Gregory’s Girl, but for the older man, fantasy assumes deeper significance. It offers an escape from his failings. With Maddy gone, there can be no further evasion.

This tale of urban life marked Forsyth’s farewell to his roots before being lured to Hollywood. Chris Menges’ photography eschews the tourist image of Glasgow: it is hard to pinpoint landmarks even in the panoramic view from the studio window. This could be in any city which attempted to modernise in the 1960s. In a world of tower blocks, elevated motorways and shopping centres, the old city lurks in the interstices. Street lights hang from redundant trolleybus poles; ice cream sellers operate from Stygian workshops (Mr Bunny’s headquarters with its jingles and array of bunnies harks back to Santa’s workshop in the opening scenes). Glasgow’s transitional state is shown at its starkest when Alan makes his documentary. He begins, ‘Here I am in the heart of the city. Talking about this place… We all think that we know our own place, our own town. But do we? How much do we know – or care? Things happen around us.’ His ‘heart of the city’ is an abandoned quay beneath a motorway bridge. The traffic passing overhead provides the only sign of activity. This is post-industrial Glasgow on the cusp of being transformed into European City of Culture, but on estates like the one visited by the ice cream van, not much is destined to change.

The film is beset with such ironies, not least the mismatch between what happens on screen and the sentiments implied by the title. Alan envies Colin’s settled life; Colin envies Alan’s freedom. Colin the surgeon can provide a better sounding board for Alan’s worries than the psychiatrist. Alan is the reassuring voice on the radio whose presence brightens the life of an old lady in hospital, while his private life is in turmoil. He is a local celebrity, yet he feels isolated from the people around him. He records voice-overs for Minty Chews, but his teeth hurt when he bites into an iced cake. The points are never laboured. Alan grapples with everything life throws at him, revealing a fallible individual more rounded and more vulnerable than any found in Forsyth’s earlier works.

The film covers events over the days leading up to Christmas – the title is taken from the chorus of ‘God rest ye, merry gentlemen’ – yet after the opening shots of children, any sense of wonderment is missing. This is the bitterest irony. Christmas crowds make Maddy’s shoplifting easier. Christmas decorations in Alan’s flat betoken festive times ahead, but there can be no celebrations once Maddy has gone. The short, bleak days accentuate Alan’s gloom. He cruises urban motorways which are dreary at any time of year. As he tells Colin, ‘You drive around this city and all you see are homes – and I don’t have one.’ Yet once the ice cream war is resolved, he recovers his optimism even when hosting the breakfast radio show early on Christmas morning. Christmas weaves its magic, at least for a few hours.

Christmas is often used in films as a way of exploring the mismatch between the expectation of harmony and the reality of family tensions and personal distress, It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) being the prime example. If the device has common currency, this need not diminish its impact in the right hands. Forsyth’s Christmas might not be appealing, but most people can identify with it. At least it is not as dark as the Scottish Christmas in Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002).

Beneath the jovial surface of Forsyth’s farewell to Glasgow is an undertow of bitterness. The good-natured guying of business ethics in Local Hero gives way to a more all-embracing cynicism. The department store uses Christmas as a marketing opportunity, drawing children and hence their parents into its maw. Maddy rejects these commercial values, but if she has a moral system, it is difficult to discern. Hilary is not averse to nepotism, inserting his wife’s recorded recipes in his station’s broadcasts: this is how Alan hears about ice cream fritters. The squabbling Italians belong to the same family: the girl Alan first glimpsed in the Mr Bunny van is McCool’s daughter, while Trevor (Alex Norton), alias Mr Bunny, is his nephew. When the rivals see a business opportunity in Alan’s idea, their feud is forgotten and the conversation turns to marketing strategies. Alan interrupts to demand 30 per cent of the profits, Maddy and the documentary seemingly forgotten. Colin is the only character to retain the idealism of his youth by keeping to his chosen career as a doctor. It is Colin who provides the stability in Alan’s life which Maddy could never do, though it must be admitted that Maddy is the more interesting character.

Alan is the clown who (usually) hides his tears in true Pagliacci style – a recurring image in British cinema.2 This is the stuff of show-business stories. Biopics can be castigated because the boundary between public persona and private individual becomes blurred, but Alan’s story gives pause for thought about how the two can be separated. His voice-overs for advertisements require several takes so that he can inject the requisite enthusiasm and sincerity into his voice. He goes about the work professionally, but does he believe in the products? How does he feel about using his talents to advertise sweets? His attempt at a documentary about Glasgow soon falters. He seems condemned to a life of advertising jingles and early morning shifts on local radio, though even the latter is uncertain as Hilary checks whether his wayward employee is on a six-month or a twelve-month contract: broadcasters who talk to Mr Bunny on air are not to be trusted. The media world is presented as unforgiving and superficial. Alan’s public face is jocular and easygoing, but it is so much part of him that he is unable to wholly abandon it even when confronted with Maddy’s departure. He seems trapped between faltering ambition, success in his limited field and trying to recapture the free spirit of his youth, but in this he is hardly unique. Alan’s misfortune is that because of his occupation, the resolution of his dilemma has to be played out in public. There are hints that whisky might be his ultimate solace.

The darkness of the subject matter could make this a depressing film, but Forsyth’s trademark humour bubbles up in unexpected places. A lookalike competition brings a succession of odd characters to the radio station. One of the masked attackers of the Mr Bunny van asks Alan to play a Mantovani record for his mother. Afterwards, the van limps off like a wounded animal, with pieces falling off and the jingle still playing valiantly. When Alan meets McCool in a cafe, the heavyweight sons squabble over who should have the solitary iced cake among the biscuits on the plate. The psychiatrist becomes aggrieved when Alan supplies the ending to his story which Hilary has passed off as his own. Apart from preventing the film from becoming relentlessly downbeat, these touches give the characters humanity. There is nobody we love to hate.

This bemused approach to the absurdities of life extends to Forsyth‛s good-natured take on other films. Iconography drawn from American cinema becomes incongruous when transplanted to humdrum Scottish settings. McCool and his sons resemble their sinister cousins in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), with a nod to the Marx Brothers. The confrontation of Mr Bunny and McCool in the forecourt of a derelict, out-of-town milk bar echoes the final shootout in countless westerns, while Alan’s increasingly battered car which assumes an identity of its own is an image familiar from road movies. And is it fanciful to see the ghosts of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant or Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in the bickering couple? As with Woody Allen, a love of film shines through without ever making the work derivative.

Glasgow had its real ice cream wars, with dealers using van routes to distribute heroin. Billy Wilder finds comedy in murder and organised crime in Some Like It Hot (1959); Forsyth reverts to the small-scale crime of his first film, That Sinking Feeling (1980), but in Comfort and Joy it provides not the central plot, but the backdrop to a study of loss and accommodation. The mystery to be solved may lack the elusive quality of its counterpart in Blow-Up, but there are compensations. Aside from the humour, this is Forsyth’s first film where pain intrudes, the result being more complex and ultimately more satisfying than his earlier successes, even if this was not apparent at the box office. Perhaps his humour proved too wayward to sustain wide appeal beyond two commercial successes, or the storyline of the ice-cream war had only local interest. Yet as Richard Curtis has demonstrated, maintaining a distinctive style across several works need not diminish their appeal, so long as the humour remains fresh and the characters endearing.

The response of critics was equally tepid. Both David Robinson in The Times and Iain Johnstone in The Sunday Times detected a structural weakness in the way Alan’s relationship with Maddy is jettisoned in favour of the ice cream war.3 Forsyth anticipated this objection in his interview with Hunter, citing the difficulty of playing with the structure when the events depicted are necessary for change to take place in the characters.4 This defence seems disingenuous given his dual role as writer and director: a change in Alan does not preclude Maddy’s return. In a later interview quoted by David Lavery, Forsyth explained, ‘The way I go about making films is a reaction against what you could call the English dramatically structural film.’5 ‘Structure’ is being used in two senses. In the earlier interview, Forsyth uses the term to denote a chain of causally-linked events; later he rejects the notion of a single plot displaying exposition, development and resolution in the traditional (Aristotelian) theatrical sense.6 If the purpose of Maddy’s departure is to initiate a train of events during which Alan will be tested, then the criticism that her disappearance from the story constitutes a structural weakness misses the point. In support of this view, Maddy does not figure in the parallel theme of Glasgow’s decline, or in the Dire Straits songs which provided the genesis of the film.

Johnstone’s review was not totally negative: ‘His [Forsyth’s] real touch is that of a miniaturist as he sketches characters and scenes. Being both writer and director, he subtly uses the twin roles not to indulge himself but to counterpoint the actions with the words. Again and again he will let his scenes run wordlessly then supply an unexpected twist with their dialogue.’7 This points to how Forsyth’s filmic imagination works, though defining him as a miniaturist hints at a limitation which may have been felt by audiences expecting another Local Hero. If Forsyth’s Scottish work occasionally seems parochial, this is the price to be paid for working in a small country and helping to define its film-making tradition. Opting for restrictions on cast and locations can be a matter of choice when it suits the subject matter or allows the film-maker to make a personal statement as in Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953) or Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1969); the same limitations may also be a consequence of how a film is financed and distributed. Forsyth’s earlier Local Hero with its American star was backed by Goldcrest Films, a major international player in British film production at the time, while the more intimate Comfort and Joy received funding from Scottish Television, whose strength was in the domestic market (though releasing a film with a Christmas setting in the dog days of August was unfortunate). This does not mean that the subject matter of Comfort and Joy is trivial or insignificant. The focus on one man’s response to his city is also the premise of Taxi Driver, in which the urban world is a murky place the protagonist has to grapple with, earning his living from it without feeling part of it. Comfort and Joy is in distinguished company.

Using one man’s story as an allegory for wider events has a long literary pedigree which has found its way to the screen in such works as The Quiet American (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1957), where the hero and Vietnam follow the same downward spiral, and The Entertainer (Tony Richardson, 1960), which links the fate of failing comedian Archie Rice with that of Britain. The difficulty in applying the principle to Comfort and Joy is that the ice cream war plot line is mined for its comedic value, but little else; it seems too lightweight to bring about credible change in Alan. But rather than condemn the film on these grounds a more fruitful approach is to consider why Forsyth should shape the film as he does. In Local Hero he takes a wry look at corporate America, with a nod to The Maggie (Alexander Mackendrick, 1953). Comfort and Joy marries the personal and business worlds more subtly. In a neat reversal of 1970’s counter-cultural values which finds an echo in the career of such figures as Richard Branson, the freewheeling Alan turns his back on the ethic of personal fulfilment when faced with the prospect of a lucrative business venture. Advancing age goes some way to explaining this change of heart, but just as important is the political climate. Comfort and Joy was made in the heyday of Thatcherism. Alan’s enthusiasm for becoming an entrepreneur is of its time, as is Forsyth’s ambivalence: Margaret Thatcher had few friends in the arts world. Such an approach must be treated with caution. The notion that film embodies the state of the nation is seductive, but potentially misleading. We lean heavily on the cinema for our images of the American West and the Second World War, but this only demonstrates how film reinforces myth. Feature film makers cannot stand outside society, but they can take liberties with facts. While not being didactic, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy question the ideology of the 1980s as surely as The Ploughman’s Lunch (Richard Eyre, 1983) or My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985), though without their metropolitan bias. Forsyth may not display Ken Loach’s overt socialism, but he is attuned to the political nuances of the time. Perhaps this is why Alan’s sudden embracing of the prevailing ethic at the end of the film rings hollow in the same way as the better-known ‘false’ ending of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, a work cryptically described by the composer as an optimistic tragedy. The critique of capitalism Forsyth turns to is that of Dickens. The bonhomie which imbues the ending of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is apparent as Alan quotes the story’s final words on his Christmas morning shift in the studio. They sound as contrived for him as they were for Dickens. Can a change of heart really be achieved so easily, or does the hollowness hint at the price Alan may pay for renouncing his illusions?

The resolution of Alan’s spiritual crisis could form the basis of one of Eric Rohmer’s moral tales, but Forsyth has a wider remit than a man confronting middle age and not liking what he sees. This could be an exploration of any conflict, from a family feud to an international incident such as the one Alan hears about on the news reports assailing him as he cruises the streets of Glasgow, a city with its own history of internecine strife. The arcane origins of such disputes, the mutual distrust, the tribulations of the mediator who feels manipulated by both sides and the potential for gallows humour are issues which fuel No Man’s Land (Danis Tanovic, 2001), set in the Balkans, and are all to be found in Comfort and Joy. By these standards, Alan achieves a triumph of diplomacy.

Given the universality of many of the film’s themes, could it be transposed to another urban setting? The ice cream war is uniquely Glaswegian, but Italian communities are found in other cities including London. If the focus were on Alan’s pursuit of the Italian girl half his age, this could have generate enough tensions for a satisfying film as the family close ranks against him. The reason for the Glasgow setting may be more pragmatic. Comfort and Joy reunited Forsyth with the producers of Gregory’s Girl, while Knopfler and Menges had worked on Local Hero. Forsyth’s seems more relaxed on home ground, working with people he knows, with the consequence that his Scottish films are arguably fresher and funnier than his American work. The same might be said of Mackendrick, another Scot who moved to Hollywood after working with a close circle of colleagues, this time at Ealing. Whatever the lure of larger audiences and larger budgets, they come at a price.

Comfort and Joy is a deceptively simple film. As well as offering a comic take on conflict, it can be seen as a critique of consumerism and the role of the media in society. At its core is the story of one man’s journey from fantasy to a sort of reality. The abrupt change of emphasis from his relationship with Maddy to the ice cream war may seem disconcerting, but we should trust Forsyth. If we go along with his approach, he leads us to an exploration of personal loss and change which is entertaining and affecting.


1 Hunter, Allan. Interview with Bill Forsyth. Films and Filming. August 1984, 11-13.

2 Spicer, Andrew. Typical Men. The Representation of Masculinity in Popular British Cinema. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001.

3 Robinson, David. The Times, 15 August 1984; Iain Johnstone. The Sunday Times, 19 August, 1984.

4 Hunter, Interview with Bill Forsyth.

5 Lavery, David. “Centred in the eccentric: the imagination of Bill Forsyth,” Paper given at the Kentucky Philological Association, North Kentucky University, 1989 accessed 28 June 2005.

6 Hiltunen, Ari. Aristotle in Hollywood: The Anatomy of Successful Storytelling, Bristol: Intellect Books, 2002.

7 Johnstone, The Sunday Times.

Philip Gillett is an independent writer on film and author of The British Working Class in Postwar Film (MUP, 2003), Movie Greats: A Critical Study of Classic Cinema (Berg, 2008), a re-examination of the film canon, Film and Morality (CSP, 2012) and Forgotten British Film: Value and the Ephemeral in Postwar Cinema (CSP, 2017), and Film and the Historian: The British Experience (CSP, 2019).

Volume 9, Issue 7 / July 2005 Essays   bill forsyth   british cinema   comedy   comfort and joy   gregory's girl   local heroes   reviews_several_films   scottish cinema