Actor Bill Paterson and writer/director Bill Forsyth may be internationally-renowned for their film work, but their paths have crossed just once on-screen, in 1984’s Comfort and Joy.
Now, 27 years later, BBC Scotland has reunited the pair for a one-off documentary which takes them back to the Glasgow locations used in the film as they recall their time growing up in the city and their work together.
Here, Bill Paterson looks ahead to the screening of the documentary and discusses the changes to the Scottish film industry since the 1970s.
Jonathan Melville: The first thing to say about the new documentary is that it was filmed on a very cold and foggy day in Glasgow.
Bill Paterson: Yes, I thought that if I was doing an interview about it I would have to make excuses because of the fog. The plan was to use some of the key locations of Comfort and Joy for the programme, particularly down by the Clyde.
There’s a scene in Comfort and Joy where my character, Dickie Bird, has a walk along the river saying there are things going on in this city into a microphone, and we were going to redo that on that spot. The bollard I sat on is still there, near the BBC building.
There were a few ships down there back then and they’re all gone now. That was going to be a metaphor for these two old geezers talking about how they had changed in the 27 years since the film was made. But since we didn’t see any of the view thanks to the fog, that whole idea went out the window. The day was going to be spent talking about that and all the waiting for the magic hour just before dusk during Comfort and Joy.
It was beautifully clear 200 feet above and 400 yards north and south of the river, but not on it. The fog is now the metaphor for two old guys peering at each other and at the past.
Rewatching Comfort and Joy it’s possible to see similarities to The Long Good Friday, albeit with a different tone.
That’s right, they’re both set around the post-industrial phase of Britain’s docklands and in Glasgow’s case the shipbuilding as well. Long Good Friday was around 1981 and I know its director, John Mackenzie. He was telling me he’d finished the film just before we were doing ours. Ours was a benign version and his was very much about villainy.
Did you enjoy making Comfort and Joy?
Yes, not a moment of bad memories. In the programme I mention the problems of my driving and the only other difficulty we had were the weather conditions. We tried to shoot Comfort and Joy in November/December in Glasgow: even when the weather’s good the light is gone by 5 o’clock. If you have a day time story you don’t have many hours to shoot it in. We always seemed to be chasing the light on the exteriors. That’s an abiding memory but everything else was a pleasure. I loved it.
Bill Forsyth seems to think there are problems with the film, would you agree?
There were, the ending was never quite right. We’d shot another ending and I don’t know why it wasn’t used. There was a tie up between Dickie and Clare Grogan’s character but it wasn’t properly resolved so we shot another one.
Any film that has an unsatisfactory ending isn’t the perfect film because that’s what people leave the cinema remembering.
Bill also gives off the vibe, certainly in the DVD commentary, that he doesn’t enjoy directing. Did you ever sense that?
Not for a minute. That’s just a Bill being a wee bit modest about his work. He was a lovely director and never had any difficulty talking through what he had in mind. He was also good at doing the important thing of saying when he thought something wouldn’t work. So no, never any tentativeness, in fact quite the reverse.
He says it in our programme that he finds actors strange and exotic, he has this thing that he thinks we’re otherworldly, whether that’s the lads from That Sinking Feeling who had never acted before or whether it was Burt Lancaster on Local Hero, someone who’d done everything.
We now look back on these films as classics but at the time did you know they were something special?
I’d known Bill before, in the days he was making films with Charlie Gormley doing programmes about the herring industry and Harris tweed, as Scottish filmmakers did in those days.
Because of the success of the theatre revival in and around shows such as The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil, which I was in during the mid-70s as part of the 7:84 group, there was a great sense of Scottish theatre showing what was happening at the time in Scotland and in people’s lives. Bill said “we’ve got to do what you guys have done on stage, we’ve got to get the stories about our lives today in the here and now: we can’t sit and wait for the herring industry board to give us another job, we’ve got to do it”.
He found a way of doing it. So I knew about his work and I would have been involved in his earlier films but for various complicated reasons that didn’t happen. It wasn’t a surprise that he had achieved something significant in a pretty short time.
Was there ever an opportunity to do something with the 7:84 theatre productions on film?
I think John McGrath, 7:84’s founder, would have liked to have done that. The Cheviot was made for the BBC because director John Mackenzie was in Glasgow to do a Peter McDougall Play for Today, the one which was eventually done as Just Another Saturday, but things were very volatile at the time.
The Troubles in Northern Ireland were at there most vicious, and there was real fear that filming in the streets of Glasgow with Orange walks could be dangerous. So the BBC dropped the film, but Mackenzie had recently come to see Cheviot on stage.
In those days, and this is how different it is to today, a director and his producer could make a decision that if they were in Scotland with a unit and cameras they couldn’t use with a slot to fill, that they were going to make a film of the play they’d seen the other night. The decision was made within days.
Nowadays it would have to go through a pyramid of decision making before reaching the Home Secretary’s desk. But then, the unit was shipped in and McGrath was asked to write a screenplay in just a few short weeks.
That’s how close theatre and film could be, and we could have done more.
Did you learn anything new about yourself making this programme?
I’m not a big messianic method or stylistic type of actor but I did realise again that being on stage energised me. We did say more than was in the programme, there could be a director’s cut, or an actor’s cut.
Are there any other questions you would have asked Bill?
The terrible thing being an actor is that you’re not interested in anyone else. Actors don’t ask other people unless it’s to ask “what did you think of my performance?”. Bill likes to keep away from the showbiz scene and I thought what he said was lovely.
Many Scottish films these days tend to focus on drugs or drink problems. Does Scotland need another Bill Forsyth film, or the next Bill Forsyth?
I’ve said for many years that while in the French New Wave they had the Nouvelle Vague, in Scotland for many years we’ve had the “Nouvelle Dreich”. Much of it has been very good but there’s been a tendency to see the despair in Scottish society, and of course perhaps it’s true.
If that’s the case then these are great issues that should be dealt with at a pretty profound level if the despair is so deep. On the other hand, if those are seen to be the only films that are seen in Scotland, new filmmakers think that’s all that they can get made.
Artworks Scotland: When Bill Paterson met Bill Forsyth is on BBC Two Scotland tonight at 10pm.