The Nice rooms interview.
Room 49 @ THE NICE ROOMS presents
“That Forsyth Feeling” with Dave Campbell
Date of Article: 7th October 2017
It’s difficult to believe that in the next couple of years or so, Bill Forsyth’s excellent first two feature films, That Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl will be celebrating their 40th anniversaries. When The Nice Rooms Webzine came across the work of Dave Campbell – a man who cites tracking down film locations as a major obsession of his – it was indeed a bonus to discover that he had revisited the locations for both of these iconic films and that his resulting “Then and Now” projects have helped provide fascinating comparisons between the Scotland of today and the Scotland of the late seventies and early eighties.
Thanks for inviting me round. “Do you have any cornflakes?” 🙂
Yes, but “there must be more to life than suicide.”
..Your turn 🙂
I guess this obsession with film locations started back in 2005 when I picked up a bike that was going in the skip. I had moved away from cycling when I was about 15 – when things like hanging out with pals and eventually going to the pub became more important – but when I got the bike in 2005 I got right back into it again.
As my cycles around Glasgow got longer and longer I started to need a reason for going into new areas and for finding new routes. Cameras and photography follow a similar pattern. I really enjoyed taking pictures when I was younger but was limited by film photography and its expense so digital photography coming along was a revelation.
So with two parts of the equation in place, how did this lead to film locations?
Growing up I was fascinated by a Glasgow ‘Then and Now’ book by Jack House. The fact that the book had been published in the early 1970s meant that the same locations were primed for taking the next set of “Now” pictures.
For the next few years I would find old pictures of Glasgow then hunt them down, but it was getting harder to find good source shots. Then for some reason, I genuinely can’t remember why, I found a copy of Bill Forsyth’s film Comfort and Joy. I remembered that the main character’s apartment was in a complex not far from my house so I took a screen shot from the film and set out to match it. After visiting the apartment I took screen grabs of all the outdoor locations and set about searching Google maps for a match and then cycling to the location to match the scene with a “Now” photograph.
From there, the collection of films and TV shows that I have traced has grown to over 20 with more than 500 locations photographed and posted on my Flickr page… and I’ve not stopped yet!
You mentioned Bill Forsyth’s 1984 film Comfort And Joy there Dave; after watching it did you actively seek out Bill Forsyth’s other films?
I don’t think I searched out Bill Forsyth films for their story after this, it’s just lucky that I am very fond of his film making of this time. I think everybody gets a thrill from seeing their town or city on the screen and to be able to track down the exact locations used in the films and record them as they look now is a bonus.
Bill Forsyth’s films have a way of getting past the “no mean city” hard man image of Glasgow. Take That Sinking Feeling for example; it’s a gangster movie but it’s done with such naivety that you forget the heist and get lost in the characters with the streets and buildings almost becoming a character in themselves.
There is a bonus feature on the DVD release of That Sinking Feeling where Mark Kermode interviews Bill Forsyth on what was required to make the film for such a small budget and a large part of saving money was filming outside at short notice. For me that was great as I had loads of locations to trace.
In subsequent films (Gregory’s Girl, Comfort and Joy and Local Hero) Bill seems to carry this approach of making the real location part of the feel of the movie and again, with a bit of detective work, it’s possible to walk in the characters footsteps.
How did your own videos come about?
The videos were another accident. I have had a Youtube page for over 10 years and used it occasionally for car videos as I also restore and drive old Volkswagens. I was asked by a film maker, Carter Ferguson to help him with the locations used for Gregory’s Girl as I had already traced the scenes and when helping him I decided to put my stills together in a slide show and posted the finished film on YouTube.
When watching your ‘Then & Now’ videos for Gregory’s Girl I was taken aback as to how little appears to have changed location wise since the late seventies.
I was shocked when I got to Cumbernauld to see how little had changed allthough it was looking a lot older and a bit rough around the edges in parts. When I did the first set of pictures, the biggest changes seemed to be some moved phone boxes and extra weeds on the path.
Cumbernauld was part of the “new town” experiment so when Gregory’s Girl was filmed it was not long after the area had been built. Everything was new and it was a modern approach to building a town which is what attracted Bill Forsyth to use it as a location, although it was never actually called Cumbernauld in the film. The film is set in the fictional town of Climaston.
I think because it was all new and all part of a big plan there wasn’t the problem of one or two buildings getting old and being redeveloped so lining up the locations was fairly easy – once I could navigate around the maze of streets and walkways to find them.
Since doing the first set around the streets it was announced that the high school used in the film, Abronhill High, was to be demolished. I went along to the open night before the school closed and got a lot of interior shots, and then thanks to the film maker I was helping on a project, we actually got the keys to the school on the day before the demolition men moved in. It was incredible just how little had changed inside the school as well. If you look at the pictures from the home economics department in the clip below, the cupboards, clocks and sinks are all the same as they were in the film.
The Gregory’s Girl videos on YouTube turned out to be very popular so I progressed to using scenes and dialog from That Sinking Feeling .
Do you agree that unlike Gregory’s Girl, the environment in That Sinking Feeling appeared stark?
The environment in That Sinking Feeling is of a city on decline and the residents struggling to find money for the basics…..Like cornflakes and milk 🙂 If the characters were not seen to be in such dire straits, we as a viewer would probably struggle with the idea they were planning to steal from others. In a way, we get to celebrate the success of the theft. Because of the environment and circumstances they find themselves in, it’s also very easy to forget we are watching kids.
I always have a feeling that That Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl were made for the enjoyment of the people who made them and Bill Forsyth‘s later films were made to be understood by the rest of the world.
With regards to both Gregory’s Girl and That Sinking Feeling, do you have any favourite scenes from each?
That is a tough one. For Gregory’s Girl I think for sheer simplicity and because it has a feel of a Spike Milligan sketch it would be the scene in the changing rooms where Phil Menzies is demonstrating his perfect football move to Dorothy.
“Reverse, down trap up turn steady kick.” There are so many bits of the film I love but I always quote this one.
For That Sinking Feeling, I do get a laugh when the alarm guy is explaining the complexities of the electronic device that will disable the alarm. When asked how it works he says: “you throw it at the fuse box and that f***’s it up” …….though this is edited out of some copies.
The thing that always gets me is that the British Film Federation refused to finance Gregory’s Girl as they thought it was too commercial. Imagine turning something down because it would make money? After this rejection Bill Forsyth went back to his day job of filming documentary films but then after visiting the Glasgow Youth Theater he decided to make That Sinking Feeling.
If it hadn’t been for That Sinking Feeling, Gregory’s Girl would never have been made and if it had been made at the time originally intended by Bill Forsyth then it would have been a very different movie. In the past few years some of the actors who were in the film have been credited as writers of Gregory’s Girl as they brought scenes and jokes into the movie.
When taking a photo of a location, have you ever attempted to take it when it is similar light / similar weather as to when the original film scene was shot?
I think I am more concerned with the details of the scene as it appears when I take the up to date shots. In some I have been lucky and had a motorbike where there was a motorbike in the film, or that I have been able to show things in the background that better place the location but weather wise its more to do with enjoying the cycle and if its raining in the film I am more likely to have a dry shot in the up to date comparison just because for me that’s more enjoyable.
Imagine The Nice Rooms’ horror when watching Gregory’s Girl back on a DVD some time back only to find that the accents had been “Americanised” (well, dubbed with milder Scottish accents anyway)
I do find it strange that every accent of America gets onto film un-changed and even Geordie and Scouse 😉 accents but a Scottish accent is immediately branded indecipherable. To me the Scottish accent is easy to understand (apart from maybe some folk from Fife) so it seems strange that international prints of the film were so heavily dubbed. To me it’s better to not fully understand every word if it means the atmosphere of the film is un-changed.
As an aside, I used to run a classic VW camper hire business. When driving two customers from Lichtenstein back to the airport I tried out my best Sean Connery impression which every single guy from Scotland thinks he can do. Not only did it not get a laugh, it was received with completely blank faces. Turns out that every film they had ever seen with Sean Connery in it had been dubbed so they didn’t know what his real accent was. 🙂
Have you ever thought about putting your work into a “Then and Now” Book?
I was approached by a publisher back in 2013 to put together a book for them. I was offered 4% net of every book sold but I would need to write it, find the pictures and negotiate the copyright on every picture used. When I got thinking about it 4% net of £14.99 wasn’t going to leave me much money for a lot of work so I declined. I would still love to do it but I think I would try and self publish it.
Are you able to gauge whether the locals remain proud of both films and still hold them close to their hearts, or has time done what time does and diluted things somewhat?
I think out of the two films, That Sinking Feeling has probably aged the most as the film almost made a point of being set in a specific time line. Gregory’s Girl however has an almost timeless feel to it. A story almost all of us can relate to in one way or another. Going back to Cumbernauld, because the area was so new at the time the surroundings are familliar to anybody who grew up in a post war housing estate, so there is another level of familiarity there.
Because of this, I first saw the film when I was about 9. I remember watching it and thinking how scary High School looked. A film that I so closely related to before being the same age as the characters, then living through their environment before looking back fondly, is bound to stay up there as one of my favourites.
The popularity of Gregory’s Girl never seems to have faded. You make a quote from the film and it is always met with another then a conversation will usually follow. I think That Sinking Feeling faded from the public conscience for a long time and possibly would have stayed the preserve of the cult film buff if it wasnt for the internet and then clips popping up on youtube to show there was a call for the release on DVD.
A couple of times in the past few years, Glasgow has held Bill Forsyth events with the films being shown on the big screen outside at the Kelvingrove band stand (see image below). These events (barring the weather) have always been well attended and the audience has been a complete cross section of generations.
When they were knocking down the school a few years ago it was national news with petitions drawn up to save the “Gregory’s Girl school” and if there was no longer interest in the film it would just have been another high school being demolished and gone unnoticed.
If you could visit the locations for any particular film, which film would it be?
In March I decided to go on a road trip in America to mark my 40th birthday and as part of that I ticked off locations from three of my very favorite films from my early childhood.
We started in Atlanta Georgia with a visit to two locations from The Cannonball Run (the petrol station and the motel where the race starts) and due to a car crash and finding myself in an area where I clearly wasnt local, I think I felt in danger for the first time while location hunting. We then visited Covington Georgia where the first five episodes of the Dukes of Hazzard were filmed along with another scene from The Cannonball Run. I finished the road trip with a visit to Jonesboro and surrounding areas that were used as film locations for Smokey and the Bandit then rounded off with a tour of Senoia, Georgia that doubled as Woodbury in The Walking Dead.
The Atlanta incident was bad but in the long run I think it may have kept me safe. We had landed originally in Florida for two days then arrived early on the third into Atlanta. At the car hire desk we were offered the usual upgrade which I had decided beforehand that I was going to decline. I had picked an American car, a Chevrolet Impala as I didn’t want to visit Dukes of Hazzard country in a Kia or similar. When we got to the desk we were offered an upgrade to a Cadillac SUV – and being a complete sucker I went for it.
We went downstairs and collected a shiny red Cadillac and the plan was to head for Stone Mountain north east of Atlanta with a route that would take us into Decatur to visit the petrol station from Cannonball Run then onto the Motel and ultimately to Stone Mountain.
Not even 45 minutes from collecting the car, we had just left the gas station where we allready felt completely out of place being pasty white Scottish people in a car with Florida plates and I pulled up for a red light. Sadly the guy behind us in a van didnt see us stop and didnt react in time and the back of the Cadillac suddenly didnt look like it did when we collected it.
We didnt make it to the motel that day or Stone Mountain but opted to head straight to the hotel we had booked to decompress.
After ten days tour of Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee we were back in Atlanta. We had to check out of the hotel at 10am and our flights back to Florida (for another 5 day road trip) didn’t leave until 9pm. To use up the day, and instead of visiting downtown Atlanta, we decided we would head for Stone Mountain and stop off at the Cannonball Run Motel on the way.
This is where I think the crash may have been for the best. What we found was a very run down motel ($25 per night) in a very dodgy part of town with very dodgy people hanging about. I got out quickly to take pictures and Joanne my wife kept the engine running for a fast get away. Thankfully, apart from the Miami hotel being an overpriced dump this was the only low point of the holiday.
Your latest Then & Now video is a Bill Forsyth film and one you mentioned earlier in the interview: Comfort and Joy..
It seemed about time I made this set into a video for YouTube. As mentioned, it was the very first film location set I compiled and over the past few years I have added some of the more remote locations to the set as I found them (I’ve still not tracked down an exact location for the milk bar).
Because it was the first, I tended to think of it as done so I took a while to dig back into the hard drive to find the files for the video, but after my chat here it was brought back into my thoughts and I needed to give it its own video.
I think of all Bill Forsyth’s movies, this is the one that gets overlooked. It’s not got the happy ending of That Sinking Feeling or Gregory’s Girl and it was the last of the four films he made in 1980s’ Scotland, so perhaps by that time the world was moving on to other styles of film.
How do you think Bill Forsyth may react if he was to view your work?
I would be happy just to know he had seen it, as long as he doesn’t take offence with me possibly infringing copyright. I hope he would take it as a mark of respect first of all, but an opinion or reaction would be nice. I’d like to give my thanks to Bill Forsyth for giving me a hobby and offer an apology to him for using his screen shots and riding his coat tails.
So what’s next for Dave Campbell?
The problem is I like to keep this to myself in case it doesn’t turn out well, but right now I am in the tracing locations stage for a 1987 film starring Helen Mirren and Tom Conti called Heavenly Pursuits. Again, it’s set in Glasgow – so on my own doorstep – and hopefully I will get out for location shots before winter sets in.
Good luck Dave, and thanks for the interview.