Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Why Bill Forsyth’s caper of casual shoplifting and ice-cream is my favourite Christmas film.

We all have a film we love to watch at Christmas. It could be one that reminds you of a special time, or makes you feel all happy and full of seasonal cheer. It could be a film that brings comfort or helps you to surface emotions that you need to get out with a big snotty cry. Or maybe you just like watching Die Hard. Ask someone to name their favourite Christmas film and they usually have an immediate answer.

The film that I return to again and again is Bill Forsyth’s Comfort and Joy (1984). Sometimes overlooked, this gentle mid 1980s comedy tells the story of local radio DJ Alan ‘Dickie’ Bird (Bill Paterson) as his life is turned upside down one Christmas and he searches for meaning amongst the discarded baubles.

Alan has a comfortable life. He has a good job with status, a nice flat and a fancy car. Although his girlfriend Maddy (Eleanor David) has a liking for shoplifting, they are seemingly happy together. But when Maddy leaves him unexpectedly just before Christmas, that comfortable life is turned upside down.

While out for a drive, pining for the departed Maddy, he becomes infatuated with a girl he spots in an ice cream van (a lovely supporting performance by Clare Grogan) and he finds himself suddenly mixed up in the Glasgow ice cream wars. But that could happen to anyone, right?

His job is at risk, his life seemingly threatened too, even his precious convertible car is caught in the crossfire. But Alan is determined to solve the ice cream crisis and get his life back on track.

I love the films of Bill Forsyth. He is a wonderful writer and director, and although his back catalogue isn’t massive, I think each film I’ve seen is an absolute gem. Most people know him for Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, which are both in my top five, but also up there for me is Comfort and Joy. Not only is it a brilliant film, it’s a brilliant Christmas film.

It’s about finding inner strength when things go wrong and being able to re-group and start again. Alan goes on a journey of self-discovery after losing all that’s dear to him, leading him to question what’s important in his life. There is melancholy to it, like many people experience at Christmas, but there’s also a universal message of hope at the heart of the film. It all plays out in Christmas week too.

The characters are so well observed and the acting is impeccable. Bill Paterson is fantastic as Alan, displaying both his pomposity and vulnerability as his journey plays out. His unpredictable radio station boss, wonderfully played by Rikki Fulton, deftly handles Alan and his impending emotional breakdown in the moment, but then as soon as he leaves he’s asking if his contract has a ‘sanity clause’.

It looks beautiful too, with mid-winter Glasgow so picturesquely captured by cinematographer Chris Menges. City vistas in the pale pinks and greys of dawn and dusk, and the details of everyday city life given equal billing. The humour is light touch but brilliant in its detail and cleverness. I feel we are rewarded as viewers for understanding its subtlety and going with the flow of it. And the initial scene with the ice cream van is near perfect in its comedic execution.

As with Forsyth’s other work, Comfort and Joy is a film that surprises and delights the viewer. It’s about the quirkiness of people and relationships, of finding hope, of finding the comfort and joy in life. A warm and generous film, I keep returning to it like a familiar Christmas jumper. Grab yourself an ice cream and watch it this festive season.

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