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.

Community Spirit

How my dream of setting up a community cinema taught me a few home truths.

A little while ago I tried to set up a community cinema. In fact, this time two years ago I was excitedly planning for the first screening of seasonal favourite The Muppet Christmas Carol.

I really believe in the power of cinema to unite people. I think that feeling stems from childhood, spending rainy Sunday afternoons watching old Hollywood classics with my nan. Those films united us in a shared experience and cemented very happy memories.  I wanted to bring that experience to my community, to provide a place for the generations to come together. I hoped it could help to combat social isolation, particularly for the elderly and for those parents with young children for whom going out can be difficult. So after a few years of thinking about it, I set myself the huge task of making it happen. I had a completely blank sheet of paper, and I set about filling it with my dreams.

Like all great modern adventures, it started with a tweet. I put the idea out there so I would have to try it or I’d look daft. I had no idea what I actually needed to do to set up a cinema. So I found out. I was meticulous in my research, I found some amazing resources and information, I spoke to people who might know people, I made contact with other community cinemas. I did some research locally about what people might want to see. I set up a social media presence and started building a bit of a buzz around it.

The best move I made was applying for a grant from Cinema for All, a national support and development organisation for community-led cinema. My successful bid gave me access to a small amount of money towards two screenings, their equipment hire scheme and film catalogue and other support. The most invaluable part of the package was a series of online tutorials with their expert team in how to set up and run a cinema. Knowledge is power and all that.

I decided to put on a pre-Christmas family friendly screening of The Muppet Christmas Carol, and set about making it happen. There were significant challenges. Finding a venue was hard, we borrowed equipment but it was in Sheffield and we had no transport to pick it up. Film licences are a minefield and cripplingly expensive.

But with the support of my family, against the odds I managed to stage a successful film screening. And it really was fantastic. When I looked around the hall at the families who had come along to watch a film together and support our community venture, I felt incredibly proud. I made that happen.

Sounds great doesn’t it? Unfortunately it didn’t work out as I had hoped. I put in a huge amount of time and effort and I took all the steps I could but I wasn’t able to make it sustainable. I managed one further successful screening a couple of months later, showing the hauntingly beautiful animation Song of the Sea. Again the hall was full, but we couldn’t cover the costs of putting it on.

Despite the support and encouragement of some people in the area, it just didn’t find its place in my community. In other parts of my city and across the country there are a many wonderful, successful community cinemas. But my community weren’t overly keen to be honest. I couldn’t find people willing to embrace it and make it work by getting involved in the running of it, and I couldn’t do it on my own. I had no permanent venue, I had no equipment (and nobody backed my fundraising efforts to get equipment either.) In the end, basically all I had was access to film licenses and some lovely posters. After yet another knockback with funding for a further screening, although I was devastated to do so, I called it a day.

Bouncing back and learning to deal with adversity has not always been easy for me. My mum always uses phrases like ‘it’s character building’ and ‘it’ll make you stronger’ and she’s right (mums always are.) The humility we gain through failure allows us to appreciate the success. It was a wonderful shared experience for me and my family. I loved discussing film ideas with my husband and really appreciated his practical and emotional support. My young daughter loved helping out at the screenings too. My mum even came along and served the refreshments.

After a fair amount of feeling sorry for myself at the time, I feel positive about it now. I had inspiration, vision and enthusiasm about the project and I turned that into something real. I gained practical skills and I learned a lot about myself.  I can put on events, I’m good at social media marketing. I made some great connections with local people, and gained a huge amount of knowledge about film programming. I picked up plenty of reusable skills and gained a lot of enjoyment from the experience, and it helped me to appreciate my strengths.

I achieved my main aim, to bring that shared film experience to my community, it was just short lived. Crucially, it hasn’t stopped me having more ideas about using cinema to bring people together, and I’m sure I am stronger for the experience. There’s an inspirational Christmas message in that surely?

It’s just a film…

How watching, studying and truly seeing La Haine changed my life.

You might watch a film, but are you really seeing it? Could viewing it with a deeper understanding of cinema make it more meaningful? Have you ever really studied a film and seen it differently?

I avidly watched films from a young age, and I had my opinions about them. I knew I appreciated certain genres more than others, enjoyed the work of my favourite directors and was always seeking out new examples of quality cinema. But when I inadvertently joined a film studies class in my mid 20s, my eyes were finally open to a world of knowledge and understanding, it gave me confidence and I haven’t looked back. It changed me, thanks largely to repeated viewings of a particular film.

In autumn 2001 my then employer gave me a small grant to be used for an educational course that would benefit my personal development. How very early 2000s of them. I had intended to do a screenwriting course, but when I rocked up to the first class the tutor expected us to have a finished script to be finessed, rather than a blank sheet of paper. I was in the wrong place. Running in an adjoining classroom was A Level Film Studies. The course had already started but I went to have a look. They were discussing auteurs. The tutor asked for examples, so I hesitantly put my hand up and offered a shy ‘Scorsese?’ There were murmurs of appreciation from around the room. A group of people I could discuss films with for two hours one evening a week without boring them rigid? I had found my calling.

This was an adult further education college, so the group was a fascinating mix. Everyone had a unique story to tell and brought something different to the dynamic. They were brilliant. Like me, most were studying for pleasure rather than the qualification.

In the first term we analysed a couple of films in depth. One of those films was La Haine. Written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, the 1995 film follows 24 hours in the lives of three young men from ‘la banlieue’ housing projects in Paris. It is a fascinating film and simply yet brilliantly made and acted. It plays out like a rollercoaster of pent up rage, threats of violence and touching moments of friendship. The film held a mirror up to French social tensions of the time and influenced a generation.

I had seen it a number of times before, it was released when I was a university student and it had resonated then. But to have the chance to deconstruct it, analyse it, contextualise it and share ideas and opinions was incredibly valuable. As I saw the film through different eyes, I really started to understand it.

With each viewing I saw something different. I was able to voice opinions with a new perspective, to challenge and sometimes question myself and others. Through learning about different film techniques and narratives, I gained confidence in my ability to talk about film. I started capturing and framing my ideas properly and I began writing. Firstly from an academic perspective as part of that course, but then I speculatively contacted a couple of websites about submitting my writing. I even had my own weekly film column for a while on a friend’s website. It was a delightful experience and I should have pursued it properly but I didn’t quite get there.

After the course finished I started to seek out other film studies opportunities. Lucky to be living in in London at the time, I attended short courses and lectures. I went to the cinema at every opportunity and kept educating myself through viewing, reading and thinking about cinema. By being able to read a film I became more confident in myself.

When I moved back north I sought out my nearest arthouse cinema and film courses. Thanks to a wonderful education unit at the National Media Museum in Bradford at the time (sadly it has since been closed) I threw myself into the wonders of film discourse yet again. Chinese cinema, Japanese cinema, documentary, individual studies of directors and genres, it was all there for the taking.

I enrolled on a lifelong learning programme the Media Museum ran in partnership with the University of Bradford, again just for the love of it. On one particular course, when we all introduced ourselves, I spotted a bloke I liked the look of. Unfortunately it took me another two months to actually pluck up the courage to speak to him. In a chance conversation before a class he mentioned he was going to a screening of La Haine later that week. Without hesitating I remarked that I was too. I wasn’t, obviously. But I made sure I was there that Thursday, just in case I bumped into him. He was there, we sat next to each other. We chatted about the film and I admitted that I’d seen it before, I just glossed over the fact I’d seen it on so many occasions I could quote lines and frame times. We swapped contact details and arranged a proper first date. We saw a film of course. This year we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary.

La Haine took on a new meaning for me then. It had a new magic to it, new memories, and it continues to be one of my favourite films. It’s an amazing piece of cinema in its own right, but most importantly for me, through truly seeing and understanding that film I came to understand myself.

There hasn’t been a decent film since Burt Lancaster died

The art of watching films with my father.

My introduction to collective family film viewing came when we got our first Betamax video player in 1983. The excitement of that moment, and the first few trips to the tiny local video shop were orchestrated by my dad.

I think they only had about ten titles in that shop, most of which were either video nasties or martial arts films. Every Saturday night, me and my brothers would go to the video shop with him to choose a couple of videos, then Dad would go to the petrol station for chocolate. We’d all sit down in the living room, except for mum who wanted to finish the dishes first. We’d wait a bit, then someone would fetch her and she’d grudgingly sit down still clutching a tea towel. We’d start the video, and she’d last about 10 minutes before disappearing again to make a brew. This pattern repeated itself every time. I don’t think I watched an entire film with mum until I was in my teens. Finally she was able to sit down long enough.

The first trip to the cinema I can properly remember was to see a re-release of ET with my dad when I was about eight. This memory is vivid. My parents had separated by then, they might have even been divorced. My dad lived near Wakefield in a grotty little back to back that smelt of damp. I hated spending time there, so on my day or weekend with him we’d spend a lot of time in the Ridings shopping centre in Wakefield. One time he said we could go to see a film. It was only my second ever cinema visit. I remember excitedly ringing my mum from a pay phone to ask permission to stay out later (my parents didn’t speak to each other at that time.)

I was utterly mesmerised by the film, and equally upset by it. My floods of tears worried my dad, but it was raw emotion based on that all encompassing experience of getting lost in a film so large and vivid on that giant screen.

I think that might be the only time I’ve ever been to the cinema with my dad, but it’s not the last time we’ve tried to watch a film together. As I got older, I educated myself in film and formed opinions about various aspects of cinema. Often, I’ve shared those thoughts with him, to varying degrees of success. At this point I need to stress that my dad is usually unwavering in his views on most things. One of his clearest mantras is that there hasn’t been a truly decent film since Burt Lancaster died.

We have talked about films over the years. Often we’ll comment on a film we’ve both seen, usually French or Italian, but the conversation will shift back to the same point he always makes, nothing is as good as Burt’s films. When dad had a stroke about 10 years ago, I sent him DVDs to keep him occupied during his enforced bed rest, but none of them really made the grade for him.

The thing is, I don’t mind. I wouldn’t expect anything else from him. The biggest reason for accepting his steadfast opinion on Burt Lancaster is that my dad, and his unwavering admiration of him, introduced me to one of my favourite films, Local Hero. That film is also my dad’s absolute favourite.

Local Hero (Bill Forsyth, 1983) is a gentle comedy with so many layers I don’t know where to start. Burt Lancaster plays a Texas oil baron who sends employee MacIntyre (Peter Riegart) to a remote Scottish fishing village to negotiate a deal with the locals to buy it and build an oil refinery. This is a film full of surprises. It’s so beautiful to look at, and the acting is impeccable across the board.

Dad ‘made’ me watch it when I was in my early teens. I’d already seen and loved Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl before watching Local Hero. The latter cemented my view that he is a uniquely engaging filmmaker. I’ve gone on to appreciate other films in his back catalogue, and study him and his work over many years.

Dad and I have watched Local Hero together so many times I’ve lost count. I’ve watched it repeatedly on my own too. Each time I watch it I get goosebumps, it’s so brilliant. But each time I also think of my dad. We don’t have the steadiest of relationships, but that common interest has been our bond over the years, our anchor, and a way of communicating when other channels are blocked. Films can do that, they can build bridges between people. This particular one is our common ground.

Our relationship is complex, there are so many things we disagree on and often he has infuriated me with his belligerence, but I will always be grateful for him sharing his love of that film with me. I suspect part of my devotion to it is that I feel connected to my dad when I watch it. Even though I know other great films have actually been made since then, I grudgingly agree that if you take Local Hero as the example, he does have a point about Burt Lancaster.

Beyond industrial grit and whimsy

There is more to Yorkshire on screen than the traditional choice between industrial grit or idyllic village life, it has a rich tapestry of cinematic gems to draw you in.

What image does Yorkshire conjure up for you? Rolling green hills, desolate moors, or gritty industrial cities? The eclectic Yorkshire landscape, so full of contrasts, has long been a favourite for filmmakers. From Billy Liar to Calendar Girls, Yorkshire has played host to many famous films.

In a poll a by the Film Distributors Association (1) on the most atmospheric use of location in British cinema, four of the top ten films were set in Yorkshire, proving that Yorkshire has a rich and recognisable heritage in film.

Despite Leeds being the chosen location for the first moving image film by Louis le Prince in 1888, it was perhaps the 1960s British New Wave that really put Yorkshire on the cinematic map. Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958), based on local boy John Braine’s Bradford-set novel, and starring Lawrence Harvey as the ambitious Joe Lampton, used authentic locations as it aimed to show the north of England as it really was.

Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) was also shot on location in Bradford. Adapted by Keith Waterhouse from his own novel and starring Tom Courtenay as Billy, this warm, witty film blended northern realism and fantasy. Instantly recognisable, the city of Bradford is such a feature of the film that it can perhaps be seen as much a star as the actors. Both films showed Yorkshire as a place of change and transition, capturing the mood of prosperity and recreating the reality of life in a northern industrial town.

This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963) is often seen as the film that brought the British New Wave to a close. From the novel by David Storey, set in the tough and uncompromising world of northern Rugby League and filmed in Wakefield, this was more a film about people than location. Intelligent and intense, with real passion shown in the relationship between the two leads Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts, the harshness and authenticity that would long be associated with the grittiness of life up north was a powerful presence.

Kes (Ken Loach, 1969) also showed the harsh reality of life in a Barnsley mining village. Loach’s seminal film starred David Bradley as Billy Casper, who escapes the grime and grit of life through his relationship with a wild kestrel. Using real people and real locations to add to the authenticity, this moving adaptation of the Barry Hines novel A Kestrel for a Nave provided an unsentimental and very genuine picture of life with no prospects in a northern town.

However, The Railway Children (Lionel Jeffries, 1970) showed a different side to Yorkshire as it captured the beauty of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway and its lush and peaceful surroundings, harking back to the more simple times of the golden Edwardian days. The rural side of Yorkshire life, the green valleys and rolling, magical hills and moors has long been a staple of cosy tea-time viewing, in stark contrast to the industrial landscape familiar to us from the British New Wave.

The 1980s saw a continuation of Yorkshire in extremes. Malcolm Mowbray’s A Private Function (1984), a comedy of post-war austerity, manners and social aspiration set in a small Yorkshire town (filmed in Ilkley) in 1947 and scripted by Alan Bennett. Alan Clarke’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986), which captured the rough side of contemporary working class life on a rundown Bradford estate and was adapted from Andrea Dunbar’s play, demonstrated a different side to the region and courted controversy at the time.

A Month in the Country (Pat O’Connor, 1987) was set in an idyllic rural Yorkshire of the post First World War era. An elegant and moving film, often overlooked and long forgotten by many, it captured the feeling of a seemingly perfect Yorkshire summer. Contrast that image with Threads (1984) written by Barry Hines and directed by Mick Jackson. Apocalyptic nuclear winter in urban Sheffield anyone?

The 1990s brought with it a resurgence of the gritty, issue led cinema whose legacy lay in the new wave of the 1960s. But this time the industrial landscape no longer provided economic hope and prosperity. Films such as Brassed Off (Mark Herman, 1996) filmed in Barnsley, Doncaster and Halifax, and the Sheffield based The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997) blended comedy and politics to show the harsh realities of life in post Thatcher Britain and its effect on the Yorkshire towns and cities that once boomed. Industrial wastelands and broken dreams became synonymous with Yorkshire.

The often bleak and uncompromising reality of these political films can be seen in sharp contrast with the cosy image that has often been projected into living rooms across the country through television programmes such as Last of the Summer Wine and Heartbeat. It was this more saleable picture of Yorkshire, full of harmless whimsy that emerged in the era of New Labour.

Blow Dry (Paddy Breathnach, 2000) and Fanny & Elvis (Kay Mellor, 1999) provided some light hearted northern wit amidst the cobbles and charm of their Yorkshire setting. But it was Calendar Girls (Nigel Cole, 2003) the cheery and heart-warming comedy which tells the tale of the Rylstone and District Womens Institute who bared all for a charity calendar, that successfully blended the uplifting mass appeal of The Full Monty strippers and the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales.

But by the mid 2000s there was a shift in focus and an opportunity to see something other than the extremes of industrial grit or chocolate box sentimentality, with the richness and diversity of the region is being shown.

My Summer of Love, (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2004) gave us a tale of intense teenage love in the picturesque Calder Valley, showcased by a sun-lit, endless summer. The Yorkshire landscape has never looked more stunning, but this off-beat and intelligent tale, which won the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film at the 2005 BAFTAs, proved that filmmakers can use the splendour and complexity of the Yorkshire landscape as fitting backdrop for cinema with a contemporary edge.

Yasmin (Kenny Glenaan, 2004) an absorbing, realist drama made on digital camera, again with the writing talent of Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Blow Dry) brought Yorkshire bang up to date with a culturally relevant and challenging story of a young British Muslim woman dealing with alienation and crisis of identity in Keighley.

Penny Woolcock’s Mischief Night (2006) shot entirely on location in Leeds was the third instalment of the Tina Trilogy, following on from Tina Goes Shopping (1999) and Tina Takes a Break (2001). It portrays the everyday realities of the city’s underbelly, a world away from the fancy shopping districts and bars of the city centre. Having grown up not far from some of the south Leeds settings, I find her work fascinating and familiar.

Filmmakers drawn to the region are now looking beyond the kitchen sink or the reliance on traditional picturesque locations, seeking instead contemporary themes and using Yorkshire as an ambient backdrop with universal appeal.

Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) captured the gothic intensity of the remote landscape of the Yorkshire Moors in a unique take on the classic tale. Shed Your Tears and Walk Away (2009) from filmmaker Jez Lewis was a very personal and moving journey through his hometown as he seeks to understand why so many childhood friends are killing themselves through addiction. The town of Hebden Bridge is presented as its beautiful and quirky self, heightening the pathos of the tragic story.

The recent critically acclaimed, award winning film God’s Own Country (2017) from writer / director Francis Lee captured the rawness and isolation of contemporary rural Yorkshire and the intensity of the landscape was reflected in the relationships on screen.

My personal highlight of recent years has been the work of Clio Barnard, whose Yorkshire based films have captured the contrasts of the region, whilst challenging the viewer culturally and stylistically. Yorkshire is depicted in many ways in her work and each time it provides more than just a useful backdrop, it’s at the heart of each work.

The Arbor (2010) mixed documentary and fiction to tell the story of playwright Andrea Dunbar. It deconstructs and reconstructs Dunbar’s life against the backdrop of the Bradford housing estate she grew up on. This film defied convention in so many ways, it’s an extraordinary piece of work.

The Selfish Giant (2013) inspired loosely by the Oscar Wilde short story was again set in Bradford and told as a modern social-realist fable. It tells the tale of two thirteen year old friends who become involved in a shady world. The starkness and beauty of the post industrial landscape is breathtaking.

Dark River (2017) again captures the reality and isolation of rural Yorkshire, and is as heavy on the bleakness of the landscape as the storyline. It is a challenging and uncompromising film. Barnard is one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today.

Obviously chocolate box style Yorkshire exists for some, and it sells cinema tickets for a certain demographic who favour middle class whimsy. And many would argue we’ve seen enough post-industrial grittiness. But the region is a world of contrasts and that’s what makes it special. You can enjoy the urban sprawl of Leeds or Sheffield, catch a train out and be in the countryside in 15 minutes enjoying a cream tea. It doesn’t have to be one or the other to reflect real life, it can be both charming and relevant, so let’s continue to see that contrast. The future for Yorkshire film can be as bright and eclectic as its heritage.

(1) https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/location-location-location-a-movie-buffs-choice-315797.html

I don’t want to be worshipped, I want to be loved

Strong women, sparkling dialogue and a meeting of minds; the lasting impression left by romantic cinema on real life love.

 HGF

The first time I fell for someone it was love at first sight. I can still picture it all these years later. I remember the feeling when he looked at me, where it happened, who else was in the room, even what I was wearing. That first encounter as an awkward eighteen-year-old took my breath away and I was smitten from that moment. It was perfect. Well apart from the fact that he wasn’t interested, but you can’t have everything.

Despite that setback, this first experience fitted with my view of romantic love fuelled by watching Hollywood films from the golden period of the late 1930s and early 40s. I always assumed that there would be a ‘moment’, followed by a meeting of minds and an exhilarating journey to the final pay off and our happy ever after.

I first discovered my love of films watching Hollywood musicals with my Nan on Sunday afternoons, sitting crossed legged in front of her small TV. I was little, probably younger than 10 and I was enchanted by the pure romance of it all. The music, the dancing, the cute set ups, a world of possibilities. I was too young to appreciate the dialogue, but I invested all my young emotions in those stories and there was always a happy ending.

A little later I remember watching The Shop Around the Corner (1940, Dir: Ernst Lubitsch) starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as shop employees who can barely stand each other, not realising they are actually falling in love through letters sent as each other’s anonymous pen pal. Sounds familiar? Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998) was inspired by the plot. Even at a young age I remember thinking how clever and sparky their relationship was. I loved Stewart’s awkwardness and the humour was as crisp as the snowy Christmas setting. I was desperate for the two of them to get together, practically shouting at the screen.

I moved on to watching the wonderful screwball comedies of the late 30s and 40s in my early teens and I was set for life. This is what I wanted my experience of love to be. Often viewed as the definitive film of the genre, Bringing Up Baby (1938, Dir: Howard Hawks) starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, was a delightful, quirky romantic romp. I immediately thought Hepburn was the most amazing individual I’d ever seen. The screen relationship with Grant was exquisite, the two of them sharing the scattergun dialogue as equals.

His Girl Friday (1940, Dir: Howard Hawks) was by far my favourite of the genre though. Set on a newspaper, with Cary Grant as an unscrupulous editor trying to keep his star reporter, and ex-wife, Rosalind Russell from leaving in the middle of chasing a hot story. Taken from their own stage play, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s screenplay was sparkling, and the verbal sparring between Russell and Grant was exhilarating, made even more delightful by the knowledge that both characters in the original play were men. Russell’s Hildy Johnson became an absolute hero to me. Stylish, self-assured and a newspaper reporter to boot, she was everything I wanted to be. A triumph of effervescent style and comic timing, Russell owned every scene in that film.

I started to seek out other films that might inspire that feeling again. The Philadelphia Story (1940, Dir: George Cukor) starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart has had such a lasting effect on me and I watched it repeatedly through my teens.  Revelling in the pacing and the dialogue and the mesmerising screen presence of all three of the lead actors.

Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a rich socialite whose impending marriage is disrupted by the arrival of her ex-husband (Grant) and a tabloid hack played by Stewart. The pure sophistication of the set up was mesmerising. I wanted that kind of feisty, sparklingly witty relationship and the nuanced ‘love hate / will they won’t they’ thing was incredibly sexy. I personally wanted Hepburn to choose James Stewart rather than Cary Grant in the end, it was their impetuous, raw attraction that had me reeling. Have you ever had that feeling of urgency with someone? Exactly. But it didn’t matter, the wonderful final payoff scene was there to top off a near perfect film. It’s a film that gave me more satisfaction with every viewing. I wanted to be that funny, clever and impetuous and meet someone who would be my intellectual equal with banter to match. I would have all the best lines of course.

In my voyage of celluloid discovery, I also stopped by the usual teen fayre. I watched John Hughes films, but never felt fully satisfied. I assumed I was supposed to identify with those girls who craved the popular boys. I usually identified more with the goofy best friend to be honest, they always had the best lines. Take Pretty in Pink for example (1986, Dir: Howard Deutch) Andie (Mollie Ringwald) was an idiot, she should have snapped John Cryer’s Duckie up. I identified more with the character of Duckie than I did any other of Hughes’s characters as a teen. Awkward, overlooked and always looking for the funny line. Teenage boys don’t make passes at girls who have comic timing right? There were female lead characters in those films, but it didn’t feel right for me. Their journeys felt vacuous and that wasn’t what I wanted to see.

I was more at home with the simple, every day, realistic romance of Gregory’s Girl (1980, Dir: Bill Forsyth). Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) fancies Dorothy, but the females in his life, including his wonderful little sister, make sure he ends up with the right girl in the end.  Clare Grogan’s assured performance as Susan made me want to be just like her, I even wore a beret for a while. It might not have the sparkling glamour of the 1940s, but the script was intelligent and charming, and the chemistry was believable. The female characters were shown as independent and clever and the outcome felt like tangible teenage love between two equals. There was hope for me.

I kept returning to the grown-up love of the 1940s, but I also indulged in a few contemporary rom coms in the late 1980s and early 90s. I have a particular soft spot for When Harry Met Sally… (1989, Dir: Rob Reiner) and watched it every Christmas for some reason, well into my early 20s. Although Billy Crystal has the best lines, Nora Ephron’s sharp dialogue and the premise of them being friends really touched me. The familiarity of that situation struck a chord as I was often seen as just a friend but always held out hope that I’d end up with that romantic outcome. It was the same with Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994, Dir: Mike Nichols). Hugh Grant’s Charles should have ended up with his best mate, Kristin Scott Thomas’s Fi, she was strong, feisty and intriguing.

Special mention here for the romantic comedy career of Michael J. Fox. Doc Hollywood (1991 Dir: Michael Caton-Jones) is delightful and underrated. A gentle antidote to heartbreak. And John Cusack’s charming performance in Say Anything (1989, Dir: Cameron Crowe) would have wooed me from the start. Again, his female best friend played by the always fabulous Lili Taylor was far more interesting than the dull love interest played by Ione Skye. Largely, the standard of romantic comedies of that period is disappointing, particularly the female roles. Silly makeovers and mediocre characters forever compromising to catch some uninspiring wet fish. I struggled to see anything I aspired to or anyone I wanted to emulate. Even those Cusack rom coms I enjoyed were vehicles for the male lead, the female largely a flat platform for the male star’s comedy ego. There was no feeling of equal billing.

Disillusioned, I started to look back again. I went through my Woody Allen phase, and although I respect the commitment to the auteur aesthetic and the cleverness of the scripts for Manhattan (1979) and Annie Hall (1977), they left me feeling cold, the romance feeling spikey rather than sparkling.

By my mid 20s the reality of my own love life was less Katharine Hepburn and more Bridget Jones. Single girl about town, doomed encounters, sparks here and there but just getting burned. There was no witty dialogue, no match made in heaven. No showstopping moment of realisation, with Harry running across snowy New York to tell Sally how he felt, no John Cusack standing with beatbox aloft outside my house. There is a scene in Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (1999) one of my favourite films but not exactly a romantic comedy, where Gina McKee’s Nadia is silently crying on the night bus home after yet another disappointing date. The feeling of a punch in the stomach, the regret and sadness over the reality of modern relationships. I craved romance, yes, but mainly love, with someone who treated me with respect.

I went through a bit of a ‘serious’ romance film phase then, slightly wallowing in the cruelty of watching the intensity of feeling love can bring. Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) is one of the most beautiful and intensely erotic films I’ve seen, perfectly demonstrating why you don’t have to have a love scene to convey real passion. I revisited Truly Madly Deeply (1989, Dir: Anthony Minghella) Brief Encounter (1945, Dir: David Lean) and An Affair to Remember (1957, Dir: Leo McCarey) in that time too, finding more meaning in films I’d watched as a teenager as a woman who’d lived some of those feelings and experiences. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) had been a late teen favourite, full of romance and sharp dialogue. But Before Sunset (2004) took on a new significance for me, I was the same age as Jesse and Celine and watching it at a time of deep introspection on what could have been.

But then I found myself going full circle, rediscovering the deftness and romance of the screwball comedies, reminding myself that love should be enjoyable not tortuous and that I ought to be my own Rosalind Russell character, with no compromises. I took inspiration from those clever, confident women again. It wasn’t about finding love at all costs, it was about finding myself and my self-respect.  If I wanted that spark with someone I should remain resolutely myself and if they were worthy of me, it would happen on my terms. There was a happy ending for me by the way, with someone who got me, respected me and matched me for witty one liners.

Film discourse rarely covers romantic cinema, never mind romantic comedies. Yet there is so much emotion and feeling to explore in the genre, such resonance with our everyday experiences.  A good quality romantic comedy can raise our spirits and reassure us in times of trouble, and we revisit them time and time again like a comfort blanket.  In terms of sheer quality of filmmaking, there is so much to admire in those pivotal romantic comedies of the 1940s. The clever screenplays, the fast-paced direction and excellent performances transcend period. I still aspire to be as sparky as Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell, but also celebrate the confidence those films gave me to be myself and expect the best romantic outcome.

Film – a love story

Films matter to me. From an early age they captured my imagination and touched my heart. They have shaped my life, helped me to build and maintain relationships and brought me joy.

From rainy Sunday afternoons spent watching black and white classics with my Nan as a young child, to finding an outlet for my teen angst and eventually meeting ‘the one’, film has been my frame of reference. Looking back at some of my favourites, each one has captured a moment or told a story of where I was in my life. They can be a reassuring and steady influence. Rewatching an old favourite feels like a comfort blanket, helping me to feel safe and secure when all is in flux.

My mid teens were a turning point on my voyage of film discovery. Watching late night screenings of foreign cinema on BBC2 or Channel 4 in my bedroom on my little portable (don’t tell my mum) and endless setting of the video to record. My shelf full of videos (and much later my DVDs) were my pride and joy, the first boxes unpacked every time I moved house in my twenties.

At that formative age, I was educated about a life beyond my suburban prison. Politics, social history, culture, love and sex were presented and decoded. 1980s and 90s French and Spanish cinema were a particular eye opener (have you seen ‘Jamon Jamon’?)

In my early twenties I inadvertently found myself in an A Level Film Studies night school class after a fortuitous admin mix up, and it was the beginning of a different journey, as I found a film writing voice and the words flowed. When I left London I took that academic interest with me, and it even led to me meeting my now husband. Having our daughter has turned things upside down of course, but now she’s older I’ve slowly awakened from my cinema slumber once more. Only now there are logistics to consider rather than just whims.

I am excited about the prospect of documenting my film stories, for no particular reason other than self reflection and my seemingly endless desire for sharing and making connections. Film always has the power to engage people, hopefully some of my musings will connect.