Writer/Director: Bill Forsyth
Cast: Robert Buchanan, Billy Greenlees, John Hughes, Gordon Sinclair
Running time: 93 mins
Original UK Release: 29th August 1979
A neglected city dominated by high-rise flats and blackened tenements. Graffitied brick walls stand half-demolished with rubble strewn around them. The majority of the young people living here seem to be unemployed and crime is commonplace. This is an environment so grim that the closest some of these alienated teenagers get to fun is sitting in an abandoned car in some waste ground and discussing the best way to kill yourself or clustering together in a bedroom to sing Holidays in the Sun by The Sex Pistols.
When one of these young men asks his pals what their hometown is famous for, he receives three different answers.
‘Drunks?’, ‘Muggers?’ and ‘Multiple social deprivation?’
Okay I’m being deliberately misleading here, just as Bill Forsyth was when he included a title card during the film’s opening credits with the following disclaimer: ‘The action of this film takes place in a fictitious town called GLASGOW. Any resemblance to a real town called GLASGOW is purely coincidental.’
The film, in case you don’t know, is an absurdist comedy with a whimsical heart.
While myself and some pals were living down south in 1981, there was a robbery at the hotel where we worked. The police interviewed us collectively. You can imagine the line of questioning, mainly did we have alibis for the night before? For once none of us had went out on the randan, instead we’d stayed in to watch That Sinking Feeling, which was being shown on TV for the first time. We told the cops this and they hadn’t heard of the film, so asked us to describe the plot, which we quickly ran through for their benefit.
Initially they thought we were winding them up. ‘You watched a film about some young Scottish thieves who carry out a robbery?’
Even taking the burglary out of the equation, this, it would have to be admitted, was a pretty big coincidence. Back then films set in Glasgow with local casts were non existent. That’s obviously changed. Think Small Faces, Red Road, Orphans, The Angels’ Share (another heist comedy featuring a group of young losers), Ratcatcher and even Under the Skin with a lead performance from one of the world’s most recognizable stars but three and a half decades ago, the only thing more unlikely than a film set in Glasgow was probably a film set in some place like Cumbernauld.
The main production company involved in making the movie was even named Minor Miracle Film Cooperative.
Parallels could even be drawn to the local independent music labels that were springing up at the time such as Fast and Postcard. That Sinking Feeling – the Falling and Laughing of Scottish cinema?
Well, not exactly, although like, say, Orange Juice, who railed against the macho Glaswegian rock acts of the era, That Sinking Feeling struck many as a reaction to the Peter McDougall style of social realist Play for Todays.
Nowadays anybody with the determination can have a go at making a microbudget guerilla film but back then, making a feature length movie required a helluva lot more enthusiasm, planning and financial risk than putting out a few hundred singles on your own DIY label – albeit Forsyth’s film was a real shoestring (and independent) operation, the director funding it largely by contacting local businesses and trade unions and asking for donations. Described in the 1979 Edinburgh International Film Festival programme notes as ‘Scotland’s first no-budget feature film’, its £2000 cost even earned it a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the cheapest feature then released theatrically in Britain.
It did certainly point the way for others, its comparative success making similar celluloid ventures suddenly seem more achievable.
Forsyth’s pal Charlie Gormley made Living Apart Together (1982) and Heavenly Pursuits (1985), while that same year Michael Hoffman’s Restless Natives and Cary Parker’s The Girl in the Picture were both Forsyth influenced films set in Scotland.
I didn’t get the chance to watch That Sinking Feeling again for many, many years after that TV debut.
At one point the film was released in a version with a re-recorded audio track (with different actors!) to make it easier for American audiences to understand. Generic mid-80s tracks were also added added to replace the film’s incidental music. I’ve never seen this version and have no intention of ever seeking it out. Unless maybe for a laugh.
Then, I did manage to see the film in a cinema for the first time, when in 2008, Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian selected it to be screened one night at the Glasgow Film Theatre as part of the Monorail Film Club, the film being followed by a very entertaining Q&A with Robert Buchanan who played criminal (non) mastermind, Ronnie, a hapless and helpless figure that, like most of the cast, looks like he’s just stepped out from 1972.
Remarkably I remembered pretty much every scene in the entire film although my mind somehow swapped two of the characters around – I was sure that John Gordon Sinclair had played the part of the character that cross-dresses in order to lure the night watchman away from his duties.
I’ve just watched Forsyth’s debut again, this time on Blu-ray, and would definitely recommend it. It’s out on the BFI Flipside series with some early shorts and documentaries with a Forsyth connection.
Bill Forsyth went on to make the much loved Gregory’s Girl before Local Hero established him as the kind of director that Hollywood took a keen interest in.
Being Human, which starred Robin Williams was an awful film and 1999’s Gregory’s 2 Girls was even worse and must be a contender for any top ten rotten sequels out there – and from what I’ve heard, it was far from the fun shoot of That Sinking Feeling.
While writing this it just occurred to me after all this time that the alibi mentioned earlier of watching the film on TV should maybe have been further investigated. After all, we could have watched the film at some place like the GFT on its release, remembered the plot and relayed it to the cops convincingly enough.
Strangely enough too, when filming his heist at a local plumbing supplies warehouse, Forsyth was trusted with the keys, with no presence of anybody from the firm keeping an eye on him while he completed his footage over the course of a weekend. So, as Forsyth discusses with Mark Kermode on the film’s commentary track, his cast and crew could have used the filmmaking idea as an elaborate ploy to steal the sinks, which if sold, could have probably financed the film.
For more on the BFI re-release of That Sinking Feeling click here.