Tuesday 30 November 2021

Streaming - John Baxter finds odd Christmas cheer in COMFORT AND JOY (Bill Forsyth, UK, 1984)


Bil Forsyth with his BAFTA

Programmers scouring the shelves for Christmas films won’t immediately be drawn to the 1984 Comfort and Joy.  Had Scots director/writer Bill Forsyth chosen a carol as theme music rather than the incongruous saxophone noodling of ex-Dire Straits’ front-man Mark Knopfler, it would be In the Bleak Midwinter, that bitter anthem which neutralises any hints of Christmas cheer.  Adding to the mood of existential despair, Forsyth furnishes the film with an obligato of half-heard newscasts of wars, slaughters and catastrophes, further illustrating man’s inhumanity to man (and, in one case, giant panda.).  

            Europe’s Christmas, like America’s Thanksgiving, can be less a time for reunion and reconciliation than for taking stock and settling scoresAccordingly, Comfort and Joy has little of eitherThat goes for Scots humour in general, which is closer to that of the Czechs in its dour ruefulness.  Among the classic Ealing comedies, The Ladykillers, The Maggie, The Man in the White Suit and Whisky Galore are the least characteristic, an acknowledgment that their Scots director, Alexander Mackendrick, had no truck with Home Counties cosiness. 

Bill Patterson as Dickie Bird

            Forsyth shares Mackendrick’s pleasure in the tendency of man’s best-laid plans to, as another Scot put it, “gang aft a-gley”. Glasgow radio presenter Alan “Dickie” Bird (Bill Paterson) has just returned from a pre-Christmas shopping expedition with girlfriend Maddy (Eleanor David) when she announces she’s leaving. She’d meant to give some warning, she says vaguely as she takes down pictures and clears shelves, “but the moment didn’t arrive.“ 

            Maddy isn’t seen again, except for some walk-ons in Alan’s dreams, but from what Forsyth shows of her moony manner and kleptomaniac habits, one can’t help feeling he’s well out of the relationship. His best friend, surgeon Colin (an uncharacteristically amiable Patrick Malahide) agrees. A rich and promising world awaits, he counsels, although his optimism is somewhat undermined by being offered while he’s scheduling a kidney transplant.

Clare Grogan as Charlotte

            Hopes of a new life and new women lead Alan into a misplaced exercise in chivalry, during which he tries to help Charlotte, a pretty girl embroiled in a feud within the Italian families that control Glasgow’s ice cream sellers and fish-and-chip shops. That this situation is based on fact and is played out in a wintry northern milieu reminiscent of Mike Hodges’ nihilistic Get Carter doesn’t make it any more probable but Forsyth showed as early as Gregory’s Girl that he understood how  incongruity is a medium in which comedy flourishes.

            He’s never happier than when he’s frustrating expectations, bringing us down to earth with a bump. In Local Hero, a rabbit rescued by a Scottish roadside with a broken leg turns up later, unheralded, in the stew. “ ‘Enjoying the evening’, ” someone observes of the shadowy Christine Lahti in Housekeeping, “which was what she called sitting in the dark.” Occasionally he reverses the effect. Alan escapes a bashing in Comfort and Joy when the thug in a ski mask recognises him and demands that he play something for his mum on the show. 

Bill Patterson menaced by a fan

            Bill Paterson gives a nicely shaded performance as Bird, a shallow man troubled by the suspicion, largely instilled by others, that he should be less contented than he is. Maddy’s lack of affect merely mirrors his own, and his attempts at achieving Significance with a radio documentary expire in the realisation that he doesn’t anything to say. The cheeriness of his early morning show fulfils a need both in his audience and himself, and the film ends with him hosting the Christmas afternoon programme with the promise that it will include nothing of the real world. Just the mindless refuge of jokes, music, comfort and joy. 

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