Jonathan Coe on Comfort And Joy

* Jonathan Coe

* The Observer, Sunday 6 December 2009

Whenever I contemplate the career of Bill Forsyth, I realise I'm getting old. It's more than a quarter of a century since he was considered one of the great new hopes of British cinema, but to me, the sudden flowering of his oblique, wilful talent still seems like one of the more recent miracles of film history.

After the cult success of his Glaswegian caper comedy That Sinking Feeling (just issued on DVD in an insulting format � with a dubbed soundtrack for American audiences), Forsyth hit the big time with his second feature, Gregory's Girl. I watch this film whenever it comes on TV � every two or three years, I suppose � and it never disappoints. The bittersweet experience of adolescent love is expertly captured, but more than that there is an unstoppable flow of comic invention: even the smallest characterisations are quirkily memorable, every scene crackles with good lines. There is not a dull moment.

Local Hero, released in 1983, lacks the comic momentum of Gregory's Girl but makes up for it in several ways: a more global perspective; mature, expansive performances from Burt Lancaster and Peter Riegert; a magical sense of landscape. It has rightly become a classic. And then, in the late summer of 1984, Forsyth presented his latest comedy to the world: Comfort and Joy, the story of a Glaswegian DJ abandoned by his girlfriend and suddenly finding himself caught up in the city's (all too real) ice-cream wars.

The diary I was keeping at the time records that I found the film "slightly baffling" when I first saw it. The comic brio of Gregory's Girl seemed to have receded even further. The pacing seemed to be weighed down by the melancholy of Bill Paterson's central performance. The plot didn't really make sense. I was, in effect, disappointed. I didn't quite get it.

Yet now, 25 years later, Comfort and Joy is the Forsyth film I come back to most often, and with the most satisfaction. I can't find fault with it any more: or rather, it's become one of those films I love so much that even its faults become virtues. The language of the storytelling is fluidly cinematic; Chris Menges's cinematography keeps catching the grey-blue sheen of Glasgow at dawn and twilight in a way that perfectly reflects the emotional tone; Paterson is wonderfully vulnerable and endearing. And, far from lacking comedy � as I seem to have felt on a first viewing � the film is stuffed with brilliant jokes. Nothing endears me more to Forsyth's vision than the way he crowbars in the moment when Paterson's boss at the radio station, concerned that one of his star performers might be having a breakdown in the run-up to Christmas, asks his secretary to check the wording of his contract and "find out if there's a sanity clause".

Because, yes, Comfort and Joy is a glorious Christmas movie as well as a glorious movie in its own right. I would far rather people watched it with their turkey and crackers than the hectoring, hysterical It's a Wonderful Life. The glow it induces is infinitely more subtle. It's that rarest of beasts, a truly serious comedy: a film that not only entertains us for 100 minutes, it then sends us out into the world feeling that, without realising it, we have been made to understand a little bit more about ourselves somewhere along the way.

After making this film, Forsyth went to Hollywood and ran badly into trouble with his ambitious, ill-fated Robin Williams vehicle Being Human. He has not made a movie now for more than a decade. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, however, he is currently developing a new film project with the working title of Exile. If this is true, it's the best piece of news about British films that I've heard in years.