FOUR DECADES after its premiere in Edinburgh, That Sinking Feeling, Bill Forsyth’s first feature film, continues to provoke fondness, recognition, admiration, warmth and laughter in its fans – emotions that echo those felt by the cast and crew of this the trailblazing movie of Scotland’s Film Industry.

We, the punters, waited with bated breath to see what our first film: financed, cast, produced, filmed and directed in Scotland – would look like. Until That Sinking Feeling there had been films made about Scotland, but none were entirely homegrown. Too many featured embarrassing faux Scots accents. Besides, by 1979, the stereotypes of Scotland were wearing thin: shortbread, tartan and Tannochbrae or violence, poverty and razor gangs. Take your pick.

Bill Forsyth and his cast bought into neither, producing instead a film that spoke from and to the Scots psyche: wry, dry, self-mocking and pawky. The plot turns on a heist, features poisonings and is set in Glasgow of the 1970s. Yet it is kind – to its protagonists and to us, the audience.

The lead, Ronnie, was played by Rab Buchanan, born into Glasgow’s Gorbals 17 years earlier. He had joined the Glasgow Youth Theatre run by John Baraldi, an American who had arrived in Glasgow having run the Derbyshire Youth Theatre. “John knew how to pull performances out of people. He had a kind of magic that he could produce with young actors. If John hadn’t started the GYT none of this would’ve happened at all, says Buchanan.

“He was absolutely instrumental in the creation of That Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl.”

The GYT toured their productions throughout Scotland during the school holidays. Eventually, Bill Forsyth got to drive the tour bus. He’d been attending the group for some time, but, as Gerry Clark (Sinking Feeling’s Caretaker) explains, was very reticent: “Bill was very quiet at the back – he wasn’t even introduced to us. Finally, John Baraldi forced him to the front to introduce himself. He said he wanted to make a film.”

“Aye, right!” was our response.

Forsyth had been making sponsored films for ten years, until he “discovered people” and approached the GYT. Baraldi said it was OK if Forsyth wanted to come along, so he did. “I sat around quivering with inadequacy,” Forsyth remembers. He had a script for Gregory’s Girl and then worked on it with the GYT before taking it to the British Film Institute’s Production Board in search of funding.

“I thought my pedigree would be irresistible, he says. “I was a nice provincial boy with plenty of experience and a film school background, and I was working with young people in an area deprived of just about everything, including film culture.”

“The BFI managed to resist me and my script for two years running. I would’ve jumped through flames for their money.” It didn’t happen. Forsyth, in a “huff’” with the BFI was even more determined.

“Bill wanted to make a film and he wanted us, the GYT, to be involved in it, so Sinking Feeling came along. We gave Bill a whole bunch of ideas and he scripted them, adding in his own,” says Buchanan.

There was only one midgie in the ointment: no funding. “We had nothing, says Forsyth. Mick Coulter had a camera. I asked the whole crew to work for three weeks for no money. By this time, though, I was getting wise to ways of raising money and wrote a round robin to all the wee companies. I wrote to all the unions and got a letter back from a secretary at one of them – I swear you could see tearstains on the paper – saying her boss had told her to write saying they couldn’t contribute. So she’d enclosed a Postal Order for two pounds – of her own money.”

The quest for funding is studded with gems like these.

Paddy Higson, now CEO at GMAC Film, was the associate producer and production manager on Sinking Feeling. She points out that the film was Michael Coulter’s first – he was focus puller/camera operator. His subsequent career as cinematographer is legend and includes Love Actually, Notting Hill, Sense and Sensibility, Four Weddings and a Funeral – together with most of Forsyth’s subsequent films.

“Bill asked if I’d fancy helping out on this wee film he was making with these young people, says Higson. “I was a production manager at the time and I kind of knew how to schedule something and how to do something for very little money – apparently Sinking Feeling was the cheapest film ever to make.” So cheap, that with a total budget of £5K, the movie made it into the Guinness Book of Records.

“Bill is hugely loyal. Everyone who worked for nothing was offered paid work on Gregory’s Girl,” she adds.

The iconoclastic Richard Demarco, a true original, played the role as himself, Gallery Owner. “He really went for it, says Higson. “Took part with real generosity.” Demarco says that the role gave him the chance to dress up and tell the art world that it really was not such a good idea to be a gallery director. A shout of laughter, then: “That film pulled the rug from under my very own feet!”

Higson is also cognisant of the subtle power accorded to females in all of Forsyth’s films – including Sinking Feeling: “For me, Bill has probably the most interesting, beautiful, wonderful observational eye. And a warm and gentle way of looking at things. The films have far deeper meaning than you first realise.”

Buchanan recalls: “It seemed like no time from Gregory’s Girl being rejected to Sinking Feeling happening. Suddenly production and film schedules were appearing. And then we were really making a film.”

Douglas Sannachan (Simmy) was actually employed at the plumbers merchant, Thomas Graham’s, featured in the film. “Bill came up to me and said, ‘You work at that warehouse, could you ask your boss if we could get in to film and ask if we could meet up with him?’”

“I was just 16! Talk to the boss??!” But he squared to the task.

Earlier this year, Sannachan released his own film, Starcache, and credits his experience of working on Sinking Feeling as leading directly to his own film. “I had no money, then I thought back to That Sinking Feeling – find a group of people and make it happen. Feeling taught me to get people who are motivated and will stay the course.”

Forsyth attended the first screening of Starcache, where he made a circlet from a piece of paper and placed it on Sannachan’s head with the words: “Sanny, I hand my crown to you.”

The role of Sinking Feeling as social history is oft-referred to. Sannachan says that his parents and many others have asked him why it was filmed in black and white. “It’s not! It is just how grim and monochromatic Glasgow looked at that time.”

Without the technology of the (newish) Arriflex camera, Forsyth says, they could not have gone out on the streets and filmed with soundtrack. The problem with filming on the streets is that the public tend to use those same streets. Buchanan tells of the scene where he is arrested by Dave the Policeman (Danny Benson). As he was being ‘escorted’ along the street, out of shot, across the road, was a bus full of Celtic supporters all hammering on the windows, jeering and cursing at the polis lifting the wee guy.

In fact, Danny was, in real life, a police cadet. He showed up on the set in his uniform.

During the scene where he and Ronnie (Buchanan) are on the banks of the Clyde, a concerned member of the public asked the Constable if there had been a body in the Clyde. Dave the policeman, without breaking role, said: “Just move along now. Thank you, sir.” Danny didn’t mind wearing his uniform as costume for the film, but was reluctant to wear the hat – he had no permission from the authorities. “We had to dig into the props department,” says Forsyth, “And they turned up with this cop hat. We got a wee silver milk bottle top and tried to squash it around a bit. Then made a band from a bit of paper that we used a pen to make chequered. He was directed to take the hat off...”

Tipping a nod to Some Like It Hot, Wal (Billy Greenlees) and Vic (John Hughes) brought a distinctly ungritty Glasgow into play. Throw the Caretaker (Gerry Clark) into the mix, stir in some 1940s big band jazz sounds and the resultant scenes must surely form part of cinematographic history. The unforgettable and flirty duet between Gerry and Wal, was in fact them just improvising and playing around waiting for the next scene.

The cameras, however, were rolling – Forsyth, happily, decided to keep the extempore interchange.

John Hughes, at the time of filming, was working at an Unemployment Benefit Office. “When I saw the script, I saw this character who was going to dress up. That looked like a good character to me, an interesting character. I was new to all this. I thought the scenes were filmed in sequence and that my first scene would be the opening one, at the

hamburger van. And it would break me in gently. It wasn’t. It was the dressing-up scene.”

“During filming, I was thinking: ‘What have I done? What have I done? What will my pals think? What what will my family think?’ We’d been on set all night and I got to the office the next day to be met by some very odd looks. I hadn’t got all of my make-up off.

"I loved making the film – I’m so proud to have been part of Bill’s movie. I’ve dabbled a wee bit in acting over the years, but now that I’ve retired it would be nice to properly pick up where I left off.”

Gerry Clark attests to the long-term impact of Sinking Feeling: he works as a cameraman and editor. “With Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl, Bill kick-started the Scottish Film Industry. Until then the only films being made in Scotland were documentaries. I got an extra wee bit from the film: I was there every day – the actual process of film-making fascinated me. I guess that’s what I’m doing now.”

Clark and Buchanan sound two of the loudest voices in the clamour of praise for Colin Tully’s superlative, subtle film score. Buchanan calls it: “The best music soundtrack to any film – ever. I’ve been listening to it for 40 years, it’s a beautiful piece of music: dark, with a wee bit of light.” Buchanan, still an actor, is also a sound engineer – perhaps unsurprisingly, he plays keyboards in a band.

Clark adds: “It’s one of my favourite soundtracks from any film. I’ve been in bands and I’ve written music and I’ve found myself nodding towards that soundtrack – if not actually stealing from it.”

Tully recalls being at a party in a flat and having a casual conversation with Forsyth who asked if he’d do some music writing for the film. Conveniently, this coincided with there being a Fender Rhodes keyboard left temporarily in his bedroom by Stewart McKillop after the break-up of their band Cado Belle. “When I listen to the track, Tully says, “It probably

was influenced by American ‘gangster’ music, like NYPD Blue. Also, I was really lucky with the musicians: Alan Taylor, Martin McManus and Kenny McDonald. These guys can really play and took my music to another level.”

Tully too could relate to Sinking Feeling and identified with its characters, especially Ronnie (Buchanan), saying: “He was the representative of a Glaswegian boy at that time. He was the quintessential Glasgow boy. Rab’s a bit of a national treasure.”

That we are familiar with this film two score years down the line is probably due to the dedication and talent of one man. And here’s an ironic twist. The restored film was released by the BFI. Buchanan explains: “Sinking Feeling was the direct result of the BFI’s rejection of Gregory’s Girl. Ergo, their release of the restored Sinking Feeling 35

years later represented a massive step. Huge credit and thanks must go to the guy responsible for the restoration: Douglas Weir.”

For Weir, the finding, saving and restoration of the movie was truly a labour of love.

Until 15 years ago, Weir hadn’t even heard of the film - being more familiar with Forsyth’s subsequent works. Working at the BFI allowed him to research it intermittently.

“I started really falling in love with it. As a kid, growing up in Glasgow, I felt like that gawky guy. I thought ‘There he is! There’s me!’” But no-one knew where the original film was.

Weir combed through the BFI film archive – the biggest in the world – and eventually found the 35mm print of the original 16mm film. “I ended up working on it on the side, he says. “I had a network of people who worked on film restoration – and I called in every favour I had.” Sound familiar?

“It took two years – with people working in their spare time, people working for free.”

When it got to the point where Weir considered it good enough, he showed it to some of the BFI staff. “I just couldn’t let it be forgotten.” The BFI agreed to re-release the film in DVD and Blu Ray formats, with the restored version launched in 2014 at the Glasgow Film Theatre. It became the BFI’s top selling DVD that year, with Scotland’s Central Belt accounting for 70% of the sales

“Sinking Feeling is the first indigenously-funded Scottish fictional feature film," says Weir. “I’ve been working in film, man and boy. This is the most ego-less thing I’ve ever been involved in. And its re-release at the GFT is the favourite moment of my career.”

Weir told The Herald that recently he unearthed the original 16mm negative and original soundtrack for the film. Stunning news for fans. Is it too much to hope for another, further improved, release? With the original soundtrack?

Weir says that Sinking Feeling is Forsyth’s most personal film; the one he holds closest to his heart. Forsyth agrees, adding that Sinking Feeling is, compared to Gregory’s Girl, the more authentic, more “filmic” film. And it was his first, with Rab Buchanan being the first actor he ever directed.

Yet the man who was to subsequently direct the likes of Burt Lancaster and Robin Williams is a study in humility and modesty. “That film isn’t mine,” he says of That Sinking Feeling.

“It is Rab and the cast’s. They made it.”

“They taught me how to make films.”