Before creating such classics of modern British Cinema as Gregory's Girl and Local Hero, Glaswegian filmmaker Bill Forsyth's debut feature was the 1979 gem That Sinking Feeling, about a gang of young chancers who look to make a quick buck by stealing a truckload of stainless steel kitchen sinks. Forsyth had already been working in documentaries for a good decade when he approached the Glasgow Youth Theatre, looking for fresh young talent to cast in a filmed version of a script he'd written, Gregory's Girl. However, as he got to know the young lads, and workshopped ideas, scenes and characters with them, Forsyth shelved the relatively ambitious tale of a young footballer who falls for the new girl who joins the school team, in favour of a simpler, more honest tale that reflected the times and struggles of their home town.
Amusingly, That Sinking Feeling opens with the disclaimer that the film is not set in Glasgow, but in a fictional town of the same name. While relinquishing Forsyth and his team of any blame from subsequent accusations of defaming Scotland's second city, the director claims that this was in fact to give the film a more fantastical, dream-like setting. On the audio commentary that accompanies the BFI's new release of the film, he even goes so far as to suggest that the entire film may be nothing more than a daydream of its central protagonist, the formidably-coiffed Ronnie (Robert Buchanan).
The loose narrative of the film centres around Ronnie and his gang of friends, all young unemployed, under-educated men struggling to get by in a dilapidated city caught in the midst of large scale gentrification. They wile away their days grifting for the next cup of tea, hanging out in each other's houses, or huddled in the shells of abandoned cars, anything to escape the incessant fine drizzle of Glasgow weather. Spotting the high price of stainless steel sinks, Ronnie hatches a plan to knock off a local warehouse, and goes about assembling a motley crew to help him pull off his dream heist.
With little concern over the legal or moral ramifications of their actions, Ronnie and his friends beg, borrow and steal the essentials for their daring raid, and almost immediately it is obvious that Forsyth is far more interested in playing the situation for laughs than in underscoring his film with an educational or moral coda. The plan itself is absurd, involving two of the gang dressing as cleaning ladies to fool the guards, while another must drug his workmate and steal his van. Needless to say neither element goes according to plan, but the results are hilarious.
That Sinking Feeling was an incredibly low budget production - Forsyth puts the budget at somewhere in the region of £2700, which earned it Guinness World Record recognition - but it succeeds on its brilliant use of real locations, smart dialogue and a parade of charming natural performances from the young, inexperienced cast. Buchanan's Ronnie is far from a confidence-inspiring leader, but like all great cinematic dreamers, is brimming with an infectious optimism that makes him incredibly likeable. Fans will also recognise him from Gregory's Girl, in which he plays second fiddle to John Gordon Sinclair's lovestruck hero, who also has a small but notable role here.
Forsyth's style frequently errs towards comedy, in particular the slapstick of silent cinema, rather than drawing from his documentary roots to paint a desperate picture of the poverty-stricken squalor in which these youngsters live. Perhaps because of that, That Sinking Feeling manages to work on both levels, with the shocking state of the community on full display, but used only as a backdrop - and motivation - for the escapades of youngsters looking to better themselves however they can. That Sinking Feeling is first and foremost a caper, very much in the spirit of Ealing comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob, and its lasting influence can be felt as recently as Ken Loach's award-winning The Angel's Share, which owes it a considerable debt.
This new dual-format Blu-ray/DVD release from the BFI arrives as part of their applaudable Flipside series, which spotlights unsung gems from British Cinema that perhaps deserve more praise and attention than they have received until now. The film is presented in a gorgeous new high definition restoration that looks and sounds excellent. It should be noted that this release restores the film's original PCM mono audio track, showcasing the cast's thick regional accents in all their glory. Re-recorded to facilitate the film's original release in North America, for a long time the original dialogue track was unavailable, until now.
In addition to the film itself, the BFI's release is packed to the gills with supplementary material. The aforementioned audio commentary features director Bill Forsyth with film critic Mark Kermode, and their ongoing discussion of the film's production and history makes for informative and entertaining listening. The pair is also featured in a small amusing video featurette, in which they break down the film's production budget from scraps of papaer Forsyth has kept all this time.
The disc also features a new interview with lead actor Robert Buchanan, Bill Forsyth's BAFTA acceptance film made in 2009, as well as four shorts, ranging from 13 to 33 minutes. In the first two, KH-4 (1969) and Mirror (1970), both directed by John Schorstein, a young Forsyth stars as a painter and writer respectively. Oscar Marzaroli's documentary Glasgow 1980 (1971) was edited by Forsyth and promotes the planned redevelopment of the city, while Forsyth's own Islands of the West (1972) is a beautiful promotional film about the Scottish Hebrides.
While Local Hero remains one of the very best British films of the 1980s and Gregory's Girl was required viewing for any British school kid of its time, That Sinking Feeling is every bit as charming, accessible and laugh-out-loud funny, and is well worth discovering, or rediscovering, courtesy of this excellent new release from the BFI.