What do you watch when you want something easy and comfortably familiar? Something that will make you smile and recall other occasions on which you’ve watched it?
I have several old films on both DVD and VHS that I revert to every now and again because I know that they will either entertain me in that easy way, or which I can switch off if it’s not quite right this time without losing my fondness for them.
Yesterday I watched Local Hero, a gentle comedy from the early 1980s by Bill Forsyth. Made after the success of Gregory’s Girl, but with more money, both allowing and, presumably, obliging him, to use bigger named performers, it is a story of what happens when a large American oil company attempts to buy a Scottish village.
In the tradition of small British comedies, however, the enjoyment of the film for me lies not in the plot nor in pratfalls, but in the study of human nature and the cleverness of the dialogue.
Although the Americans think that the Scots are ‘nearly like us’, Peter Riegert, playing Mac, the Knox Oil and Gas representative still arrives believing that they will all be slightly simple, whereas behind his backs the small community is cannily plotting together to get as much out of him as they can. Expecting them to be isolated and cut off, he is surprised to find that the local vicar is from Africa and that the village is regularly visited by a Russian fisherman, the occasional bidey-in of the lady shop owner.
It’s clearly an old movie now; the clothes and the big hair fix it unquestionably in the 1980s. The comedy of the red phone box and the limitless supply of 10p coins Mac needs to call back to Houston, would be lost in an era of mobile telephones. But I like the daftness of the motorcycle that always just misses Mac as he crosses the road which otherwise carries no traffic; and how he gets accustomed to the turn of speed necessary to avoid it.
It’s the small touches that always make me smile. Mac and Oldsen kill time on the beach playing ducks and drakes, discussing how many bounces it is possible to get out of a stone, and the relative skimming properties of different shaped pebbles. Mac tries to make conversation with the group of men who hang around the upturned boat on the dock, with them is a baby in a pushchair, who reappears at the edge of many shots throughout the film. Mac simply asks ‘Whose baby?’, and the group of men purse their lips and look away, and you know that Mac has asked the unanswerable question.
The boat itself is constantly being renamed as its owner tries to decide what the right name should be once he’s rich. And the conversations and debates over whether it’s yer Maserati or yer Ferrari that would be a better buy flow as constant riffs through the screenplay.
Who could resist the idea that Burt Lancaster as Mr Happer, the oil tycoon, feels so remote from ordinary life and people that he has to employ Moritz, a therapist, to insult him? Now there’s a niche job that might suit me.
It’s a period chamber piece, but fun to revisit.
By pure coincidence, I see that Peter Capaldi, who had his first role as the painfully awkward Oldsen in the film, was interviewed in the Independent this weekend.