It's Christmas time in Glasgow, and the shops are packed with people buying presents. Alan Bird (Bill Paterson) follows his girlfriend Maddy (Eleanor David) around a department store as she casually shoplifts various objects, and then they head for home. All is going well for a quiet evening in when Alan notices Maddy is packing - when he asks her why, she tells him she is leaving him, and sure enough, a removal truck draws up outside. Alan tries to persuade her to stay, but she isn't interested, and soon she and most of the contents of his home has gone. Alan works as a local radio disk jockey under the name Dicky Bird ("the early worm") and throws himself into his work to take his mind off his problems, but there is a big surprise just around the corner...
Scripted by the director Bill Forsyth, Comfort and Joy was another in his line of gentle Scottish comedies with a line in quirky humour. Coming across like a Raymond Chandler mystery if Philip Marlowe had been a Glaswegian DJ in the eighties, the film took its inspiration from the real life "Ice Cream Wars" of the time, when rival companies became drawn into violent, territorial disputes over where their ice cream vans could do business. The actual conflicts were far more serious than the one depicted in this film, but here Alan's relationship woes are just as important as his new concerns with the city's ice cream disputes, as he finds a renewed purpose in life and his car is gradually demolished.
For the first twenty minutes it looks as if the film will be bogged down in Alan's misery as he mournfully talks his difficulties over with his surgeon friend Colin (Patrick Malahide), and in truth, they are laid on pretty thick. Then, on the way home from buying replacement pots and pans for his kitchen, he impulsively goes for an aimless drive where he spots a young woman (Clare Grogan) in the back of an ice cream van at the traffic lights. Intrigued, he follows her onto a housing estate and buys a cone from her and the driver (Alex Norton), but as he walks away, chaos descends as a car speeds around the corner, two men jump out and start smashing up the vehicle.
From then on, Alan is mixed up in the conflict as the two businesses see his radio job as a way of imparting information to each other. Alan has found a situation to dive into as a way of taking his mind off Maddy, who he constantly dreams about and misses terribly. If this sounds a little too heavy, then don't worry as Forsyth and his cast bring a lightness of touch to a story that could have been morose and gritty. The jokes and subtly humourous touches are near constant, with many running gags, such as Alan being incessantly asked for his autograph by his star struck listeners - he's even asked by one of the thugs smashing up the van.
Alan is requested as a liason between the two sides, who turn out to be based around an Italian family, but his work suffers as he has to make coded messages to "Mr Bunny" and "Mr McCool" and his boss (the excellent Rikki Fulton) thinks he's going crazy ("This is Dicky Worm, the early bird"). There's even room for the old "sanity clause" joke in amongst the charming comedy and Alan's determination to sort his life out, where he realises that although he is lonely, he does make a positive difference to people's lives after all, despite being a cheesy DJ nobody outside the city will have heard of.
Paterson is terrific, the film's solid centre, making you sympathise with the hard luck Alan while Forsyth makes sure you sympathise with the keenly sketched minor characters. Comfort and Joy is an unlikely but warm-hearted shaggy dog story of a Christmas film that is underrated by many, and although it doesn't quite reach the heights of Gregory's Girl or Local Hero, there's no shame in that. A couple of quibbles, though, if Alan's show started at six o'clock in the morning in the middle of winter, shouldn't it have been dark outside? And is Dicky Bird the only voiceover man in Glasgow? Music by Mark Knopfler (but did he write the "Hello folks" jingle we wonder?).
[Cinema Club's DVD of Comfort and Joy includes an informative commentary track from writer/director Forsyth and producer Clive Parsons, which doesn't only take in details about the film, but the other work of the participants as well.]
Scottish writer and director whose gloomily whimsical comedies brought him worldwide recognition. Starting as an industrial filmmaker, he made the no-budget That Sinking Feeling which got him noticed enough to make the classic Gregory's Girl. This led to the similarly well-crafted and heartwarming Local Hero, and the less successful but no less enjoyable Comfort and Joy. Forsyth moved to America for his next films, quirky drama Housekeeping, crime comedy Breaking In, and ambitious but misguided Being Human, then finally returned to Scotland, and his first big success, with ill-received sequel Gregory's Two Girls. He has now retired from directing to concentrate on writing.