mon 08/08/2022

theartsdesk Q&A: Artist/Dramatist John Byrne | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Artist/Dramatist John Byrne

theartsdesk Q&A: Artist/Dramatist John Byrne

The Scottish polymath discusses Slab Boys, Swinton, Sean Penn - and Tutti Frutti

"I’m very hard to categorise,” says John Byrne (b 1940), tugging at his magnificent moustache. A restless, defiant, shape-shifting polymath who was an exponent of multimedia long before computers ruled the world, Byrne's singular career is perhaps doomed to gentle underappreciation simply because he can do so much so well. “If you’re hard to categorise they don’t like that." He peers into his coffee as though looking for something. "Whoever 'they' are.”

Raised in the “Dickensian” gloom of Paisley’s Ferguslie Park estate in a family shaped by his mother’s severe mental illness, Byrne graduated from Glasgow School of Art in the early 1960s and slowly made a name for himself as first a painter, then a playwright, then a television writer. A more recent incarnation, as one half of a so-called celebrity couple, means that to his dismay he now registers on the red-tops' radar.

His bold portraits of Billy Connolly (pictured below right), Robbie Coltrane and his former partner, actress Tilda Swinton, hang in Scotland's National Portrait Gallery. His Slab Boys Trilogy - Slab Boys (1978), Cutting a Rug (1979) and Still Life (1982) - based on his own experiences working in a Paisley carpet factory, is being celebrated next week in a one-off discussion at the Traverse in Edinburgh. It has been named by the National Library of Scotland as one of the 12 key works of the last 40 years.

byrne_connollyByrne's defining creation, certainly in the popular consciousness, is the BBC TV series Tutti Frutti, the blackly comic story of fading rock'n'roll band The Majestics. Written in a coal shed in Fife, it aired in 1987 and launched the careers of Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson. It finally received a DVD release in 2009 following two decades snagged in red tape, during which time it turned into an almost mythical piece of lost television.

Now 71, Byrne continues to work hard. He recently adapted Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, with a Scottish twist, for the Lyceum in Edinburgh and his children’s book, Benoit and Duncan, was published earlier this month. In recent years these achievements have been shadowed by feverish – and false - tabloid conjecture about the “polyamorous” nature of the relationship between Byrne, Swinton and her current boyfriend, German artist Sandro Kopp.

“It’s like being reduced to a cartoon character,” he growls, amiably enough. After he and Swinton split romantically in the mid-Noughties, Byrne stayed in Nairn, the couple’s hometown in north-east Scotland, to continue parenting their twin children, Honor and Xavier. He now lives permanently in Edinburgh with his partner Jeanine, described today as “my sweetheart”.  

Talking to theartsdesk in the cafe-bar of the Filmhouse cinema, up close Byrne is an enticingly Beckettian creature. He sports a red school "Prefect" badge on his waistcoat, under which seems to lie endless layers of vests and shirts, topped off with a vibrant orange scarf knotted tightly around his throat. His big, useful hands, smudged slightly with red paint, encircle his coffee cup and his voice can only be described as "smoked", its depth leavened by a great, gurgling laugh. The eyes are hawk-like and his sole remaining tooth is hidden by spectacular baccy-stained plumage. He is a wonderful, very Scottish mix of vulnerability, reserve, charm, intelligence, a vague sense of latent menace and cheerful eccentricity.

Watch a scene from Tutti Frutti:

GRAEME THOMSON: Beyond the bare biographical facts, every artist’s story begins with a leap of perception. When did the realisation dawn that you were an artist?

JOHN BYRNE: Oh God, I honestly can’t remember, it was so early. You’d be too self-conscious at that age to articulate it. You might say it but you’d look slightly shifty. As early as I can remember an artist was someone who drew and painted and that’s all I wanted to do. At the same time as describing that ambition to myself I also wrote little spoofs from the newspaper. I never thought, oh I’m going to be a playwright – no. They were entirely for my own amusement. They were parochial things taken from the Paisley Express, little spoofs about children who were disfigured already but then were miraculously cured by a chip-pan fire. Dark and funny.

byrnefagI had a very clear idea of what being an artist meant. People nowadays say they’re artists and you go, “But you can’t draw to save your life.” And they say: “Ah, but I’m not that kind of artist. I don’t draw.” I saw a print recently at a studio in Glasgow. It said: “Drawing by so-and-so. Conceived by someone else.” I’m not going to name names or describe it because they’ll know who they are, but you get this clown who is obviously not that bright saying, “I want you to draw this thingy because I can’t do it.” Conceived by! Can you imagine a joiner doing that?

It emerged decades later that your mother's illness stemmed from years of sexual abuse by her father. Do you look back now and see a difficult childhood or were you relatively happy at the time?

I was recently returned a photograph of me when I was about eight and my brother is about 10 and my mother is behind us outside my grandmother’s house in Cardonald and – yeah – I was happy as a bee. I really was. It was an interesting childhood.

In what sense?

In every sense! It was laden with drama. Laden with it. I realised when I was in my teens that it was the drama that made it so enjoyable: the police coming to the house, chases down the road, people getting their windows put in – all from my mother’s illness. It was all very entertaining in hindsight, but they were very gyppy times. I knew it from the inside, from going to see her in hospital, taking her clothes away, finding her in a room like a cell with a bare mattress on the floor. It was Dickensian, it really was, but it was a relief to leave her there. We used to go for a pint in The Jolly Beggar, me, my brother and my father, and not talk about it. Just sit there. But I remember distinctly saying to myself, “This is just wonderful.” I must have known that this was all the material I needed. It felt so great to be growing up in this place.

The only way in was through japery and tomfoolery, at the back of which was a serious desire to have my work shown in the London galleries

But it must have also been heartbreaking to observe?

Well it was, and I had another way of life to compare it with. My brother and I would stay with uncles and aunties in Govan and Hillington [in Glasgow]. I thought these places were like the land of Noël Coward. People wore dressing gowns! We didn’t even have pyjamas. I’ve since met people from Hillington who sound totally Glasgow, with quite rough accents, and I still think, surely not! It doesn’t tally, because when I was eight, nine, 10, 11, I thought these places were like Mayfair. It was quite comical. It felt like a big world then. Little did I realise that the world would get smaller for me. It seemed vast and now it seems much smaller. I can access that vastness but it’s a conscious effort to do that, whereas when I was in it it just happened. You become more self-conscious as you get older.

After leaving Glasgow School of Art you struggled to find success until you starting presenting work by "Patrick", a faux-naif artistic alter ego who you claimed was actually your father. Nowadays that would be regarded as a wonderful post-modern prank.

Of course it was! Too soon, too soon, too soon... I was traipsing round all these places in Mayfair in 1958, 1959, 1960 and these people wouldn’t look at any of my work. They had a clientele who didn’t know anything at the time. The only way in was through japery and tomfoolery, at the back of which was a serious desire to have my work shown in the London galleries. Then, like everything else, if you keep doing the same things it becomes like making sausages. It was like I’d trapped myself, both wittingly and unwittingly, so I had to do something else: an amalgam of the things that were good about the jape and the thing that was serious about me and my art from an early age. It’s taken me long enough.

John_Byrne_banana_bootsYou seemed to do a bit of everything in the late 1960s and early 1970s – book covers for Penguin, Billy Connolly’s banana boots (pictured right), stage sets, record covers...

I’m very hard to categorise and if you’re hard to categorise they don’t like that, whoever “they” are. “Oh, you’re confusing me. We thought you were an ice skater and you arrived in a tank.” But it’s not sincerity you’re after in art, it’s truth. It’s how truthful that thing is to what you set out to achieve, with something extra on top of that. I’m not articulate in that way, I can't explain it in words, but it’s an indefinable something that makes it a work of art.

Your first play, Writer’s Cramp, was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1977. Did you feel you couldn't express everything you wanted to say through painting?

No, I didn’t want to say anything. I went to see plays and enjoyed them, it was like a geeky hobby. I was curious and interested, but I never thought of doing it until I saw Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On, which was his first play, I think. I saw all these people rising at the same time, reacting and laughing, and thought, but that’s such a wonderful feeling. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to do that? I kept that to myself and worked away until I had two things: one was Writer’s Cramp and the other was Slab Boys.

Did they come easily?
I would rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. The easy bit was the hard work of doing it, because it was such a pleasure. And then the thing just fell into place. How could it not? It made me laugh.

How did these two plays move from the page to the stage?

I used to get a magazine called Plays and Players and I’d just read Teeth and Smiles by David Hare in there, published in two parts, about the singer in a band. I wanted to put on a production of that at Third Eye Centre [now the CCA] in Glasgow. I discovered David Hare’s agent was Margaret Ramsay, the doyenne of playwright’s agents. I got the number and phoned her up and asked her how we’d go about doing a version of Hare’s play at an arts opening in Glasgow. “Oh, you can’t do that, darling, it’s going to the West End.” I don’t think she even said goodbye. Click. Right.

I never saw anyone I could really recognise in the theatre. It was usually university people writing about made-up, intellectual themes, which never rang true to me

I’d already written Writer’s Cramp in a sketch book, it started off as letters, and Alice [Simpson, Byrne's first wife] said, "Why don’t you write scenes in between?" So I did that. By that point I’d bought my second second-hand typewriter, so I was able to type it up and send it off to – who else – Margaret Ramsay, the only agent I could think of. A couple of days went by and I got this postcard with her spidery writing saying, "I’m going to try this at the Court upstairs and/or send it to the Bush." I wanted to phone her up there and then but I waited about 10 days. “We’ll hear, darling, we’ll hear. Now I’m going off on holiday and I’ll expect you to have written another play by the time I get back.” Fucking what? Oh. Right. I was already writing Slab Boys, and two weeks later I called her up and I said, "Hello Miss Ramsay, it’s John Byrne." "Yes, hello Byrne. What is it?" "I’ve finished another play that I want to send you. It’s got a beginning, a middle and an end.” “How fucking bourgeois, darling. Send it to me." Her favourite was always Writer’s Cramp.

I was doing a portrait of five guys who were trustees of the Hamilton Bequest and with the proceeds of that we first put on Writer’s Cramp at Carlton Studios at the Edinburgh Festival in 1977. It was so enjoyable. Duncan Campbell came to the preview. It was the first review that led off the Scotsman's coverage of the entire festival and it was a total rave. Fifty pence for a seat, we couldn’t cram them in, and then every fringe theatre in London was calling me up. Eventually we went to the Bush. We wouldn’t go to the Hampstead because we thought they’d replace "the stars". Slab Boys hadn’t even been on yet, but that was me in.

slabboysDid you feel you wanted to represent people who were traditionally excluded from the world of literature and theatre?

I never saw anyone I could really recognise in the theatre. It was usually university people writing about made-up, intellectual themes, which never rang true to me. The thing that changed was that Chris Parr had taken over the Traverse Theatre and wanted to do Scottish plays about people living in Scotland. That whole policy had been going for a year, a year and a half, so I had a place. I sent Slab Boys to Giles Havergal at the Citizens and he said, “Try the Traverse.” It sat there for a bit, then we had Writer’s Cramp and they just picked it up in time. From the outset it was a treat. The rehearsals for Slab Boys (pictured above) was the happiest time ever. Everyone just gelled and totally got it. It’s pointless getting anyone in who you have to teach to do it, they had to understand it implicitly and not talk about it. Just do it.

From the very beginning there's never been much exposition in your work. Information is imparted implicitly.

No, I hate exposition. Every line of seemingly inconsequential dialogue I write carries two or three things. I love setting off hares and running them to the ground. I hate exposition. I really do hate exposition. The sign of a dud is someone on stage telling a joke. It’s usually an old joke that everyone knows and it’s usually the only joke in it. Fuck's sake! The truth has to be wrapped in that inconsequential stuff. I remember someone who worked in the theatre saying about Slab Boys, “Well, it’s not really a play is it?” What? They can’t quite look you in the eye because they say it out of pique.

Life is funny and tragic at the same time. You go outside and you get hit by a bus. That in itself is funny

In 1983 Slab Boys was performed on Broadway starring Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon and Val Kilmer. Did that work?

First of all we did it with a different cast in Kentucky. There was an actor’s theatre in Louisville and they wanted me to come over. I got there after they started rehearsing and they wanted to me to watch. I said, “This is just terrible.” They had a dialect coach, they were trying to do it in Scottish and it was diabolical. You couldn’t understand one word and it took about three hours. I told them they’d got it so wrong and they were a bit nonplussed by this. Peter Maloney was directing it and I told him I’d rather they did it in their own accents. There was only a week and a bit to go. He came back in and said to the cast, “We’re gonna do something very dangerous – John wants you to do it in your own accents.” It was all very American, “Oh boy” and all that, but they did it in a modified accent and it was great. It rattled along totally fine. It has to go like a train, that play.

pennLater on they did it at the Hudson Guild in New York, and then it was picked up for Broadway. Val Kilmer was in it playing Alan Downie, in the blazer, and Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn (pictured right backstage during Slab Boys. Credit: Mary Ellen Mark). They were just starting out then. I think Sean Penn had done Fast Times at Ridgemont High but it hadn’t come out yet. All the film producers were coming to see them. Richard Benjamin came to see Kevin Bacon for Footloose. I was there right through rehearsals. They had a go at doing a Paisley accent and then it was dropped and just forgotten about. It ran for about 11 weeks at the Playhouse on 48th Street. We did 23 previews – which is unusual! – because we were waiting for the New York Times review. Frank Rich had just taken over as theatre critic from Clive Barnes but he was on vacation. He came back and gave it a so-so write-up and that was it. Later I went home to Newport-on-Tay and they wanted to film the production for a TV version and offered $5,000. I said no. Half an hour later they offered $50,000, and they would have gone up and up but I just didn’t want to do it.

You wrote a fourth Slab Boys play – Nova Scotia – in 2008. Did you enjoy returning to those characters?

They are part and parcel of my life; they’re not baggage at all, they’re very light. They never go away. It’s the same with the people in Tutti Frutti and Writer’s Cramp. They’re here very vividly. It’s like this rather eccentric family of wayward children – I don’t look after them at all, they look after themselves, but they gave us many a laugh and they still do. I got the most enormous enjoyment from actually putting them on the page and nailing them down – not nailing them down, but getting them to be in that place and letting them get on with their lives, and entertain me along the way.

Where do all the various things you do overlap?

They overlap in the sense that I got the ruthlessness to do the plays from painting. I don’t write jokes or funny lines, it’s all context. I just want to try and find out about these people. I remember someone saying to me years ago: "When are you going to write something serious?" I went, "That’s what I fucking do, that’s what I write." Billy Wilder said there’s no such thing as comedy. Life is darkly funny, amusing, hard, tragic and painful, and it’s all in there together. Why call it "tragi-comedy"? Let’s just say "a play". Let’s not try and define and describe things.

There were two givens: one that it would be called Tutti Frutti and the other that it should employ The Star. I said I’d fallen out with The Star and couldn’t work with him

That’s what's so great about Tutti Frutti. It's all mixed in there together.

Aye. Funny and tragic at the same time. That’s what life is like. You go outside and you get hit by a bus. That in itself is funny...

How did Tutti Frutti come about?

I was asked to do a six-part series about a band who were still going. I’d had lunch here in Edinburgh with Bill Bryden, a great writer and director. There were two givens: one that it would be called Tutti Frutti and the other that it should employ The Star who would sell it. I said I’d fallen out with The Star and I couldn’t work with him. Bill’s face fell a bit.

Who was it?

I can’t tell you. I’ve never told anybody. Bill said, "Who then?" and I said Robbie Coltrane. "Who?" He’d done Alfresco with wotsername, Emma Thompson, it was a late-night show on Granada. I’d worked with him and I knew he could play piano. So Bill said, “OK, all right, but it has to be on Michael Grade’s desk in eight weeks or we’ve lost it.” I got back on the train to Newport-on-Tay and started writing it that same afternoon. I wrote it in my coal shed. I’d write through to two or three in the morning, get up at eight, start at nine, have a break at tea time, then go into the early hours. I did that for seven and a half weeks, with three hours sleep. I was completely knackered but completely fired up. I was totally blinkered, because I was telling myself the story. You go to bed and your brain is still going.

John_Byrne_self_portraitIs it the same intense experience when you’re painting?

It goes at a different pace, it has a different rhythm to it. I don’t think I could write with that physical intensity now. Well, I say that, but if you were doing it to a deadline I’d do the same thing. Anyway, I did the six episodes and never wrote another word. I made it an absolute demand – a rule – that they would not comment, good, bad or indifferent, on the scripts while I was writing the things. I would deliver two at a time until they had it and then I insisted it was made as written. The director Tony Smith shot the whole thing. Lots of film got cut because I didn’t know how to write for time.

How close was the finished series to what you envisaged in your head?

I had to accept it was as close as it could be unless I was doing it. Tony Smith was a very skilful director. I couldn’t have done it better than Tony. I would probably have gone out of my way to obscurify it, whereas Tony had to think of his audience, he was the medium through which people saw it and he did a brilliant job. And it was wonderfully cast. There was four of us casting: me, Tony, the line producer Andy Park, who had great music knowledge, and Peter Broughan, the alleged script editor. That was very leisurely work for Peter! We made it a condition during casting that if any one of us said no – we didn’t even have to explain why – then that person was out, and because of that we got the best cast.

You returned to Tutti Frutti in 2004 to write the stage show. Was that difficult?

We had to do six hours in less than two hours. You have to then go for a narrative thread rather than the complexity and density. It’s a different creature. I was writing right through rehearsals, right up to the wire. It’s a very spare version of it. It would be good to have another try, but it was very enjoyable especially for people who had seen it on television, because at that point Tutti Frutti still wasn’t out on DVD.

Watch the cast of the Tutti Frutti stage show discussing Byrne

The fact that Tutti Frutti wasn't released on DVD until 2009, for seemingly murky reasons related to song copyright, helped it attain a kind of mythic status...

Yes, but it was a bit frustrating because I kept being asked all the time why it wasn’t coming out. I still don’t know what it was all about. Unless it was just waiting for the copyright on [the song] “Tutti Frutti” to run out after 50 years. I’d changed the words in episode one. The guys who wrote it, Little Richard and whoever else, got $5,000 when it was first shown and $10,000 when it was reshown. So if you’d put out a DVD it would have been a couple of million or something. It was nice when it did eventually came out, there was a lot of affection which was lovely. Tony Smith was the key to that.

your_cheatin_heartWould it get made now?

God no. I suggested I do another series where country music was a leitmotif, which was Your Cheatin' Heart (pictured right, starring Tilda Swinton). That was much darker. A few people said it was the best thing they’d ever seen and remember it fondly, but nobody understood it. Nobody could follow it at all, it was so convoluted. A lot of people thought it was some kind of sequel but I had to do something different from Tutti Frutti to keep my own interest from flagging. That was less popular and I was never approached again. I never got another job on television. That was it. “No, no, no, you can’t do that.” I couldn’t really have cared less, unless they were going to say, “Right, we’ll give you six hours, go and do it.” It’s done by committee now, you write by a team along certain rules. Americans do it terribly well, but we’re not all Americans. Harking back to the old days, you’d have a Play for Today written by people who wrote serious stuff for the theatre rather than people who write for television because they really want to be in films. The two things are like chalk and cheese.

I wonder what it must be like for someone like you, with an avowed distaste for straightforwad linear narrative, to have to observe a reductive, black-and-white version of your private life being thrown out into the public?

I know, I know... Well, it’s totally annoying in the extreme. A few years ago it was at its peak and it wasn’t pleasant at all, it was like being reduced to a cartoon character. There’s a book coming out on my work later this year, of the art with a biographical text attached, and the first version I read of it was that tabloid version, the News of the World version. It’s better now than it was because I interfered with it. The tabloidese has gone to a degree. Of course you can mention your life and your children, but we’ve already had it in the fucking papers, we don’t need a re-run of it. It’s been kept to a minimum, but...

swinton-byrneDo you feel you’ve had to reveal more than you would want?

Absolutely, I wouldn’t want to reveal anything. That’s the whole point. The artistic truth is absolutely true, as opposed to the bare truth, which is just exposing yourself. I read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and it’s a work of art. He seemed to be revealing things, but what he was revealing was a truer truth than a literal truth. I so enjoyed that.

Music has obviously been a massive influence. If you could have been a working musician would you have been?

No. I’ve always had a guitar but I can play as well as I did about 50 years ago. I’ve maybe got another chord. I’ve got about 16 guitars, including two which are rather good. I can play enough to satisfy myself, strum away, but I never listen to music at all. I listen to Radio 3 and I have Radio 4 on if I’m painting but nothing on if I’m writing. I’ve never sat down and listened to music. I’m sure people do, but I don’t keep up. I love country music. You have an authentic reaction to it and it tells great stories – you don’t have to be judgmental or think you’re fucking superior to them, because they are great storytellers.

What have you got on the horizon?

I’m doing a painting show during the festival at the Open Eye gallery, I’ve got a children’s book out, and I’ve got this book of my life coming. I would dearly love to do some kind of play, but who wants to know? I’ll just need to start a theatre.


Thank you for this wonderful interview. I saw The Slab Boys in Edinburhg in 1978 and was also one of those who waited a long time for Tutti Fruti to finally come out on dvd/ John Byrne is a unique talent - what a shame these kind of mavericks are no longer encouraged to create new work for the masses!

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