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  • Alistair Braidwood

John Byrne (1940 - 2023)

Updated: Dec 7, 2023


John Byrne - 📸 David Eustace

MACBRYDE: "We're creatin' our own legends, Rab..." John Byrne, Colquhoun & MacBryde 1992)1


John 'Patrick' Byrne was a jack of many trades and was master of each and every one. Painter, playwright, screenwriter, printmaker, designer, and so much more, he managed to bring them all together in his life as well as his work. Whether viewing an exhibition, being in a theatre audience for one of his plays, watching and re-watching his TV dramas, or just viewing the sketches which are scattered through the published scripts, you always knew this was the work of John Byrne, his style as distinctive as it comes.


I have written elsewhere about seeing Carl MacDougall reading at Stirling University in my teens and how that changed my world. John Byrne had a similar effect, especially through the TV drama Tutti Frutti. I was just too young to have watched the Play for Today adaptation of Byrne's The Slab Boys (although I have seen it on stage and screen a number of times since), so it was Tutti Frutti which was my introduction, and what an eye and ear opener it would prove to be. Set in 1980's Glasgow (which still had a distinctly '70s feel to it as the city awaited 1988's Garden Festival and City of Culture status) we are introduced to aging rock 'n' roll band 'The Majestics' ("once hailed as Britain's answer to Freddie Bell and the Bellboys."2) , who had their one-hit back in 1964, and are about to undertake their Silver Jubilee tour in the back of a beaten-up, if beautifully Byrne-designed, transit van, when lead singer Big Jazza dies spectacularly. The appearance of Jazza's wee brother Danny (both brothers played by Robbie Coltrane) may just solve the dilemma. That's the briefest of synopsis, and you can read in full what I feel about Tutti Frutti in the first piece ever posted on SWH! - A Slight Bruising of the Crotch: An Appreciation of John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti…. Suffice to say, the fact that was what I wanted to write about speaks volumes for how I feel about Tutti Frutti, and John Byrne more generally.


John Byrne the man and his art were inseparable, his life and work coming together to provoke the opposite of an existential crisis - an existential celebration of who he was, and how he was. He was free to be John Byrne, which was a work of art in itself. It was in the way he spoke, dressed, even held himself (if you look at a lot of his figurative paintings and sketches there are a lot of angles and sharp edges, and his love of a self-portrait meant he became as much a 'John Byrne' character as Spanky and Phil from The Slab Boys, Tutti Frutti's Danny Boy, or fishmonger-cum-drug dealer Fraser Boyle in Your Cheatin' Heart. Such attention to detail was in everything he did.


Beside this sketch of Jack (right) from the script of The Slab Boys are notes on Jack's costume: Gingham shirt Munrospun tie 'Chunky' Arranknit Lumber jacket Beige Cavalry Twill Trousers Chukka boots yellow socks 'Gold' wrist watch with expanding bracelet. You could see such meticulousness in the way Byrne dressed himself, and in the way his characters look on page, stage and screen, from haircuts to hankies. They are Byrne's visions realised fully, and so was he.


It's difficult to think of another writer who managed to capture the language, lives and voices of the Scottish working class, particularly those of the west coast, as accurately, and comedically, as John Byrne did. You can also find striking examples in the writing of his cultural contemporaries James Kelman, Agnes Owens, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead, and playwright Peter McDougall, but they rarely make you laugh out loud (although, to be fair, McDougall often does).


John Byrne's dialogue is perhaps closer to the latter crossed with the comedy of his friend Billy Connolly, who he would also paint, and dress, over the years. Like Connolly, Byrne doesn't capture the way people speak, but the way they wished they spoke, in an urban yet still urbane manner - one which hid individuals' fears, insecurities, prejudices, self-doubt, and anxieties (or so they think). His central characters appear smarter, sharper, more cutting and gallus than they possibly could in real life, but that masks what really concerns them. Byrne deals in social realism as much as those writers mentioned above, covering mental health, addiction, poverty, homelessness, suicide, class, and so much more, and he never shies away from that. Vibrant, vital, and fantastically verbose, his characters faced triumph and disaster with equally dark humour (don't get too high, don't get too low), using their language as armour as well as a weapon - a way to deal with the worst of times. The line between tragedy and comedy has never seemed so blurred, although that may just be the tears. Whether they are of joy or sadness, you can never be sure.


It's worth noting that the women in Byrne's dramas are the ones with emotional maturity and who are in charge while the men play at being rock 'n' roll stars or cowboys. In The Slab Boys it's the glamorous Lucille who has all the men running around her in between their foolish feuding. Tutti Frutti's Suzi Kettles (a never better Emma Thompson) reluctantly takes to the road to look after Danny, and is proven to be the real talent whether as a musician, or as a painter. Katy Murphy's sharp-witted Janice Toner is indispensable to Richard Wilson's amoral and manipulative manager Eddie Clockerty (he refers to her as 'gallus' at one point, to which she replies "Shut yer mug" before impressively tearing strips off him. If she had a mic, she would have dropped it.), and it's only due to his wife Noreen's (Anne Kidd) determination and forgiveness that Maurice Roëves' manchild Vincent Diver makes it to The Majestics' fateful Pavilion gig on time. They each pick up the pieces time and time again as their men fail and falter.


In Your Cheatin' Heart Tilda Swinton's Cissie Crouch only tolerates John Gordon Sinclair's drippy and doe-eyed 'diner-tec' Frank McClusky while he is of use to her as she seeks to get her life back on track, and some of the funniest lines are given to Jenny McCrindle's and Barbara Rafferty's waitresses Tracey and Shirley ("I'm just readin' here about a lassie that got both her ears bitten off at a dance at the City Chambers an' she's not even heard from the Polis..."3) and country duo Billie McPhail and Jolene Jowett, Kate Murphy and Eddie Reader respectively, "[...] you couldnae hang a fat lip on a Hallowe'en cake if I gave you a pipin' bag fulla marzipan."4). You can read my review of Your Cheatin' Heart here - You Have Been Watching…John Byrne’s Your Cheatin' Heart...


In terms of storytelling it never seemed to be about where it was going, but the twists and turns, and time, taken to get there. While the end of Tutti Frutti is pretty perfect, if horrific, Your Cheatin' Heart seems to peter out, and you get the feeling that part of the reason Byrne returned regularly to the characters first met in The Slab Boys was he didn't want his, and our, relationship with them to end (although 2008's play Novia Scotia did bring some form of closure). But that didn't, and doesn't, matter. It was what was said, and how they said it, that was the real attraction.

Spanky/Sean Penn, Alan/ Val Kilmer, Phil/Kevin Bacon - 📸 Martha Swope

I would argue that his influence on Scottish culture was as far-reaching as any other figure of the last 60 years. I think you can see it on TV series such as Donna Franceschild's Takin' Over the Asylum and Neil Forsyth's Guilt, and even films like Peter Mullan's Orphans, (and in the early novels of David F. Ross), as they all share the ability to make you laugh in the face of great adversity, finding an honest mixture of shallowness and depth in gallows humour, something which is certainly recognisable to Scottish audiences. Perhaps this is at the heart of why Byrne wasn't better know outside of Scotland, but that's something to ponder another day (although, it should be noted that an off-Broadway production of The Slab Boys was staged in 1983 starring Hollywood young guns Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Val Kilmer and Jackie Earle Haley (see right for proof).


There's so much more I could discuss. His theatre work wasn't just about his own plays. The adaptations of Anton Chekov in particular were outstanding, and he clearly felt a connection with Chekov's world view. He would also design the sets and costumes for these plays, determined that audiences experience them in full 'ByrneVision'. For TV he wrote and directed the fantastic Boswell and Johnson’s Tour of the Western Isles which starred Robbie Coltrane and John Sessions (and which is on YouTube) and wrote a Play for Today called Normal Service (reuniting Tutti Frutti alumni Katy Murphy and Richard Wilson).


There are other programmes to seek out if you want to know more. His Arena documentary for the BBC, called Byrne About Byrne, is a wonderfully inventive autobiography which has Robbie Coltrane as a stereotypical gumshoe PI on the trail of the mysterious John Byrne, and if you can find the episode of Muriel Gray's Walkie Talkie, where Byrne walks and talks with Gray as he takes her from Cowcaddens underground station to the Glasgow School of Art, do let me know as I'd love to see it again.

This has become a rather lengthy and even rambling article, something which I think Byrne would have approved of - it's not how the story ends, it's how you get there. And I haven't even touched upon his art, which included paintings, prints, murals, book illustrations, album covers (including for The Beatles - see right) and more. And then there's the story behind that 'middle name' of 'Patrick', but I'll tell you about that another day.


Byrne created visions and versions of Scotland which were recognisable and felt familiar, but which were somehow off-kilter verging on the surreal, like we were all part of some fever dream. In reality, this was because it was John Byrne's world, we just got to visit. Imbuing his own art with his love of drawing, music, movies, literature, painting, theatre, and the rest, he passed them on to us in such a way that we are all the richer for it, as individuals but as a country as well. He reimagined the people and places he knew and loved so that we could do the same. A true Scottish icon who lived his life for art, in art, and arguably as art - and did it his way. He should be cherished and remembered as one of the greats.


Notes

1) Robert MacBryde from John Byrne's 1992 play Colquhoun & MacBryde

2) Sheena Fisher talking about The Majestics in Epsiode 3 of Tutti Frutti

3) Shirley in Episode 4 of Your Cheatin' Heart

4) Jolene to Frank in Episode 4 of Your Cheatin' Heart


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