This Charming Man

Posted by in April's Magazine

There has never been a retrospective of the playwright and artist John Byrne’s work. Hold that thought in your head and we’ll come back to it…

We meet Mr Byrne – son of a pools winner (Zetters – £250) – in Leith’s Café Truva, where he is chuckling over my repeating The New Statesman’s assertion that he was ‘Paisley’s first postmodernist’. He is not displeased; the New Statesman was a staple magazine in the Byrne family household along with numerous periodicals, including his Dad’s favourite, Circus World. Studding his chat with pearls such as this makes our meeting an easy joy.


An early TV production of Shaw’s Man and Superman so captivated him that he hotfooted it to the local library to borrow a copy. Those live words rendered on the page electrified him, “It was a revelation to see how it was laid out. I thought, I want to try that.” This led to John forging his core belief that: “Each line of dialogue should contain 2 to 3 pieces of information, including hidden meanings, which will be revealed later.” It’s ironic to find that one of our great writers for television doesn’t have a TV, “It’s a distraction, I never watch it…I prefer the wireless (note that ‘wireless’). But his career path is living proof that TV needn’t be puerile or pander to the lowest common denominator – the ghost of Lord Reith is still stuck inside that flat screen seeking to educate as well as entertain.

In the late 70s, a change of director and policy at the Traverse Theatre saw Scottish writers – including Tom McGrath – commissioned to work under Chris Parr’s new regime. Encouraged to expand on some initial ideas Byrne debuted with Writers Cramp, a short radio play about Francis Seneca McDade, Paisley’s answer to McGonagall, which became a Fringe hit before transferring to London’s Bush Theatre in 1977. He cemented his theatrical reputation comparatively swiftly with his masterpiece, The Slab Boys Trilogy, a quintessentially Scottish work that nevertheless made it to Broadway, in a production starring Kevin Bacon, Sean Penn and Val Kilmer! Byrne made the Trilogy a Quartet with the aptly titled Nova Scotia (2008). It is salutary to think that without those changes at the Traverse we would have had no Tutti Frutti – written in a breathtaking 8 weeks – or Your Cheatin’ Heart and would have been the poorer for it. Then again John’s mantra is: ‘You make your own luck’, so he would probably have found us anyway. It is hard to overstate the importance of these landmark works, giving a voice to an indigenous culture whilst entertaining audiences at the same time. Here was a confident young Scotland able to articulate itself and even poke fun at itself without resorting to crude caricature.

12½ stones of rewrites
John sips his apple tea and talks of his crushing disappointment in the debacle that was National Theatre of Scotland’s Caledonia – so much so that he did not return for the second half of the play, something he’s never done in his life. (Check Leither 68 in the online archive for a review). “It was such a shame, the Darien scheme, a great story begging to be told and what do we get? A crude caricature, a pantomime. Why give the job to a satirist based in London, when we have local writers of the calibre of David Greig and Gregory Burke? Like I say, a shame, a missed opportunity, nobody will revisit the subject for a generation…”

Byrne is not disaffected by the theatre, he paints a wonderful word picture of the opening fifteen minutes of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem – a huge hit at The Royal Court in 2009 – his word weaving and conviction had the editor and I feeling sorely remiss for not seeing this visually stunning and stunningly well acted work as articulated by John. He is clearly as captivated by the word and, indeed, theatre as a profession, as he was back in the 50s when he saw Man and Superman on the BBC.

He’s working on a couple of pieces at the moment which he is rightly keeping close to his chest: “Once you start talking about a new project you lose the essence of it and talk yourself out of doing it…You were lucky to catch me, I’m about to close down all external communications and get to work.” It appears a feverish process, sometimes he forgets to eat and sleep, he writes and re-writes. “On Tutti Frutti there were twelve and a half stones of rewrites” – this is a typically skewed Byrnesian aside that beautifully illustrates the sheer scale of the undertaking. There were plans for a sequel to Your Cheatin’ Heart based around the Scottish country-dance scene: “It stalled during a regime change at the BBC.” Couldn’t you re-jig it? “Nah, that moment is long gone…it has to happen immediately.”

Byrne will also soon return to painting for an exhibition at Open Eye gallery in June this year. “The space will take about forty paintings and I’ve only done one but, ach, we’ll get there.” He has always had a keen eye for the pretensions of the art world, from his ‘Patrick’ paintings – Byrne convinced Mayfair’s Portal Gallery that they were the work of his father, a newspaper vendor, painting in the naïve style – through the pomposity of McDade in Writer’s Cramp to his play Colquhoun and MacBryde which focuses on two Scottish painters and their provocation of the art world of their day. His art work has varied from Penguin book covers in the early 60s: “I did a few, The Kraken Wakes, I don’t have any of the books though.” Through designing stage sets, to album covers (including The Beatles) and a magnificent pop-up book for 7:84’s groundbreaking The Cheviot the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

There is an impish quality to his work and this impishness is brilliantly revealed when he talks about his portrait of Steven Campbell. “We were commissioned to paint each other as part of an exercise in ‘seeing others as others see us’. Steven’s painting did not resemble me, I reckon his people sent him a photo to work from but accidently sent one of someone else!” At this he rocks with laughter and sends his tea flying. “Never mind, Paisley Town Council bought it, it took them over a year to pay me, but at least they’ve got a Steven Campbell painting of a man who looks like John Byrne!” His rascally eyes twinkle afresh.

Bring on that retrospective
In our time with John it is striking how much goodwill and admiration he engenders – this is not just down to his sartorial stylishness but also to his air of bonhomie. As we daunder around Leith, people seem genuinely pleased to see him and say hello…Which brings me back to that thought.

It still astonishes me that there has been no retrospective of Byrne’s work. I know it’s difficult when you’re dealing with the work of a polymath but it doesn’t mean it couldn’t be achieved. Given the sheer diversity of his work it would require collaboration between the National Galleries, the National Library, the BBC, the Traverse and many others. A big undertaking it is true, but one that is richly deserved. Here’s why.

In 2001 John Byrne was awarded an MBE. He returned it, having eventually unearthed it in his garage, in protest at the invasion of Iraq. “Why did he accept it in the first place?” A deep intake of breath and then: “I was at a difficult point career-wise, in a dark place, at the time it seemed like an affirmation to me.” What? Could we have been so neglectful of this bright and shining colossus of Scottish culture that he felt the need to accept a tawdry bauble as confirmation of a body of work that has been both dazzling and populist? Bring on that retrospective, John Byrne and Scotland are worthy of it.

The recent NTS debate, The Traverse, New Writing and how it Changed the World, brilliantly reunited the people behind the original Slab Boys production, with contributions from Chris Parr and Bill Paterson. This reunion brought out the best in them. They started with a ‘wee read through’ of some of the script. Clearly having fun, it was only their eyes that failed them. Jim Byars, reprising his role as Spanky, read aloud, “Sadie couldnae raise a suet pudding.” Patrick Doyle leant over and said, “its soufflé.” The reading broke up in fits of laughter followed by spontaneous applause from all in the Traverse. The event was filmed and will hopefully surface somewhere (NTS?) It was a fitting testament to Byrne’s enduring influence.

A thousand flowers bloomed from The Slab Boys rich soil, from Patrick Doyle, later Academy Award nominated for the soundtrack of Donnie Brasco to recently turned 92-year-old Ida Schuster. But more than that, we the audience, yes we the audience, we bloomed too.


Info: John Byrne Art and Life by Robert Hewison (Lund Humphries) is out in June

Donald & Benoit (Universe Publishing) by John Byrne is out now

NTS project:

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