Interview with John Byrne
Born in 1940, John Byrne is a playwright and painter of international stature.
Described in The New Statesman as "the first post-modernist from Paisley", Byrne wrote the popular, six-times BAFTA award-winning Tutti Frutti for BBC Television in 1987. In the theatre, Byrne is best known for The Slab Boys Trilogy. His other plays include Writer’s Cramp, One-Eyed Jocks, Candy Kisses and Colquhoun and MacBryde, plus adaptations of The Government Inspector, The London Cuckolds, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull. He has also designed sets and costumes for 7:84, the Traverse Theatre, The Royal Court, The Bush Theatre and Scottish Opera.
John followed Tutti Frutti with another six-part series called Your Cheatin’ Heart in 1990, for BBC TV. As a painter, Byrne’s first London one-man show was held at London’s Portal Gallery in 1967. He is now represented by the Fine Art Society.
In 1987, John Byrne’s six-part BBC TV series Tutti Frutti not only introduced the world to the talents of Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson and Richard Wilson it seared itself into the imaginations of a generation where, 20 years later, it lives on. This larger than life stage version — adapted by Byrne himself — puts The Majestics on the road again. Here, John Byrne describes some of the joys of adapting Tutti Frutti for the stage.
Q: What was your reaction when the National Theatre of Scotland approached you with the idea of adapting Tutti Frutti for the stage?
A: My first reaction was one of surprise, closely followed by delight. I’d had foreboding (groundless I have to say!) that anything with the qualifying ‘National’ in front of it would heave hoary old worthies out of the archives, blow the cobwebs off and trot them creakily out onto the stage of some High School in Edinburgh. How wrong can you be!
Q: The 1987 BBC TV production of Tutti Frutti was a huge success and has been something of a legend in the memories of those who were lucky enough to see it first time round. For those who didn’t see it, what were they missing? What can audiences look forward to?
A: For those who missed the TV version (20 years ago now) given that we had six hours and 10 minutes, the story had more room to masquerade as (to a great degree) an ‘inconsequential ragbag’, the narrative lines only coming together slowly before roller coasting towards its climax . . . what audiences can look forward to in the stage production is a more immediate narrative (multistranded, as it is): things come quicker and faster and, with luck, they’ll be on the edge of their seats from the off.
Q: The TV show famously launched the careers of Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson. Those are pretty big shoes to fill . . .
A: . . . and Richard Wilson. However, I reckon we have a company of stars, all of them are wonderful . . . and the music (live) is terrific.
Q: The show’s playing at some pretty grand venues: the King’s in Glasgow, the King’s in Edinburgh and the Grand in Blackpool. For The Majestics it’s quite a step up from the cabaret circuit.
A: . . .yes, but they’ll take it all in their stride. After all, this is the band that played to Standing Room Only audiences at the Deep Sea Ballroom in Buckie on two separate occasions, 25 years apart!
Q: How does it feel, seeing — and indeed hearing — the band back together?
A: They’re better than ever! Their covers of all the great rock ‘n’ roll classics are, on occasion, superior to the originals — a great drummer in Bomba (John McGlynn), solid bass from Fud (Barrie Hunter) underpinning the vocals from Danny (Tom Urie) who also excels as the keyboard player, together with Vincent (Tam Dean Burn whose ‘Love Hurts’ will wrench your guts out) and Suzy (Dawn Steele) — a great voice and great looks.
Q: What goes around comes around. We’ve been through generations of grunge, hip hop, rave, house, etc. Do you think the world is ready for a rock ‘n’ roll revival?
A: “Rock ‘n’ roll will never die” sang Danny and the Juniors all those years ago. There’s still nobody today (or since the 50s) who can hold a candle to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, Little Richard et al so, although the world has gone through something of a ‘sea change’ in the intervening years, the authentic voice of rock ‘n’ roll (particularly when it’s live) still sends a shiver down the spine . . . the real McCoy.
Q: For this production, you’ve been set the challenge of condensing six hours of television into over two hours of live theatre. What has been gained by transferring the characters to a live space?
A: There’s nothing like live theatre plus live music, played and sung by the actors playing the characters. I can’t think of anything more charged than that.
Q: What has excited you most about working on Tutti Frutti again?
A: The whole process of reworking it (and re-writing it to a marked degree), then the rehearsals and being constantly challenged by the director Tony Cownie (the first time we’ve worked together) to produce even better ‘goods’ than I thought possible. A real joy.
Q: What’s been the toughest decision you’ve had to make?
A: There are tough decisions (i.e problems to be faced and resolved each and every day) but I can’t think of any ‘toughest’ decision. We are blessed with a great bunch of actors who can really sing and play and a wonderful MD in Neil McArthur.
Q: You’re working very closely with the cast and production team in rehearsals on the script. How involved are you with the design and the look of the show given your background as a visual artist?
A: I saw Neil Murray’s model on day one of rehearsals and thought it a miracle of design. It’s just ingenious and beautiful, I knew we were in the safest of hands here. I always do ‘character drawings’ for the plays I write. These do give an indication of what the characters wear (and through that something of their psychological make-up). I do tiny odds and ends of costume (most of it from my own wardrobe).
Q: Tutti Frutti is one of the highlights of the National Theatre of Scotland’s spring 2007 programme — is there anything particularly Scottish, would you say, about the characters or their story?
A: Well, I only know (or think I know…i.e. have a rough idea of what makes me tick and I’m Scottish) what it’s like to live in this particular culture. It’s what makes me laugh and it’s what moves me. It’s what comes up out of the ground and makes you. You don’t get it anywhere else which is why I’m here . . . it’s where my heart, viscera and muse lives “in the particular is the universal”. We become ‘Americanised’ at our peril. There’s bugger all in the generic.
Q: Finally, what’s on the horizon for you once you finish Tutti Frutti?
A: Will they ever settle down, I wonder? I’ve been asked several times what it’s like going back to re-acquaint myself with Danny, Suzy, Vinny et al. They’ve been living with me, or I with them ever since they forced their way into my head and heart and joined forces with Spanky, Phil, Hector and Lucille . . . I’m looking forward to my version of Chekhov’s The Seagull, which I’ve reset on a large Hebridean island in 1976, going into production later this year - a musical Underwood Lane hitting the boards before I fall off the twig, and a biggish show of new paintings at the Fine Art Society’s gallery in London towards the end of this year.
John Byrne was interviewed by Colin Clark.