Brian Beacom

JOHN Byrne has Zoomed into the room, and the first impression is the artist/writer certainly hasn’t surrendered to the sartorial ordinariness of a man born at the beginning of the Blitz.

His traditional two-tone jacket, the louche silk scarf on neck still suggests a retired rock star, or a mid-20th century dandy. Byrne, thank goodness, still loves to dress to the tens.

What’s missing, however, is the almost omnipresent roll-up which dangled from his lips like a limp, recently hanged man. And the Frank Zappa combed-back dark hair is now a soft silver shading, as is his goatee. Yet, still Byrne looks commanding. Defiant. Like a subject in search of an artist, a task he has often taken upon himself.

However, a bigger question, beyond appearances, presents itself. Has the 81-year-old Paisley-born polymath slowed down to the pace of an ordinary mortal? Can the writer of some 30 plays and screenplays – amongst them theatre classics such as The Slab Boys – still cut a rug in terms of his writing and painting.

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It seems Byrne refuses to slow down. Today he has beamed into my living room talk about his new play, Tennis Elbow. It’s a follow up to his first play, Writer’s Cramp, first staged in 1977 at the Edinburgh Festival.

Writer’s Cramp told of the life and times of FS McDade, an aspiring writer and artist (yes, a partly autobiographical tale), a play which employed Byrne’s characteristic stylisation; alliteration is splattered in the way Jackson Pollock used paint, lashings of heavily stylised wordplay; ‘FS gets his schoolboy taste of TS Eliot before it's off to Magdalen College where “Daders” is mooners over “Anners”, but Anners is preggers after dallying with Dickers at Twickers”…’

HeraldScotland: Tutti FruttiTutti Frutti

 

Tennis Elbow again returns to the world of tortured, stunted artists but this time it features the distaff side of the story. In a series of flashbacks, we learn of McDade’s wife, Pamela Crichton-Capers, a ‘mischievous lost artist’ as she tries to make her way in the world, working as journalist and a model for gents’ pullovers before plying to the galleries.

Byrne, we learn, hasn’t lost his capacity for punchy one-liners. ‘The dirty Nazi spun you a fanny and you fell for it!’ And, again, he bursts the bubble of pomposity. (‘McDade revealed he once painted George the Baptist on the inside of the kettle.’)

“I love to do that,” says the writer with a mischievous smile. “I really hate pretentiousness. And I love to explore the human condition. I really want to work out why we are all here on this Earth.” He chuckles. “I haven’t come to a conclusion yet.”

John Byrne’s voice may be softer, quieter these days, but his talent is still loud, his wordplay clever, featuring sentences longer than a murderer would receive. And he still loves the surreal. At one point in Tennis Elbow, a lead character begins to sing the 1970s pop song, Vincent, but with a new refrain, (‘Oh Pamela, whatever did he do to you?’)

Why did you choose that particular song, John? Is it an homage to the artist?

“Who wrote it again?” Byrne asks, his memory not quite recalling the songwriter. “Ah, yes, Don McLean. I had to write this as a sort of apology because I didn’t get what the song was about at first, even though he sings of ‘Vincent’. He spells it out!”

That’s sort of an answer, I guess. But what’s clear in chatting to Byrne is that lockdown hasn’t altered his life, in terms of his commitment to work. He still writes or paints in his converted garden studio every day because he feels compelled to do so.

“I do need to write,” he says, softly. “I write in a way that is English, but not in English.” He adds: “I hope others will enjoy it, but the truth is I write for myself.”

Byrne loves honing, re-shaping, chipping away, searching for exactly the right word. “The playwright legend Moss Hart said, ‘There is no writing, only re-writing.’ He was right. I love that process of making the words, the language better.”

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John Byrne is also a (one-fingered) writing purist. “I think using laptops and cutting and pasting is not really writing,” he maintains. “The creation of a good play needs a typewriter. You have to be able to feel the imprint on the paper.”

Fair enough, John. What’s a little hard to accept, however, is Byrne’s contention is that he writes for himself – not an audience. He says that when coming up with Writer’s Cramp he would chuckle away to himself, just as he did when he scribbled in jotters at the age of 12, ‘wee spoof anecdotes from the local papers.’

“It was all the entertainment I ever needed,” which suggests a man happy with the conversations in his own head. He adds: “And I don’t paint because people will like it, either. I paint because I enjoy it.”

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He suddenly trips back in time to talk of his first gallery showing. “It was a red-letter day for me. As a naïve painter, I sent something off to the Portal Gallery in Grafton Street [claiming it to be painted by his father, Patrick].” He adds, a slight non-sequitur, “My father, who was a busker, took up drawing and he drew like a three-year-old, and he sold papers at Paisley Cross when he retired.”

However, the Portal Gallery tale reinforces the argument he needs his work to be seen and heard. It ties in with a tale he once told about calling the famous London agent, Peggy Ramsay. “In 1977 I phoned her back to tell her about Writer’s Cramp. She said: ‘Send it to me. In two weeks I’m going on holiday. I expect you to have written another play by the time I get back.’ Then she put the phone down. I’d written The Slab Boys by the time she was back so I rang her up again and said, ‘Hello Ms Ramsay, I’ve written a play and, unlike Writer’s Cramp, it’s got a beginning, a middle and an end.’ She said, ‘How f****** bourgeois darling. Send it to me.’ And put the phone down.”

It’s a great memory. But during conversation, John Byrne’s fast, once-incisive mind takes a little longer to open that particular trunk. Some questions go unanswered. For example, one of the central themes in both Cramp and Elbow is legitimacy. He continually asks who we really are. Does his desire to delve into the subject stem from his own genealogy experience perhaps? (In 2002, Byrne discovered his biological father was his grandfather.)

Byrne doesn’t answer, but then Zoom sound isn’t always great and perhaps his hearing is heading the way of his eyesight. “I’m half blind,” he offers. “I can only see black and white in my right eye. I’m virtually blind, so I’ve had to change my style, so my painting is nothing like work I’ve done before.”

He adds, in soft voice: “I just cannae be idle. Only my eyes can stop me working.”

John Byrne may not ping pong answers back these days, but there’s a real warmth about the man which emerges particularly when revisiting the past. Tennis Elbow involved time travel back to the Paisley of his youth. The play references place names. Schools. The plunge pool in Storrie Street Baths.

We’re both on happy, common ground here because we attended the same school, St Mirin’s Academy, and discovered we actually had the same headmaster. “He had previously worked in the Kibble School, [a borstal],” Byrne says. “And he battered me and my brother, Jim. St Mirin’s was a tough school [in terms of discipline], of gowns and mortar boards, of leather belts that were so stiff they stood upright when held in hand.”

Was he belted often? “I got the belt for carrying on in class, for being too much of a comic,” he says, smiling. “But at least my artistic talent was recognised by the art mistress, Mrs Keane. I remember doing a watercolour, cowboys round a campfire and it was a quite mature for an 11-year-old. But then my mother said I had been drawing in my pram since I was a one-year-old.”

And his writing talent? Did his school pick up on that? “Yes, it did. I remember a composition I wrote about building a model boat and it was very detailed and I got high marks for it.”

What’s striking is that John Byrne, never, even for a second, looks back in anger. His school was a great encourager, he says. He talks warmly of former pupils who became friends, such Elton John’s former manager John Reid and music legend Gerry Rafferty. And he becomes animated, joyous, when he talks of Ferguslie Park, the Paisley housing scheme in which he grew up.

Yet, it wasn’t an area that bred success? “No, it was once described as ‘the worst slum in Europe’,” he says with a defiant grin before adding a full-blown laugh. “I was very proud of that.” So he didn’t see a glass ceiling above his head? “No!” he says, emphatically. “I had no idea there was something there preventing me doing what I wanted to do. I got all the adulation and colour I could have ever wanted from Ferguslie Park, and I am eternally thankful for all of that.”

All too often, people look to their past as an explanation for their failures, their disappointments to come. John Byrne may have grown up in a poor housing scheme but that never stopped him applying for Glasgow Art School, after a stint in a carpet factory mixing paints. “I was lucky,” he insists of his upbringing, despite his mother being an abused schizophrenic. “And although my mother left school aged 11, she would travel into Gilmour Street art shop and buy [paint] brushes for me. The shop was run by a man named Mr Brown – who wore a bunnet and a three-piece suit – and she would show him my drawings.

“After he saw them he went into the back shop and got sable brushes for me, and said ‘This is what the boy deserves’ and added . . . ” Byrne pauses to remember. “Sorry, my language has gone. But that experience was so encouraging for me. And what I’d say to young people today is the only thing that can hold you back is yourself.”

Life experience, Byrne would suggest, was not to be denied. It was to be re-captured, to be drawn, to be written about. The Slab Boys series was of course based upon his experience in Stoddard’s Carpet Factory, a play which transcended all expectations when staged in New York, starring Sean Penn, Val Kilmer and Kevin Bacon.

Later in conversation he remembers Kilmer turning up at a London theatre in which Byrne was set designing. You can hear in his voice how happy he was to see the American actor once again.

That’s not to say John Byrne’s relationship with actors has always been smooth. Not only would he write plays and TV comedy drama such as Tutti Frutti and You’re Cheatin’ Heart, he would paint the ad posters, design the set, insist on final casting rights, final edits. Nowadays, he would be described as a control freak, or to use the medical term, ‘an obsessive compulsive’.

“I always make sure the casting and the stage are right. I can be a pain in the arse to everybody, but I have to get it right.”

But did he go too far? The late Freddie Boardley once recalled that during rehearsals of The Slab Boys, his character had to take a slap on the arm and shout out ‘Ayah’. But Byrne, he said, gave him a roasting because he yelled ‘Oyah!’ instead. Does he recognise this as typical of the demands he placed on the talent?

“Freddie was wonderful,” he says, smiling. “Always early, always brilliant. He was a bit of a rascal with the actresses though.”

But you’re not quite answering the question, John. “If I get it right, I hope that this will translate to an audience.”

Byrne could write fast in those days. Now, he says, he struggles to read more than a couple of pages at a time of the biographies he loves (he’s currently on Cary Grant). So why, at the age of autumnal relaxation, would Byrne want to put himself through the often-tortuous demands of writing, and rewriting, a play?

Well, he needs to work, he says. But he had to go back to Paisley. And it transpires he’s made trip back to his hometown yet again, having come up with another new play, Underwood Lane, based on the early life of his pop star chum, Gerry Rafferty. It was due to be staged this summer at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow but Covid has kicked it on to next year.

You can tell he had fun with the writing. ‘The Winter sun hangs like a suppurating boil glued to a giant sheet of dirty asbestos above the blackened tenements that rear up from the cobbled street like a row of broken teeth…’

Byrne agrees it was a real labour of love. “I knew Gerry’s brother Jim when I worked at Stoddard's. Jim borrowed my three-string, ten shillings banjo which we’d hid behind a coat in the slab room. He said: ‘My young brother wants to learn songs from the hit parade.’ And that was how Gerry started.”

He misses his friend. “I was able to go and see him in Gloucester, just two days before he died and we laughed and had a great conversation. I’m so glad I had the chance.”

We talk of loss. Of time whooshing past. Of his chum Billy Connolly’s move to Florida Keys. He says he can’t believe it’s 44 years since his Writer’s Cramp stormed the Fringe Festival. But he’s strongly accepting of mortality. Is it faith? “Yes, I was at mass yesterday. It gives me a strength.” He smiles: “I’ve long been a firm believer in St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.”

I tell him I’ve never see John Byrne as a lost cause. He has always been a cause. He laughs. But it’s true. He was always forging ahead. Iconoclastic. His painting and writing are always looking for answers. And so what if he doesn’t offer answers to all the questions these days. He’s still writing. Still painting. Still game.

“I like to think so,” he says, chuckling.

Life and Times

Byrne married Alice Simpson in April 1964, with whom he had two children.

They divorced in 2014. He and the actress Tilda Swinton were in a relationship from around 1989 to 2003. They have two children, twins, born in 1997.

The couple split and Byrne married theatrical lighting specialist Jeanine Davies in 2014. They live in Edinburgh.