Tributes are being paid today to John Byrne, one of Scotland's finest creative talents, who has died at the age of 83.

"John's writing and art brought amazing new voices and perspectives to Scotland's rich cultural landscape", the Edinburgh Bookshop said on Twitter/X. "It's impossible to overstate how important he was as an artist", added Joan McAlpine, the former MSP.

John Byrne, acclaimed playwright and artist, dies aged 83

Back in the summer of 2013 the Herald interviewed John and singer/actor Eddi Reader on the eve of a screening of Byrne's rarely-seen BBC series, Your Cheatin' Heart. "It's so convoluted, I can't even give you an idea, apart from the fact that it's country music'", Byrne said he had told a journalist who asked him what Your Cheatin' Heart was about...



John Byrne and Eddi Reader go back to the old country with Your Cheatin' Heart

8th June 2013

The scene: a rather nice property in Glasgow.

The cast: writer John Byrne and singer Eddi Reader who, sitting next to each other at a table, are recalling Byrne's TV series Your Cheatin' Heart, a Glasgow-based, country-and-western noir which has never been publicly seen since its solitary outing on the BBC in 1990.

The plot: Cissie Crouch (Tilda Swinton) asks local journalist Frank McClusky (John Gordon Sinclair) to help her clear the name of her husband, country musician Dorwood (Kevin McMonagle), who is doing time in Barlinnie for armed robbery. Cissie is convinced he was framed by former band member Fraser Boyle (Ken Stott). Also featured are taxi-driving Billie McPhail (Katy Murphy) and her musical cohort, Jolene Jowett (Reader).

The reason we're here: starting on Friday, and continuing over the weekend, Your Cheatin' Heart will be shown in its entirety at the inaugural Dunoon Film Festival.

Eddie Reader: "It was a rather special time in my life, actually, and I wished I'd had the wherewithal at the time to appreciate it, but I was just coming out of a band [Fairground Attraction], and didn't know where the hell I was. I was doing this acting thing, which I had no experience of. I asked John why he'd picked me for Jolene Jowett; he said he'd heard me on Woman's Hour, chatting away, and he decided he'd write this character! The fact Jolene was a self-centred wee bitch from hell - I thought, 'S***, what am I coming across like?'"

The Herald: John Byrne and Eddi Reader, pictured for The Herald in June 2013John Byrne and Eddi Reader, pictured for The Herald in June 2013 (Image: Nick Ponty)John Byrne: "I knew unconsciously that you'd do the part, you'd be brilliant. And you were utterly wonderful. You were word-perfect as well, and never had to do a retake."

Reader: "Some bits were strange. There was one scene where I had to kick Katy Murphy in the back of the leg. I was doing a wee tap and trying to act it, and she was going, 'No, really kick me!' and I thought, 'You actors are weird, wanting to be harmed.' The music was really good, that was what attracted me. I was into that Patsy Cline stuff at the time. [The series] had beautiful choices; things I'd never heard of, like Roy Acuff."

Byrne: "That was stuff I remembered from growing up. I didn't look anything up; I just remembered all the songs I'd heard. They were called cowboy songs in those days, and they became country and western, then country, then new country. I grew up with Guy Mitchell [American singer who died in 1999]."

The Herald: "Mitchell had a cameo in the series, didn't he?"

Reader: "What a thrill."

Byrne: "It was a wonderful thrill."

Reader: "I met Michael Marra [co-musical director with Rab Noakes] for the first time, and fell in love with him. He was like a wee Columbo character; he put me at ease immediately, because I was with all these big shots. I couldn't believe how great and humble he was. Rab was brilliant as well. It was a fantastic musical experience as well as my first acting job. I loved the fact they got their breakfast and their make-up done for them."

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The Herald: "Tilda Swinton once said Your Cheatin' Heart was like Dickens on television. I watched it again, and it really is a very detailed -"

Reader: "It really is fantastic, so multi-layered."

Byrne: "I watched Andrew Davies's adaptation of Bleak House recently on the iPlayer – I don't have a TV – and it was like a bloody thriller. It was wonderful. If [Your Cheatin' Heart] reminded me of anything -

"A guy from a magazine rang me this morning to ask me about Your Cheatin' Heart – he hadn't seen it – and I said, 'It's so convoluted, I can't even give you an idea, apart from the fact that it's country music.' We exported all those Scottish and Irish songs, those bothy ballads, and that's why we recognise it so clearly when it comes back to us. The Americans wedded it to black rhythm 'n' blues, and gave us rock 'n' roll, and sent it back to us. Did you know that Elvis's grandfather came from Paisley?

Reader: "I thought it was Montrose, but it probably is Paisley."

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The Herald: "Was it an arduous shoot?"

Byrne: "I remember it was freezing, particularly up in Aberdeen [where the final episode was shot]. There were 36 night shoots in all. It was physically dark, as well as dark in tone."

Reader: "Ken Stott freaks me out, just being in his company. His charisma is so enormous. He was that guy – so malevolent. Even just being in the room, I was feart to open my mouth. I was supposed to be this gallus character, which I am in a lot of ways, but he affected me.

The Herald: Artist, writer and designer John Byrne at his Edinburgh studio in April 2021Artist, writer and designer John Byrne at his Edinburgh studio in April 2021 (Image: Gordon Terris)"I wasn't involved in all the scenes, so I didn't know what the whole deal was until I saw the whole six episodes. I had to wait."

Byrne: "[The BBC] paid for a repeat. I got double the money up front, and they never repeated it."

Reader: "It needs a DVD, I think."

Byrne: "I've no idea why it was never repeated. They never tell you anything. If you ask them, they just clam up."

Reader: "I was up at my mother's house and [the producers] phoned me to talk about Your Cheatin' Heart - when my mum overheard that Guy Mitchell was going to be on it, she wet her knickers. I wasn't sure about doing it, because I wasn't an actor, but when she heard about Guy Mitchell, she went crazy. She phoned my aunties, her friends - The day came when she and a friend came to the set. I saw my my mum visibly turn into a 17-year-old in front of Guy. He was twinkly-eyed -"

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Byrne (laughing): "There was a time when he was the biggest star - You'd walk through Ferguslie Park in 1954-56, all the windows were open, [Mitchell's hit] My Truly, Truly Fair would be banging out."

Reader: "There were great musicians on Your Cheatin' Heart – Michael Marra; Geraint Watkins, a great jazz Cajun player, on accordion; BJ Cole on lap steel; Jerry Donahue on guitar; Dave Mattacks on drums -"

Byrne (shaking his head): "It was a fantastic band."

The Herald: John Byrne, pictured at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2011John Byrne, pictured at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2011 (Image: Stewart Attwood)Reader (laughing): "Do you remember when all the trade union guys [on the set] threatened to down tools because I was trying to help you? You were trying to paint some marble effect in a kitchen, because it wasn't quite right for you. I'd done art O-Level so I started doing it. Suddenly – 'Right! Everyone down tools and stop! How would she like it if we sang a song?' These guys made me laugh so much!

"I was in London for years but it was anathema to music. There were no sessions going on, there was no community within musicians. I was so cut off from my own cultural background that doing Your Cheatin' Heart, even through a country-music filter, [was great]. It was very connected to Glaswegian [culture]."

The Herald: "Did the dialect cause problems for English viewers?"

Reader (swiftly): "Well, I was very clear-spoken -"

Byrne: "Probably, but I didn't care, because it was authentic - [Your Cheatin' Heart] was authentic, it was authentic words that I used. People talk about old Scots, and I don't know what that is, because I always spoke slang, as everybody else round about did. You weren't concerned about language, apart from the power of it."

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Reader: "Communication is what our gig is; we're either communicating through a painting, a play or music - Everybody gets language that is open to listening to it. If you're saying 'Glesga' they're going to know within the first three minutes that you're talking about Glasgow. Educating the world is a good thing – teaching them about your culture is very important. To watch something like Your Cheatin' Heart or [Byrne's previous TV hit] Tutti Frutti, people will think, 'That's Scots doing rock'n'roll or country and western.' It's a really clear picture of who we are, of our culture."

Byre (nodding): "I wasn't upset if somebody didn't understand it, because it was great fun. Language is meant to be interesting and fun, and very powerful at times. If you're not speaking your own language in your work, what's the point?"