It is smack on ten thirty on National No-Smoking Day and I am staring at a tankful offancy fish and thinking about graveyards. This is how the Beeb entertains you while you wait. A miniature blue fish swims towards the surface. its mouth going like the clappers. like a sixty-a-day man suffering withdrawal symptoms. What a way to dry out. At the same time. in this very building in a canteen made for Basil Forte. hunched over a cup ofsweet lemon tea. sits John Byrne. rolling his own in a Rizla paper. lighting it and taking a deep drag. lle isalone. It is fair to say he does not have fish on his mind. (iraveyards perhaps. fish no. When we meet I immediately sense this so I bide my time. steering carefully clear of tropical fish. waiting for the right moment to introduce death into what so far is a lively conversation.
For the moment we are talking about the life and times of Mr John Byrne. playwright. painter. stage designer. slab boy and film director. Not necessarily in that order. Not necessarily in any order. This is an unstructured discourse. a subtle interrogation designed to get Mr Byrne to say what he intends doing with sixty minutes oftclevision. his celluloid autobiography. Yes. a mere sixty minutes to cover a career full. says Mr Byrne. of ’triumphs and disasters and sundry chicks.‘ Chicks? Well. that's what it sounds like on the Sanyo. above the clatter ofcups and hyena-like laughter. Maybe John Byrne has a smallholding. Who ‘k nows‘?
But I veer away from country matters. Instead I ask what he has concentrated on in the making of the film which is getting the full Arena treatment. bobbing bottle and all. ‘Directing it'. he says. Slowly.
Paisley-born playwright and painter John Byrne has just rocked the nation and been heaped with BAFTA awards for his TV series Tutti Fruiti. In the meantime he‘s been working on a Byrne‘s-eye view of his own life _ forArena. Alan Taylor addressed the Byrning issue.
imperceptibly. I reach under the table and into my jacket pocket for thumb-screws. It's time to get tough. time to talk DEATH. the Grim Reaper. time to put the 47 year-old Paisley buddy on the spot.
Are there any graveyard scenes? I ask. remembering fondly the funerals in Still Life. the pivotal play in The Slab Boys trilogy. and. in ‘Tutti Frutti‘. BigJazza‘s departure to the palais in the sky while the three surviving Majestics‘ sing a cappella Eddie (‘ochran’s classic ‘Three Steps to l leaven‘.
‘I'm afraid so.‘ says Byrne with more relish than regret. ‘1'” always have a graveyard scene. We have the statutory couple ofgraveyard scenes. And there’s certainly a whiff
ofdeath therein. a whiffofmortality.
It‘s all-embracing. It goes from birth
to death and back again to rebirth. And I try to be evasive and fail.’
But John Byrne is not dead. He is alive and sitting in front of me. laughing through his lack ofteeth. through a moustache sponsored by Brillo. laughing the length ofhis pipe-cleaner frame. I laugh too. This film—making sounds great fun. a wheeze for all the family. for a Scots-studded cast of familiar faces some of whom accompanied the Majestics on their disastrous Silver Jubilee Tour. ‘11 is.’ says Byrne modestly. ‘an epic’. though not quite of LlL‘ Millc proportions. ‘Anything with more than four people in it is an epic these days.’ he adds.
For this is not a documentary remember but dramatised autobiography. a ‘profeel'. confesses its subject. whose veracity is open to
question. After all. what is truth? But who will play Byrne? Robbie Coltrane? ‘No. There are several Byrnes. We have William Buchanan. aged eight. playing Little Byrne.‘ Does he have a moustache? ‘He's got a slight shadow under his nose.‘ And? ‘And Stuart Davids plays a Young Byrne. There‘s a singer playing a Middle Byrne. 1 play Myself— for what that‘s worth — and also an Old Byrne. So there are quite a lot ofornes in the show. [call it a show because that's what it really is. The idea is that it should be entertaining.‘
That being the case there will be no time for ‘philosophical discussion'. iii-depth boring analysis. which will attempt to explain why a six foot tall talent was born in Paisley when the war was just warming up. how he survived songs like ‘()ver There‘ and escaped from a school described by an Old Boy as ‘the Alcatraz of Renfrewshire‘; how he mixed paints in the slab room of a Paisley carpet manufacturer and at (ilasgow School ofArt. worked for the BBC. took the slings and chibs ofthe Dear Green Place. endured a sojourn in the Big Ashtray. and how he came to write plays and paint pictures and found fame and — if there‘s any justice in the weary world — fortune through his God-given gift to make us laugh and cry.
It sounds. I say. like a cross between TlllS is your Life. Desert Island Discs and ( 1' real Ifxpeeiaiimis. More like Bleak House says the Dickensof Ferguslie Park. But whatever it is. all this and much less is unlikely to be covered when the programme goes out on April Fool‘s Day. Sorry. (iood Friday.
A-wop boppa loo bop. a-wop bam BOOM!
Arena is on B!“ '2 on Fri 1 April.
10The List 18— 31 March 1988