JOHN BYRNE is famed for the brilliance of his savagely humorous writing in the autobiographical Slab Boys plays and for the popular TV series Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin’ Heart. Now, seventeen years after turning his back on the art world, he has returned to printmaking and has an exhibition currently showing in Edinburgh. He speaks to Sarah Knox about some of the landmarks in his career.

0n why he gave up the art world: ‘i’d always wanted to be in a show, but once I was into the gallery world I discovered what a nasty, sleazy world it is; art critics got backhanders to write about certain artists.’

On his credentials as an artist: ‘I have the best in the world. Growing up in Ferguslie Park (Paisley) was miserable, it was singled out as “the worst slum in Europe” but I remember being exhilarated there.’

On his tlrst job as a Slab Boy: ‘When you’re seventeen, you’re in that confused state. I was rebelling and left school, then I couldn’t get a job. I was looking for something in art, then the commercial artist for La Scala (the picture house in Paisley) suggested I go and see Walter Bertram at Stoddard’s carpet factory. He took me on and put me in the slab room where there were 65 designers at wee Dickensian desks. It took years a psychological breaking down of youngsters so that by the time they left that slab room they were so meek, that was them at a desk for the rest of their days.’

On Glasgow School oi Art 1958-61: ‘1 was feckless, I didn’t even know where it was, but a woman who had done evening classes there told me how to submit a portfolio, so I did. To start with I hated it with a vengeance but my tutor Willy Bone was an inspiration.’ On a scholarship to Italy: ‘Aye, part joy, part agony. There was a huge change in my painting just seeing the Giottos, Duccios and Cimabues. I lived in a pensione, spoke Italian and befriended veterinary students. I wrote a play called Candy Kisses set in Perugia, about visiting American Fulbright students. In it John Sessions played a spoilt, 3 draft-dodging student who was utterly devastated when news broke of Kennedy’s death.’

On his launching his career underthe pseudonym Patrick: ‘I’d traipsed round London galleries and got nowhere. The penny then dropped. An article in The Observer focused on the Portal Gallery which specialised in primitive art. I’d always loved the paintings of Douanier Rousseau, and the article inspired a wee painting ‘Man with Flowers’. With this I approached the

Portal Gallery claiming that I was acting on behalf of my father “Patrick” , a 72-year-old self-taught painter. They offered “Patrick” a show but imagine, they asked, “Can we contact your father?” “You can’t, he’s at his beach hut in Dunoon.” I would’ve kept it up until today, but I confessed before that first show opened.’

0n beginning to write: ‘I yearned to write and knew I wanted to write a play. I didn’t let anyone know I was doing my “Patrick” again: “I’ve got this pal that writes plays

. . For years I had said to chums, “Why don’t we do something at the Fringe?” Then I started writing these letters from a

‘y a #7:. c _

Angel’ Etching 1992 by John Byrne


fictitious character, it was my wife Alice who suggested adding tableau vivant and it became a play called Writer’s Cramp. The 1977 Fringe success of Writer’s Cramp accelerated the Traverse’s programming of The Slab Boys in the following year. David Hayman directed and reluctantly we took on two actors who were already with the company Robbie Coltrane and Carey Wilson both turned out to be wonderful! 0n the attraction at lilm and TV: ‘I’ve no interest in directing theatre because . . . you’re not working with that selection . . . what an audience sees on the screen. I like the total control like doing a painting.’

[in Tutti Frutti: ‘Bill Bryden was appointed Head of Drama at the BBC, and he made a suggestion. “Do you remember a band called The Poets?” I said, “I do”. “Well,” he said, “imagine they were still going.” I said, “Enough. Don’t tell me any more”. I’d just worked with Robbie Coltrane on a panto in which he played Travolta the cat. He was on the cusp and I tailor-made the part for him. didn’t direct that series because I was at home working on these illustrations for the accompanying BBC bookX


John Byme 1982 by Antonia Reeve hunt the exhibition Portrait olan Artist at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. 0n lollowlng Tutti Frutti with Your Cheatin’ Heart: ‘I couldn’t win . . . it was torture to write and shoot . . . harder and darker.’ 0n luture plans: ‘I’ve just finished a BBC2 film script which was John Sessions’s idea: Boswell and Johnston ’3 Tour of the Hebrides. I will direct it, with Session playing Boswell, and Coltrane, Dr Johnson. We’re hoping to start the shoot this September.’ 0n the angels in his new prints: ‘That’s a good and bad angel embodied in one. I’ve always had a liking for angels. I’m a firm believer in angels. I was brought up with this guardian angel I’ve never doubted there were angels, it’s in your genes.’ On his caricature sell-portraits: ‘I’m the handiest person to do. I like drawing myself. I have no inhibitions about it a big nose helps. In ‘Young and Old’ and ‘Then and Now’ I encounter my younger self. I look back at the gap, reassess life and run it through my head.’ Oh how he sees himself: ‘1 don’t mind the blanket title ofArtist, that’ll do me fine!’

John Byrne: New Works is at the Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh unril3 June.

The List 22 May—4 June 199213