John Byrne’s 80th Birthday Bash, Paisley Book Festival 2020 review by Pat Byrne

john byrne gary mcnair

John Byrne’s 80th birthday at Paisley Arts Centre attracted a full house. Part of Paisley Book Festival 2020, the event was advertised as celebrating ‘the life and work of one of Scotland’s most beloved playwrights and artists’. The palpable respect and affection emanating from the audience reinforced the accolade.

I expect most people were very familiar with John’s work as a playwright.  The Slab Boys has had many reincarnations since its premier at The Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, in 1978.  It has been filmed both for screen and television and played in Broadway in 1983 with a sensational cast, including, Kevin Bacon, Sean Penn and Val Kilmer.  I would love to have seen that, but having said that – PACE Youth Theatre’s young actors gave a fantastic performance of an excerpt of the play at the event.

The Slab Boys draws on John Byrne’s own experience working at Stoddard’s carpet factory, Nr Paisley, initially as a slab boy and then as a designer, after he graduated from Glasgow School of Art.  Definitely a work that stands the test of time and no surprise it gained a place in the list of one of the 12 key plays of the last 40 years (1970 – 2010), National Library of Scotland.  

John Byrne is rather frail and his voice quite weak, reflecting his age, but his enthusiasm for his work could not be stronger. Audience members hung onto every word as he responded to host Gary McNair’s questions.  John Byrne’s confidence in his talent, and where he came from, seems always to have been with him – brought up in Ferguslie Park, known as a rougher part of Paisley,  ‘he learned all he needed to know’.

When he talked about the very successful television musical ‘Tutti Frutti’ he explained how he stuck to his guns regarding casting, and nobody was going to play the part of Danny McGlone other than Robbie Coltrane.  I absolutely loved Tutti Fruitti (1987) and ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ (1990) has one of my all time favourite scenes, when the bikers line dance to ‘Let Your Love Flow’ (Eddi Reeder)  One of my go-to-cheer-me-up vidoes. Genius.

underwood lane john byrne

(Art by John Byrne)

It was great to get a flavour of the playwright’s latest production ‘Underwood Lane’, a musical play set in the early sixties. The play was written in memory of the Paisley Musician Gerry Rafferty, brought up in Underwood Lane.  John spoke very fondly of the Rafferty family, including Jim Rafferty whom he worked with and, of course, the talented younger brother ‘Gerald’.

Three of the young musicians from the show (Scott Fletcher, Julia Murray and Reuben Joseph) performed songs from the show – ‘Three Steps to Heaven’ and ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ – examples of the amazing songs from this era. The performance at Paisley Arts Centre is already sold out but you can still get tickets for ‘Underwood Lane’ at The Tron Theatre, Glasgow, in July. I booked up as soon as we got home.

underwood lane musicians

John explained that initially he had considered using songs from Gerry Rafferty’s own superb catalogue but this proved tricky regarding copyright issues. On reflection, he felt that the wider selection of songs from the time conjured up the atmosphere and worked well.

Gerry Rafferty and John, were close friends wrote some songs together. Gerry Rafferty’s song ‘Patrick’ was a tribute to John Patrick Byrne. “Patrick my primitive painter of art/You will always and ever be near to my heart”.

Another strong bond seems to have been forged between John and the director of ‘Underwood Lane’, Andy Arnold. Andy introduced John’s birthday party and he also brought the event to a close –  the camaraderie between the two was very evident.  I can’t wait to see the show and fully expect it to be another Byrne classic.

Gary McNair asked John about studying at Glasgow School of Art. He saw it as a special place and spoke with sadness about the loss of the wonderful Charles Rennie Mackintosh building after two shocking fires. He felt that the building’s soul had been lost and that no refurbishment could bring the magic of the structure back.

As an artist John Byrne has been equally as successful,  having held many exhibitions and created iconic images.  He entertained the audience with a story of how when as a young artist he failed to make an impact in London so created a series of paintings, which he signed with his father Patrick’s name. He was highly amused when they attracted attention.

He has created many distinctive album covers for bands including Gerry Rafferty, Bllly Connolly, The Humblebums, The Beatles, Stealer’s Wheel and Donovan. )

His self-portrait in flowered jacket is on display in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The cover of Booker Prizewinner James Kelman‘s ‘Selected Stories’ was also painted by John Byrne.  His artistic achievements are endless and include theatre design. 

john byrne event

He continues to work every day – living for his art and his writing; a man very comfortable with his abilities but exceptionally humble.

Gary McNair asked him if he wished he had another talent over and above painting and writing, such as ‘playing the harmonica’ – to which John replied, ‘I can play the harmonica’. 

He laughed along with the audience, who really were not at all surprised.

Happy Birthday, John, and good luck in all you do.

Pat Byrne, February, 2020

(Photography by Jim Byrne)

The John Byrne Award

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Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

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