John Byrne — artist, playwright, author — is dubiously checking off the current media classifications of his life and work. National treasure? “Yeah, yeah, that one. I can’t stand that one,” he says with a humourless chuckle. Eccentric old Scotsman? “Yeah, that one too.”
Byrne leans forward, his head nodding in exasperation as a third category is laid out for him. “Ménage à trois?” He wheezes, eyes closing in apparent pain. “I’ve got to the stage where I don’t give a toss about that. I just do my work, that’s what interests me. I don’t want anything else to identify me.”
Some chance. With his great white beard and pale skin, Byrne is just about the most identifiable man in Scotland. He’s sitting in a basement café in Edinburgh, every inch the dandy, from the pink scarf wrapped round his neck to the bare feet thrust into his ankle boots. As if to ensure that he is the centre of attention, he is in the Traverse Theatre, scene of his 1978 stage triumph, the Slab Boys, a place where he’s pointed at by punters and greeted by old chums.
Their admiration is understandable. Byrne won six Baftas for his bittersweet TV series, Tutti Frutti and was the prizewinning graduate of Glasgow School of Art who went on to portray the Beatles. Yet for all his manifest brilliance, at 69, there are some who refuse to recognise him for anything other than one half — or one third — of a celebrity partnership.
For 15 years he was the companion of Tilda Swinton, that rare thing, a British actor with Hollywood cachet. Byrne was habitually portrayed as the older man, 21 years her senior, a father figure and rock for Swinton’s jet-setting career. Then, in March last year, Swinton revealed that she was in love with Sandro Kopp, an artist 17 years her junior. Since it seemed the domestic arrangements comprised Byrne, Swinton and Kopp in the same (albeit massive) house at Nairn in the Scottish Highlands, a prurient press descended.
Ever afterwards, to a great or lesser degree, Byrne has been pursued by reporters. And he’s sick of it. Even today, he took a call from a tabloid journalist prying into his domestic arrangements.
“The thing is,” he says, “I have been miscast as living under the same roof as Tilda and Sandro. I’ve been painted as a benign eccentric who’s living there while some guy’s shagging his sweetheart. Why would I do that? Let me put the record straight. No way is it a ménage à trois. Neither of us would have had any truck with anything remotely like that. People would like to think that wouldn’t they? Bizarre.”
For three years he has been in a relationship of his own and here, he says, are the brief facts of the matter. The “wonderful woman” he has met is Jeanine Davies, a stage lighting designer. Last December, he moved in with her, in a house across the street from Swinton and Kopp. And no he doesn’t spend all his time looking after his two young children — Swinton and Byrne have employed a childminder to do that.
So why is this all coming out today? A Sunday newspaper has been rung by someone in Nairn, says Byrne bitterly. “Who’s got the time to do that?” he wonders. “A good Christian person probably. I thought it had died a death, that story.”
Byrne hates talking about this relationship stuff, his discomfort only amplified by the preceding hour, when he was lost in reverie about Tutti Frutti. After inexplicable wranglings over copyright and distribution, the series is to be aired again on BBC Four and a DVD went on sale a month ago. It flashed straight to the top of the chart at online retailer Amazon, where it remains in the top five bestsellers despite briefly selling out.
The plot centres around the Majestics, a band of aged rock’n’rollers, and two young pretenders, who set off together on a “Silver Jubilee Tour” of dead-end, provincial Scotland. Along the way, the journey made stars of Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson and transformed Byrne into one of the most sought-after writing talents in television.
Tutti Frutti oozes its author’s humanity and the making of the thing says everything about his creative intensity. Handed a title and the idea for the band by Bill Bryden, head of drama at BBC Scotland, Byrne took himself off to his home in Fife, and locked himself in a coalshed. There, for eight weeks, he laboured night and day to create six hour-long episodes.
He started with the names of an unforgettable cast: Danny McGlone (played by Coltrane) and his will-they-won’t-they sidekick Suzi Kettles, (Thompson); Bomba MacAteer, Fud O’Donnell and the magnificently dark Vincent Diver, with his scatty girlfriend, Glenna; Eddie Clockerty, the Majestics dubious manager, and his shrill sidekick, Miss Toner. Once he had the characters, Byrne let them loose in the gloom around him. They were really in that coalshed with him? “Yeah — running round, and they’re saying, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. You’ve sent us up a blind alley, let’s take a few paces back.’ Then I’d send them off to do something else and if it turned out right, it didn’t matter if they were comfortable or uncomfortable in it, it was where they knew they had to be.”
As he started each episode, Byrne never knew how it would end. So, at the climax of the penultimate instalment, when Glenna commits suicide by jumping off a bridge, he was as surprised as any viewer. He doesn’t inquire into his characters’ motivations. “It’s part of the mystery. Totally.”
If only others would apply the same polite rules to his own life, and not inquire within. For while his fictional work is “99 per cent imagination” and rarely based on life, if so minded, he could produce a painful memoir of his childhood in Paisley where his mother’s life was blighted by mental illness. The details are ghastly and only fully explained in 2002, when Byrne learnt from a cousin that his mother had been sexually abused by his grandfather, from her mid teens until 31. Later, she was found to be suffering from schizophrenia and repeatedly confined in a local hospital.
This discovery did not pitch Byrne into depression. Quite the contrary. “I was just overwhelmed,” he says. “It was the opposite of being upset. It was a total release. I saw it as a justification for my mother’s life.
“This woman was made mad by her father. I thought at the time, ‘I’m glad he died of cancer’. But that’s such a mundane reaction to something. He was such a charming man. I don’t forgive him — he’s dead, for God’s sake. He totally stole my mother’s life away, so it’s difficult to say I still love him. But I remember I loved him. It’s incredibly complex.”
The real bitterness is reserved for the gossipmongers who tortured his family. A friend’s mum was a cleaner at the hospital, he recalls. “She met my mother there and said, ‘I won’t mention I’ve seen you, Mrs Byrne’. Then she told everybody. At a later date, when she was manic, my mother ran up the road and saw the cleaner at her kitchen window. She put her fist through the glass and punched her right in the face.”
Another horrible memory is conjured up by his courtship of Alice Simpson, his former wife. “Her mother worked for the doctor, who said, ‘Don’t let your daughter marry this guy, because his mother is mad. A f***ing doctor! I don’t care what people think, they can think what they like. The truth has come out now. This was a vindication of my mother’s life.”
Byrne’s voice is low, his sentences trail off and there are things he is reluctant to bring to mind. But it is plain that by 1989, when Swinton was cast as the lead in Your Cheatin’ Heart, a second big commission for the BBC, his marriage was over. He fell in love with his star and soon afterwards left Scotland for London. When Honor and Xavier, their twins, were born in 1997, the couple moved north again. But by 2005, as Swinton has made clear, they were no longer together. “What are you gonna do — punish someone for falling in love with someone else?” he says. That’s not the way to go about anything. I’m saying this after four years. It’s something you come to terms with. You wouldn’t say it was wonderful, you wouldn’t be human ... but ... it’s wonderful in the sense that we are such good friends — all of us — you only want happiness for the person you love and your children.”
Love finds artistic expression. Next year, Donald and Benoit is published, a children’s storybook that Byrne is writing and illustrating, based on stories he told his twins.
“Donald is a cat, Benoit is the boy who looks after him. They live in Fishertown [part of Nairn] and they have adventures. An Egyptologist comes to town to give a lecture. In that episode Donald gets mummified. Xavier would be asleep by the end of the story, but Honor would be wide awake. I had to satisfy her yearning for a really earned ending.”
It’s a beautiful image of a happier man. As for all that other stuff: “They’ll go on and on,” he says. “And on and on and on. I can’t understand why anyone is interested.”
Tutti Frutti is out now on DVD
Photograph by the excellent Tom Main.