There are works of art that you carry with you, that make you look at life in a different way and hold a significance beyond simply enjoyment or appreciation. I suppose you fall in love with them. For me one of these is John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti. It was only six episodes long but it changed Scottish TV, although not as much as it should. It is rare, especially in terms of modern television, that one-man’s vision arrives on screen so fully formed. Alan Clarke, Denis Potter, Stephen Poliakoff and, with his recent This Is England ’86, Shane Meadows, are the exceptions that come to mind. In Scottish television I can think of only two that stand comparison. One is Peter McDougall, and I’ll look at his work soon. The other is John Byrne.

Byrne not only wrote the script, he provided the artwork for the titles and the accompanying BBC book, and his vision is in every detail. He also had the power to insist that Robbie Coltrane was the only choice to play leading man Danny McGlone (as well as his deceased older brother ‘Big Jazza’).

The casting of Coltrane is worth consideration. It would seem unlikely that a man of his physical stature would ever be considered as a romantic lead. Those who have seen Tutti Frutti and are aware of the chemistry between Coltrane and his leading lady Emma Thompson (above) will realise how short sighted such a view would be. Coltrane’s performance is perfect leading man material, but, with the exception perhaps of Cracker, his subsequent career shows how unusual this role was.

Byrne was not afraid to take risks with his characters. Tutti Frutti contains wonderfully realised, if flawed, human beings. This particularly applies to the men. The rogues’ gallery that includes Richard Wilson’s deluded, suave, conman ‘Eddie Clockerty’, Stuart McGugan’s short fused and misogynistic drummer ‘Bomba Macateer’ and Maurice Roeves’ aging, pathetic, lothario ‘Vincent Diver’ are characters without being caricatures. Byrne manages to extract comedy and pathos, often simultaneously, in these performances. Do not mistake this for romantic comedy, it is drama in its truest sense, and Byrne’s dark side is always present to stop the audience from settling.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the female characters who are equally well drawn. Emma Thompson has never been better and her ‘Suzie Kettles’ is the perfect counterpoint to Coltrane’s ‘Danny’, both of them making what is an unlikely love story completely believable. Kate Murphy as the gallus, cultured and smart mouthed ‘Janice Toner’ is perhaps the standout performance against stiff and lauded opposition. The real drama is to be found in two characters who are secondary in terms of billing. Vincent’s two women; the tragic girlfriend ‘Glenna’ and his long suffering wife ‘Noreen’, may not get the screen time of other characters but their story is where the heart of the drama is found. As with other Byrne scripts the comedy and knockabout banter may get your attention, but it’s the tragedy and pathos that stay after the credits roll. Here are the opening few scenes:

Tutti Frutti 1987 Episode 1 part 1

Byrne’s real genius is to be found in the scripts. His ear for the unusual in everyday language makes the drama sparkle as he manages to have his characters speak in a way that is recognisable to his audience, but much more interesting and lyrical than they could ever be. The influence of the fast-talking, wise-cracking, American cinema of his youth is obvious and fits the West of Scotland obsession with all things USA, particularly in the mid-late 1980s where you couldn’t move for rockabilly bands busking on Buchanan Street, and ‘Diners’ opening on every corner. The accents may have been Glaswegian, but the haircuts and patter told of dreams of Eddie Cochran or Jimmy Dean. Byrne wasn’t mocking such obsession, he was part of it. Tutti Frutti is a love letter to the music, films, people and places of his youth and it is the complete understanding of the world he creates that persuades the audience that they want to be part of it.

Tutti Frutti managed to both influence and overshadow the Scottish TV drama that followed. Byrne’s own Your Cheatin’ Heart and Donna Franceschild’s Takin’ Over the Asylum were personal favourites but no Scottish drama held the same magic as this tale of an ageing rock and roll band. To those who have never seen this I recommend with all my heart. Those who have will understand.

Alistair

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Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae and more on Tutti Frutti here.

Alistair’s latest thoughts on Scottish books appear on the first Monday of every month.

Comments

  1. I remember this being really good when I was about 15 years old. From the clip, It looks like it might not have aged well but your review makes it sound like a classic. It hasn’t dated?

  2. I watched an internet VHS cap recently and enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Although the production values (and the quality of the VHS recording I was watching) make it look very dated, the dialogue, the plot and the acting definitely stand up. Emma Thomson even does a passable weej accent. Recommended…

    It also makes Billy Williamson’s part of the country look particularly grim … to think that I went on holiday to Buckie as a wean!

  3. The production, and the haircuts, do date it, but the script and performances still hold up. The dialogue is superb, especially between the band. Byrne manages to capture the patter of guys who have know each other since they were young, and remain tied together even though they don’t really like each other any more. If they ever really did in the first place. When I got my hands on a copy of the DVD (You can now get it on shiny DVD. Like you Kenny I previously had to make do with a very dodgy VHS copy) I stayed up to watch the whole thing in one go.

    Of course there is a tug of nostalgia there, but I think that when the settings and references are known to us we sometimes write off films and TV because they feel old. If this was an early Woody Allen film (and I think that it’s as good as that) not many folk would say that it feels dated.

    If you can look past the washed out colours and Glasgow in the mid 80s then there is so much to enjoy. The Majestic’s inability to understand why Postman Pat is ‘talking funny’, Janice Toner’s fantastic way with abuse, Robbie Coltrane in a bacofoil suit, and Radio Buckie’s hapless DJ ‘Lachie’ who shares his studios with frozen fish. I think Byrne may have gone to Buckie on his holidays as well as he really seems to have it in for the town.