Tutti Frutti - feature

  • The List
  • 12 September 2006

Cult fiction

Sometimes, absence really does make the heart grow fonder. 19 years after it was shown on television, Tutti Frutti has come to occupy a very special place in Scotland’s collective memory. The exuberant, hilariously dark drama, written by the inimitable John Byrne and starring Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson and Richard Wilson, is now acknowledged to be one of the cultural highlights of our recent history. The six episode show has never been repeated on television, but is now being revived as a stage play in the National Theatre of Scotland’s most ambitious production yet. As Scotland prepares to go back to the Frutti, Steve Cramer looks at the myths and legends surrounding the original series, and talks to the cast and crew about updating a television classic for the stage.

Think about this sentence. As you reflect on it, it’s already history, something you read that you can’t un-read, a decision you took, which I hope you don’ t regret. At least though, you can go back and reflect on why you read it - a more controllable agency than what you read next. History works that way, and, in an a-historical society, where it’s in the interests of the powers that be to disconnect you from history, replacing what can be known with a series of bespoke throwaway clichés about hippies, flappers and how Lady Di was really just like Anne Boleyn. All this pop cultural detritus is really about disconnecting you from the real events, obfuscating the past so that you don’t understand the present. In that state, you’re insecure and easy to control.

The past, in other words is important. And never more so than in the work of John Byrne. For thirty years now, Byrne’s presence in Scottish theatre has been immense. He stands beside the late John McGrath as the writer who effectively launched Scottish theatre writing as we know it today. Byrne marks a transition in Scottish theatre, a writer whose characters confronted issues of Scottish identity in the post war period more completely than any writer before him. Along with McGrath (though in a completely different style) Byrne spoke of working class experience through characters that weren’t the usual clichés of the theatre. The tradition, still widely upheld today, of only representing working class characters as either a threat ?" a drug addict, violent criminal or prostitute ?" or a figure of pity who casts middle class audiences in the role of social worker means nothing to Byrne. His characters are lively, often flawed, fully fleshed individuals with subjectivities and thoughts of their own. Byrne asks us to examine the inner psychologies of his working people, rather than assuming, as so much writing on such characters does, that they don’t have one, and asking us to project our neuroses onto them.

And all this comes with a wit, humour and sense of pathos that makes Byrne’s style identifiable within a sentence. It also comes with an acknowledgement of history that renders his characters indivisible from their pasts, personal and political. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer spoke of a state of human existence where the past was what we looked back to because we were able to make sense of it, and perhaps subjectively idealise it, whereas the present is often depressing and the future even more so for its uncertainty. Byrne might in fact be said to share this view, though the past is far from a simple experience of nostalgia, or the kind of manufactured version of the past propagated by the mass media. It is, in fact, a place we go to resolve where we are today, an unidealised territory, containing both joy and anxiety, a more certain signifier of identity, good or bad, than our present life.

For this reason, much of Byrne’s work concerns looking back. In his best-known play, The Slab Boys (1978) the Paisley fabric factory workers of the title are young men on the cusp of the rock’n’roll revolution, but each - even at the beginning of an adult life - are already examining the past causalities that put them there, from troubled parents to dodgy holidays on the Clyde. The second part of this trilogy, Cutting a Rug (1979) is, for the most part, concerned with what happened earlier the same day, in The Slab Boys as a springboard for violent and often very funny action. Still Life (1982), for this critic, perhaps Byrne’s finest play, moves the characters a couple of decades on and centres, as so much of Byrne’s work does, on a death as the starting point for an examination of past decisions, actions and passions, the only means we have of coming to terms with ourselves today.

And so much of Byrne’s work, from Normal Service (1979) a farce centred around a Scottish television station’s attempts to cover the general election of 1964, to Colquhoun and McBride (1992), the story of two Glasgow artists who hit the big time in pre-war London, but then declined into alcoholism in the post war world, and on to his 60s-set adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, Uncle Varick (2004) is concerned with turning points in history on a bigger, political scale. Not that Byrne is at all concerned with the chronicling of history itself, but rather the effect of mighty upheavals on individual people. In Writer’s Cramp (1977), we meet Francis Seneca McDade, one of Byrne’s most memorable characters, this time of posher stock than most of Byrne’s characters, an affected Anglo-Scot whose personal history once again traces the history of our times. This time, the pure mediocrity of this Scottish writer and artist is explored as part of a farcical exploration of pre and post war history, a similar era to that of Colquhoun and McBryde. Again the piece starts with a death and looks back.

No surprise, then, that Byrne’s cult television series, a funny but very dark piece should also start with a funeral, this time of the Big Jazzer, a semi-legendary lead singer for rock band, The Majestics. Byrne’s characters are once again concerned with death and retracing a shared history which goes back to the early days of the band.

I asked Byrne about death and our need to reconstruct the present through the past in his plays, suggesting that death was very much part of his work. ‘I hadn’t noticed it myself, but now that you mention it, that’s very true. Death is so much a part of life and it’s always with us’, he says. ‘There are deaths in almost all my plays,’ he adds, down the line from the NTS’ Aberdeen rehearsal studios ‘And since this one has a death at the very start, that dictates a lot of the narrative line. Interesting, I’ve never analysed it really. None of these things are intentional on my part, it’s just you feel its rightness. I have no idea where these things come from. I find I need about 20 years before I know what they’re about.’

He points, though, to the narrative structure as an instigator of this death imagery, but in the case of Tutti Frutti there was also a pragmatic issue concerning the casting of the piece that dictated the change: ‘When I sat down to write the television series, I only had eight weeks to write six episodes. I was given a particular star to write it around, but I said I didn’t want to do that, I couldn’t, and they said, “Who do you want to nominate, then?” I said Robbie Coltraine I knew that he’d be younger than the band by 25 years, since they were celebrating their golden jubilee. So that dictated the storyline - the older brother had to die, and the younger brother had to come from somewhere else,’ Byrne says.

As to the past as metaphor and motive in his work, Byrne rightly identifies the suspicious, ideological motive in the denial of history. ‘All that life’s a journey and I live in the moment. The American stuff, that’s just nonsense. It’s how they get in wars,’ he says. He then laughs, as he does a lot, for Byrne is excellent company, a guy who always enjoys his chat and makes you feel as if he’s enjoying yours. He adds, more thoughtfully: ‘The past is the one thing we can make sense of. You can’t make sense of the present, because you’re just passing through it the whole time. It’s always going to be the past. If you’re alive you learn from the past, whether you want to or not. People say the past is a foreign country; no its not, its the only country we live in. That’s the thing about going back to your old work. It’s fascinating to put a few more grooves in it, add a few tracks to the album.’ And he chuckles again.
I’m once again reminded of Schopenhauer, and one of his most famous quotations. ‘The memory should be specially taxed in youth, since it is then that it is strongest and most tenacious. But in choosing the things that should be committed to memory the utmost care and forethought must be exercised; as lessons well learnt in youth are never forgotten.’

But if Byrne retains this attitude to the past, there’s none of the pessimism we commonly associate with the philosopher. Instead, Byrne’s work is realistic, often intensely emotionally affecting, funny and often simply too charming to put one out of sorts. Yet the dark side is what we sometimes choose to conceal in our own memories of the TV series, full as it was of comedy and song. There is a melancholy to Tutti Frutti, encapsulated by Byrne’s favourite song from the piece, The Everley Brothers’ ‘Dream’, a riff which laments the absence of a presumably past lover, where, ‘the only trouble is/ gee whizz/I’m dreaming my life away.”

And so it is that Byrne leans on a long past precedent of classical literature to convey his narrative, one which portrays a journey. He acknowledges Homer’s Oddyssey as the basis for the rock band’s tour in the piece. ‘It became like the journey of Odysseus. We got Tony Smith in as a director of the television version, because we saw a number of people, but he was the only one who saw it as like a Greek tragedy. It was him that spotted that - all the violence was happening off screen or stage; there was always violence in the offing, but it only ever happened out of sight. You just saw the consequences. So there’s that Seneca influence - think of Francis Seneca McDade. All that stuff is alive in us, that’s why it’s lasted for more than 2000 years.’
And the tour itself was like a journey of the imagination. ‘I sent them off on a tour of Scotland, to places I’d never been myself. I let my imagination go free. Aside from Glasgow, I’d never been to any of the places I sent them to. I just kept at the typewriter, wondering where I’d send them next.’
Byrne’s work, as ever, was here about history, something dismissed and demeaned by the ‘death of history’ Pomo generation. History is about a quest for truth, and, as your man Scopenhauer attested: ‘All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.’ History is back, and so is John Byrne.

Jazzer and I

Steve Cramer talks to Tutti Frutti’s director Tony Cownie about popular theatre, tragedies that look like comedies and cult stories of the 80s.

At around the time you could see Tutti Frutti on television, you might also have been able to nip into an art house cinema to watch another emerging cult classic of the era, Withnail and I. The two pieces stand comparison for several reasons. Firstly, each has a distinct fin de siècle feeling. Each deals, in different ways, with the end of the liberal egalitarian dreams of the 1960s. The film does so through a transition to work and responsibility, where one character is left behind in a dying, dysfunctional drug-filled stupor, as one moves on to a career. In Tutti Frutti, a rock band of the 60s find themselves in reduced circumstances in the ruthless, red in tooth and claw world of Thatcher’s venal and excessive 1980s.

More importantly though, both are hailed as great comedies when they are in fact tragedies. There can be few more affecting sights in modern British cinema than Withnail standing alone in the rain at the end of the film, reciting the Hamlet he’ll no more play than Uncle Monty, while Tutti Frutti’s finale is equally tragic, though I won’t remind readers of it, for the sake of those who haven’t seen it. Director Tony Cownie is keen, too, to emphasise the differences between the perception and reality of John Byrne’s cult classic: ‘People say it’s a comedy, but it’s absolutely not. It’s very funny, I’m not saying it isn’t, but it’s really a tragedy. One person dies at the beginning and two more people die as it goes to its end. It’s the truth that makes you laugh though, so it’s also very funny,’ he says.

Each piece keys significantly in to the post-1970s world of Thatcherism, the film by implication and the television series explicitly. It seems significant indeed that director Tony Cownie has chosen to set the theatre version firmly in the 1980s for, though Blairism can be seen as simply a continuation of Thatcherism by other means, the 1980s represents a more theatrical version of the social ravages of new right economics. This is perhaps because the 1980s introduced neo-conservatism, whereas Blairism has merely quietly normalised it.

But there is something else about the 1980s, which makes it seem right for this adaptation; the era has now become the subject of nostalgia, something of which John Byrne has been accused, and Cownie rightly refutes. ‘No, John Byrne’s works are not nostalgia plays at all, they’re incredibly insightful snippets of Scottish life. He takes a small slice of the past and kind of gives it a broad brush stroke, and somehow manages to create a complete picture of what Scotland is and was, and what it means to be Scottish. He evokes a kind of indescribable feeling of what the nation is. We’re lucky to have a writer like him.’

Cownie himself is on the crest of a wave. After ten years as a director, with a succession of acclaimed productions, often at the Lyceum, to his credit, this affable, likeable man whose passion for theatre drips from his pores is engaged in the NTS’ first major engagement with popular theatre, albeit of a very intelligent kind. After the successes of Anthony Neilson’s Realism and Gregory Burke’s Black Watch this is a quite different kind of piece, but Cownie is quick to dispel the snobbery which comes with the piece’s generic tag. ‘I don’t understand this snobbery that comes with the term “popular theatre”,’ he says. ‘Surely if theatre is popular, that’s good.’ In Cownie’s hands, this project looks potentially better than just good.

The mystery of Tutti Frutti

Why has the original TV series of Tutti Frutti never been repeated? Steve Cramer looks at some myths and legends.

You’d think that the words ‘A wap bop a loo bop a wap bam boom’ would be difficult to alter into anything other than what they say. The meaning is quite unclear enough. Presumably it’s a verb, along the lines of ‘zigga zig aah’, and ‘Be bop shooba’. These lyrics all seem to euphemise some sexual act or other, of sufficient speciality that it could cause a girl named Daisy to drive you crazy.

Whatever it’s about, it seems that this song played some part in the cult status that Tutti Frutti now assumes. John Byrne himself acknowledges that part of the legend of the television series was that it was seen only once. As to why … well, there are a number of conspiracy theories…
It was an inside job Let’s rid ourselves of the least plausible one first. The occasionally floated idea that either the author or some prominent member of the cast acted to prevent a repeat screening by the BBC seems a non-starter. As an acknowledged hit of 1987, there would be no reason artistically to prevent its re-release, while in terms of increasing the profile, and, for that matter, bank balances of those involved, there would be every reason to encourage repeats. The problem with pinning the crime on the participants, in other words, is that they had no motive.

The series can’t be shown for legal reasons There are much stronger reasons to believe that the problem arose from songs and copyright. One version has it that the alteration of lyrics in one particular song caused copyright infringement, another was that the rights for one song were not properly applied for.
The truth about this resides, no doubt, in the memory of some executive at the Beeb, and he or she isn’t telling. But I can reveal that there is indeed a ‘problem song’ and it is the one from which Byrne’s classic takes its title. With multiple letters requesting a return showing on BBC4 to this day, all hope is not yet lost for a repeat screening once the threat of litigation subsides, and the song concerned will soon be over 50 years old – thus it will no longer be subject to copyright.

Auntie Beeb is protecting us from a decidedly dark little number Our collective memory of the series is that it was a great comedy drama, but in fact it included many dark and deeply tragic scenes, which may have left BBC executives feeling that it was simply too dark a drama to warrant a repeat. After all, think about what does get repeated and it is almost always the sitcoms and comedy series, rather than the classic dramas. Moreover, the original show’s pacing was, to be honest, rather patchy. Today’s televisual vocabularies are very different from the 1980s, demanding faster cuts and shorter pauses. And all of this is before we even get into the odd mixture of video and film footage that was used in its creation. It’s a juxtaposition that no director would get away with today … Could it be that, above all else, the basic televisual production values of the original series are no longer up to scratch?

An Artworks documentary devoted to the original TV series and its transformation into a stage play, is screened at 7pm on Sun 1 Oct on BBC2.

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