Saturday, 23 January 2010

Scottish Screwball

I talked in one of the Doo Wop Dialog[ue] posts about the popularity of country music in the West of Scotland, as evinced by Glasgow having its own Grand Ole Opry. The writer and artist John Byrne celebrated the area's fascination with country in a BBC TV series called Your Cheatin' Heart (the soundtrack CD features a Jimmy Shand-style rendering of the Hank Williams classic, neatly encapsulating the two cultures), but Byrne's crowning achievement to date (likely to remain so, as he says the Beeb have no further interest in him) is his previous series Tutti Frutti.

Quite apart from anything else, for six weeks on primetime TV in 1987 we were treated to a blast of Little Richard's original Specialty recording (none of your Vee-Jay remake nonsense) over the opening credits (above) of this - well, you have to call it comedy drama, I suppose, but that doesn't convey the darkness.

Rather than attempt to weave them in seamlessly into this post, in a moment I'm going to give the floor to revised versions of reviews I've already written about both the series and its accompanying novelisation - although, again, the associations of the latter term scarcely do justice to a book packed with Byrne's own illustrations (scans of which have been spread here over both reviews) which makes full use of the extra flourishes which a narrative voice allows.

But before my searching, or at least "helpful, " analyses (hey, 27 people out of 30 on a well-known shopping website can't be wrong), a brief discussion of the oddest thing about Tutti Frutti, namely the fact it took so long to come out on DVD and has never been repeated on TV since near the time of the original broadcast.

There are contradictory tales which seem to focus on the issue of the licensing of the music, and what had and hadn't been cleared in which region, but the most plausible, because we can clearly hear the evidence in the series, is that when Robbie Coltrane's character changes the lyrics to Tutti Frutti to refer to his own boundary-imposing Sue, played by Emma Thompson: ("I got a girl, here's the rub, / She makes me sleep in the tub") that displeased the publishers of Tutti Frutti, who presumably had not been consulted beforehand.

I say "publishers" because I don't want to imagine the Georgia Peach raised any kind of objection himself - wasn't Tutti Frutti, even before Pat Boone got his hands on it, itself altered from a directly sexual version ("Tutti Frutti, good booty ... If it fits, don't force it ...")? When all episodes of the South Bank Show become available to consult (see post entitled 14 Karat Soul), there should be a documentary about Little Richard from around the time of the Charles White biog where lyrics to the earlier version are displayed while the hit recording plays.

And of course any notion of the integrity of the original was compromised long ago by that Boonification - still the version you get in some songbooks, so the publishers can't have been all that picky, although I'm happy to say a proper Little Richard songbook was published in America recently:

And the novelisation of Tutti Frutti is dedicated to Little Richard, which certainly doesn't suggest any animosity on Byrne's part at the time. Maybe we'll never know the whole story - in an article linked to above Byrne even speculates its absence from the screen could be class-based - and should simply be grateful that John Byrne's TV masterpiece is finally available on DVD.

Cue the reviews:

Scottish Screwball

Tutti Frutti, a series of six one hour episodes by John Byrne about a failing Scottish rock band, was first broadcast in the mid 80s and recently adapted by Byrne into a stage musical for the National Theatre of Scotland.

Byrne once said in an interview that he couldn't imagine anyone other than the original actors in the roles - and as ages weren't specified in the original script, having the characters attempting a comeback twenty years older than before would certainly have upped the poignancy stakes. In the end, however, Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson et al did not, or maybe were never seriously asked, to reprise their TV roles onstage. Understandably, as Tutti Frutti the original series is as good as it gets.

Byrne, like so many Scots, is immersed in American culture, and there are elements of screwball comedy in the bickering romance between Danny McGlone (Coltrane) and Suzi Kettles (Thompson) where love and concern can only be expressed through seemingly vicious putdowns (hey, it's the Glasgow way).

Alongside that main plot is the story of aging rocker and self-styled "Iron Man of Scottish Rock" Vincent Diver's (Maurice Roeves') coming to terms (or not) with age and failure, and the shenanigans of the group's manager Eddie Clockerty (Richard Wilson) and his "strangely non-sexual" (Byrne's words in the novelisation) relationship with his gallus young secretary-cum-dogsbody Miss Toner (Katie Murphy, though you need to hear Wilson pronounce her surname to get the full flavour).

What fascinates me is that I recall Byrne admitting that Tutti Frutti was written at a frantic pace to meet a deadline: he wrote, if I'm not misremembering, in a converted coal bunker and said that if his head spun at the end of his daily marathon that was usually a good sign.

His subsequent series Your Cheatin' Heart allowed for the lesiure of more consciously considered structure - I vaguely remember an interview around the time where he gave the impression that he had only now discovered how to write properly - but somehow it's Tutti Frutti that lingers in the mind.

Why is it better? Byrne did say on one occasion that he had been obliged to condense two episodes into one at the end of Your Cheatin' Heart, but the performances in the earlier series - just look at the names above - are without exception excellent, right down to the minor roles. And whether it's lack of planning or deliberate intent, there is a lot of material that is simply about the band members bickering over pointless things which could have been excised but wasn't, so scenes, or episodes, are really given room to "breathe" (one wonders whether the BBC would be quite so accomodating today).

A reviewer on the net said that the appeal of Tutti Frutti was in part about feckless men being forgiven or tolerated by women - and in a wider sense (the unreal dreams of a comeback) you could say it's about Scottish failure in general. It homes in on the emotional difficulties of the Scottish male: the Maurice Roeves character (distantly related to Alex Harvey, I wonder?) seems to exemplify life in a city where (as a standup who went to my school once said) a man can go up to another man and say "Ah'm hard," without any sexual connotation whatsoever.

A schoolfriend once said to me that boys at our school expressed friendship by the device of speaking to someone without irony - and in the scene where Vincent reveals himself (momentarily) to Danny, the using of first names without some belittling appendage (Danny is normally "Danny Boy" to the group members) seems the same kind of thing.

Balancing such scenes are some wonderful Laurel and Hardy-type moments: the Coltrane character tries to seduce Clockerty's secretary by a beltin' version of Love Hurts late at night in the recording studio; she puts him in his place though he has an American-type suave farewell line to save face - only to crash into something in the darkness as he leaves.

According to a reliable source there was a certain amount of resentment about the very experienced Wilson's perceived upstaging of the others but there's no doubt that Coltrane and Emma Thompson are the heart of the story. There are joyous and life-affirming moments throughout, but perhaps most touchingly, and related to male inarticulacy, is the serio-comic moment when his bandmates try to revive the wasted Vincent. What do they do? They sing the "dum dum dum dummy doo wah" backing vocals to Only the Lonely - and you sense the long years spent together and the understanding which can (at least) be expressed through music if not direct communication. And it's important because it balances the comedy, and the undeniable pleasures of the screwball-type dialogue, or the fact that everyone lives in a kind of dream of things American (their songs are Chuck Berry and Little Richard, etc): these are men with hearts.

Bernard Levin was, once upon a time, drama critic for the Observer or the Sunday Times. He said he was leaving the post because, of all he'd seen over the last year, only Byrne's The Slab Boys was life-affirming. Tutti Frutti is too. You don't have to be Scottish to enjoy, I suspect, or even male - but both conditions undoubtedly help.

Review of the book (NB This is the novelisation and not the script of the stage play revival, something that well-known shopping etcetera cannot seem to get its head around):

No hack novelisation but a wonderful souvenir to go with your DVD

Now that you have your Tutti Frutti DVD, your souvenir Fud O'Donnell hairpiece and Miss Toner talking doll ("Gonnae shut it? " Beat it, creep!" plus FOUR other phrases) you could do a lot worse than investing in this, the heavily illustrated novelisation of the TV series.

There has been no new edition to accompany the DVD release but the original can still easily be found. I bought a copy in North Berwick for two pounds a few weeks ago which was a bit silly as I already have one, autographed by one R. Coltrane, no less, but I couldn't help myself: it's the sort of book that's too good not to buy.

"Novelisation" usually suggests something farmed out to a hack author but Byrne took six months to do the book and all the pictures himself, and this attention to detail shows throughout (if, for example, you have ever pondered over the the phrase "dry boak", Byrne's drawing, below, of the moment Bomba clocks Vincent in the Glenna-knitted jumper knitted by Glenna is worth a thousand photographs). You can get a taste of the illustrations in the extras on the DVD and some of the DVD packaging (the book also contains a sprinkling of stills from the series) but the retelling in prose form is an additional pleasure, if you can tear yourself away from the DVD.

Each episode is an individual chapter here, and there are some pleasing details in the prose which could not be conveyed in the series: eg when Vincent's wife burns all his clothes, we are told: "Noreen retreated a short distance and shielded her face. It was the first real warmth she'd experienced in over twenty years of marriage."

Or take Danny trying to defend Vincent's relationship with Glenna to Suzie: " 'Look, stop talkin' about her as if she was a schoolgirl - she's a grown woman, the lassie.' That didn't sound quite right."

From memory I had thought the above line was in the TV version, but no. Byrne says in the DVD extras that episodes were cut to time, so it may be that some additional details in the dialogue were in his original scripts, but whatever, they are a pleasure to read and savour in this book.

And to return to the narrative voice, take two sections from the scene where Danny is finally in bed, rather than beside it, with Suzie:

"The physical violence of the Pavilion had in some miraculous way served to loosen a few bricks in the wall which Suzie had built between herself and Danny, and he - ever the opportunist - had got a toehold in that wall and hauled himself over the top. His drop to the other side had been short and taken in the dark. Danny lay there in the blackness and thought about it. What did she mean, it was 'okay?' "

A few moments later Suzie takes umbrage when Danny offers to touch up her paintings stashed under the bed:

"Desperately Danny tried to think how to worm his way back into her affections ... No, he'd already tried that one, with an actual scale model of a worm, and it had not been an out-and-out success."

Yes, it's essentially only a souvenir of the TV experience, but as souvenirs go I'd take this over the talking Miss Toner any day. After all (as most of the Majestics seem to think, most of the time), dolls - who needs 'em? Oh, and the book is dedicated to - who else? - Little Richard. Messers Byrne and Penniman, I salute you, and the joy you have given us in whichever medium.

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