Tomorrow (25/5/2015) finally sees the long-awaited release of John Byrne’s Your Cheatin’ Heart, and the sky should be black with hats in celebration. This was Byrne’s follow up to the better known Tutti Frutti (see A slight bruising of the crotch) and, apart from a slightly dissatisfying final twenty minutes when the drama is searching for a satisfying conclusion, it is the equal of its more famous predecessor, which is just about the greatest praise I can proffer. Taken together, the two six-part series are among the best Scottish TV there has been, and cement John Byrne as an auteur of the highest order.
Your Cheatin Heart is Bryne’s personal vision brought to life. The clothes, the haircuts, the posters, the vehicles, the musical instruments, even the tattoos; all of them carry his signature and distinctive style. It is one thing to do this for the stage, as Byrne has done for his own plays and numerous adaptations, but to realise it for a TV series in this manner is extraordinary. Byrne is at least the match of better known directors such as Wes Anderson and Tim Burton who also create on-screen drama that is recognisably theirs alone.
Oddly, perhaps, the director Byrne most puts me in mind of is David Lynch. Dealing in unconventional ways with serious, often uncomfortable, subject matter; the more I think about the comparison, the more sense it makes. Both create weird worlds that look a lot like our own, but where dark secrets are kept, innocence is lost and nothing is as it seems. The two share a love of American iconography, putting their own twists upon it, and have an ear for memorable dialogue and arresting imagery as well as understanding the full worth of a memorable soundtrack which should not only accompany events, but add to the drama and help set the mood.
Using country music as Tutti Frutti used rock ‘n’ roll, Your Cheatin‘ Heart is centered around one of those areas of Scottish life that most people are only slightly aware of, perhaps through references to Govan’s famous ‘Grand Ole Opry’ or an uncle’s obsession with Patsy Cline. It is the perfect place for Byrne’s surrealist sensibilities as it is a setting that is not only out of time, but also out of place. Familiar enough to draw the audience in, yet odd enough to throw them out of their comfort zone.
The cast are faultless, and include Katy Murphy, Barbara Rafferty, a young Peter Mullan, Tom Watson (who has six different roles), Maggie Bell, Helen Atkinson Wood, Richard Jobson, an even younger Daniella Nardini and Freddie Boardley as Hell’s Angel leader ‘Toad’, whose Doric Scots is almost undecipherable, although once you manage to work it out you realise it’s as clever as you would expect from the pen of Byrne. I’d like to make special mention of Jenny McCrindle who died last year at the far too early age of 45. She was a warm and special screen presence, and in her role as gallus waitress, Tracy, she displays the sense of humour and sass which was familiar to anyone who knew her. She is sadly missed.
There are four other performances that I want to concentrate on specifically. The first is the most unexpected. Eddi Reader plays Jolene Jowett, one half of the singing duo ‘The McPhail Sisters’, and she is a revelation. With her statuesque flame red quiff and angular stance she is a John Byrne drawing come to life, and delivers his dialogue as if it is second nature. It is the perfect role for her, and as she steals every scene she’s in you can’t help but feel that she should have done much more acting. Here she is with Kate Murphy giving it some Elvis:
The ‘romantic’ central pairing are John Gordon Sinclair’s ‘Diner Tec’ style food journalist Frank McClusky and Tilda Swinton’s Cissie Crouch. I remember at the time thinking that Sinclair was no match for Swinton on screen, but I now realise that was the point. Imagine ‘Gregory’ from Gregory’s Girl grown up and you get a sense of his performance; a confused adolescent at heart. Where Frank McClusky is defined by his love struck willingness to do anything for Cissie, Swinton gives Cissie a tangible sense of guilt and sorrow. In what was one of her earliest roles, you can see the charisma and talent which would make her one of the great screen actors of her generation. You can’t take your eyes off her, and it is understandable that Frank becomes infatuated with Cissie. But where Frank just wants her to notice him, she has far more pressing concerns on her mind.<
The most physical performance comes from Ken Stott as the psychopathic Fraser Boyle, a fishmonger who sells Grade A drugs with his Arbroath smokies and bloaters. A character who would be ludicrous is it wasn’t for the fact he would take you down for even thinking it, Boyle is a man who thinks nothing of breaking a guy’s face for taking ‘The King’s’ name in vain (that’s Elvis, not Jesus), or simply attempting to croon anything from the ‘Sun’ catalogue. It’s a hell of a thing to stand out in this company but Stott does so with ease.
Byrne’s love for the music, and the people who also love the music, is clear. Anyone thinking that this portrayal of the country and western scene is anything other than affectionate is mistaken. The appearance of country legend Guy Mitchell as ‘Jim Bob O’ May’, as well as using the vocal talents of Reader and Maggie Bell, gives credence to the music and to the lives and loves as portrayed on screen. At the end of the day it’s not about the hat and boots, although they are important, it’s all about the tunes. This is one of my favourite clips from any TV show. It’s ‘The Loons o’ Lucifer’ boot scootin’ to The Bellamy Brother’s Let Your Love Flow:
John Byrne is one of the most talented dramatists there is, one who weaves comedy and tragedy together with ease, so much so that you can find yourself laughing at something before the often terrible reality behind the humour fully reveals itself. However, with Byrne the real joy lies not in the drama but in the script. His mastery of language is apparently effortless and I can’t think of another Scot who brings such humour and lyricism to their writing. If Woody Allen had been born in Ferguslie Park instead of The Bronx his characters would talk something like John Byrne’s. Put simply, he writes as you wish you spoke.
Watching Your Cheatin’ Heart again I can’t shake the feeling that, for all his relative success, Byrne should be much bigger and better known. There are some people are so good at what they do that they can get taken for granted, and I would suggest Byrne is in that category. This new release is a timely reminder for those that need it that John Byrne should be treasured and celebrated. I would suggest buying a couple of copies, and giving one to someone you care for. I guarantee you they will thank you for it. It may be John Byrne’s world, but we should be eternally grateful that we sometimes get to share it.*
As a wee extra treat, here is John Byrne in conversation with Peter Capaldi for National Galleries Scotland:
*An earlier, shorter, version of this article from 2010 can be found here…
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