Artist and Tutti Frutti writer John Byrne dies, aged 83

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John ByrneImage source, PA Media

Image caption,

The artist found his widest audience as a TV writer with Tutti Frutti

By Craig Williams

BBC Scotland

The artist and writer John Byrne, who created the acclaimed TV series Tutti Frutti, has died at the age of 83.

His family said he died peacefully on Thursday with his wife Jeanine by his side.

He was born in Paisley and trained at the Glasgow School of Art. He worked as a painter and designer whose work included album covers for his friend, the singer Gerry Rafferty.

He began a parallel career as a playwright with his Slab Boys Trilogy.

The first play debuted in 1978 and was based on Byrne's own experiences as a young man working in the colour rooms of a carpet factory.

Kevin Bacon, Sean Penn and Val Kilmer were among the cast when the play was performed on Broadway in New York.

One of the main characters, Spanky, became a rock star across the course of the three plays.

Byrne was a friend of Gerry Rafferty, the Scottish singer-songwriter who came to fame in the 1970s and whose album covers he designed.

Image source, BBC Scotland

Image caption,

John Byrne painting Billy Connolly for his mural in 2017.

Byrne reached a new audience with his BBC Scotland series Tutti Frutti, which was broadcast in 1987.

Starring Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson, the six-part series won six Baftas.

It told the story of a legendary Scottish rock and roll band trying to make a comeback through a tour of the country.

It was a huge success and was followed up three years later by Your Cheatin' Heart, which featured country music and starred Tilda Swinton and John Gordon-Sinclair.

Byrne continued to write and paint. His work is held by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery.

First Minister Humza Yousaf led the tributes to John Byrne.

"There are not the words to do justice to the talents of John Byrne. An extraordinary playwright, artist and designer. Scotland has lost a cultural icon, and the world is less brighter with his passing," he said.

Posting on X, formerly known as Twitter, the artist Alison Watt wrote: "So very sad to hear of the death of the brilliant John Byrne. Supremely gifted as an artist and playwright, generous, funny and the most stylish man I've ever met."

John Byrne always claimed he was made in Paisley but it was he who took the colours and music of the town he grew up in around the world.

The carpet factory where he mixed the colours as a "slab boy" and later as a designer, inspired his most famous play but it also fed characters and colours into his other writing, like the TV series Tutti Frutti and his vibrant artwork.

He rarely followed one linear path. Like the carpets he worked on, there were many threads to his work, all woven simultaneously.

He left Scotland in the 1960s, posing under his father's name as Patrick Byrne. His first exhibition was a huge hit and only then did John Byrne confess his deception.

Despite being friends with Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly and designing album covers for many artists including The Beatles, he was never part of the rock and roll scene.

He returned to live in Scotland but his signature artwork was everywhere - on album covers, guitars, even the suit Billy Connolly wore for one his early Parkinson appearances.

In the 1970s, he stepped back from art to concentrate on writing but he continued to sketch, draw and paint his own sets as well as creating some of the biggest artwork of his career, including a number of dramatic murals.

His most recent work has been murals - one for the ceiling of the King's Theatre in Edinburgh and another in Glasgow to mark the 75th birthday of his friend Billy Connolly.

In the early 1980s, he was approached by the then head of drama at BBC Scotland, Bill Bryden, to create a new TV show. The only stipulation was it should be called Tutti Frutti.

John Byrne agreed and drew on the music, the culture and the language of his youth. The show was a huge hit and gave Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thomson their first big TV breaks.

A follow-up show, Your Cheatin' Heart in 1990, was less successful but introduced him to the actress Tilda Swinton, with whom he set up home in the Highlands and where they raised their twins.

He was prolific, whichever genre he was working in. When the National Theatre of Scotland produced a stage version of Tutti Frutti, he watched rehearsals from the stalls, swiftly sketching characters and costumes from the show.

When the Citizens Theatre staged the Slab Boys Trilogy, he could be found on stage painting the scenery he had designed.

During lockdown he worked with Pitlochry Festival Theatre to create a new play which was produced and performed remotely.

He and his wife Jeanine also collaborated on a children's book, Donald and Benoit.

Everything he did was drenched in colour. Without him, the world feels a less colourful place.

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