No sex, no drugs. Just rock 'n' roll

John Byrne's film `The Slab Boys' is no `Trainspotting' ... to the disappointment of his backers.
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
John Byrne looks grave. His chosen meeting place - World's End, at the butt end of the King's Road - might accurately describe how he feels. The writer and director is relating a story about a screening of his new film, The Slab Boys, for the executives who were responsible for its finance, marketing and distribution.

Byrne tells how the credits rolled, the lights went up, and he looked around - to be confronted by a sea of blank faces, and a wall of silence. No cheers. No hint of debate. Not even a raspberry.

"It was like a funeral," says Byrne. "They looked as if we'd murdered a child. I felt awful."

Byrne's crime, if it could be labelled thus, was to create a striking film, airlifted straight from his painterly imagination to the screen. I spoke to Mike Southworth of Film 4, the main financiers, who denied any "wall of silence" reaction and said he thought The Slab Boys was a "good, unusual movie" that he hoped would do well after its UK premiere at the Edinburgh festival. Film 4's decision to open it initially in Scotland only, and more generally if it did well, was, he said, "a normal thing".

Byrne does not seem so convinced. The wall he perceives is the one separating his most personal of films and the way that it will, or won't, be sold. "It was as plain as I could make it. It doesn't have the bam, bam, bam stuff, which I couldn't do anyway. It's not slick or American or violent enough. How do they market something that's not violent or controversial? They don't know how to do it," he says, scooping a twist of Shag tobacco into a Rizla. "I'm getting fed up with the cynical way that films are made. I cannae tell one from the other. Every movie now is cut like a rock video: you get this visceral excitement that raises the hair on the back of your neck. Any screen violence gives you built-in drama - but at what cost? We become bludgeoned by it. It's a Pavlovian response. I'd rather see a simple, straightforward story which meanders a bit. I don't want to see any more guns," he says, firing at my head with the one he plucks from the air.

Byrne is actually the most gentle-mannered and cultured of men, with the mien of a gentleman painter. Art was his first true vocation. After Glasgow School of Art, he worked in TV graphics, then moved on to design stage sets and costumes. At 37, he wrote his first play, Writer's Cramp. This was followed a year later by The Slab Boys, for which he won the Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright award when it transferred to the Royal Court in 1977. He has enjoyed almost uninterrupted critical and commercial success since. His TV series, Tutti Frutti, about an ageing rock band and starring Robbie Coltrane, won him six Baftas. His next series, Your Cheating Heart, about Scottish C&W bands, starred John Gordon Sinclair and Tilda Swinton, his partner, with whom he is about to have twins.

It was Wanderlust Films who suggested that Byrne adapt his stage plays The Slab Boys and Cuttin' a Rug for the screen. These were based on the year Byrne spent working in a paint factory in Paisley. It was 1957, he was 17 and killing time before attending art school. His job as a slab boy - mixing shades of paint for the designers - was, he says, "unspeakably boring. You did anything to fill your life. We weren't like those guys who'd done national service and their spirit had been broken from square bashing. There's no way they could break our spirit." Nor the spirit of Byrne's beloved fictional slab boys Spanky and Phil, and scapegoat Hector, who spin out their working hours playing the juke box, playing tricks on colleagues and dodging the militaristic manager Mr Curry until they can bunk off to Cardosi's Cafe and dream of their escape, be that to America, art school or the stage.

The film is highly stylised, like the Paisley of Byrne's memory. "It was an exciting place. The guys I worked with didn't have cars, or money. All they cared about was clothes," says Byrne, whose tough Teddy-boy threads have given way to a more conventional look: denim shirt, braces and a chin full of notty, silver beard.

The Slab Boys is almost comic-book in its take on youth culture, but it never patronises its colourful characters. It has the stillness of a stage play despite its manic surface energy. It is like a party between the Stray Cats and the Beano, with Beckett's sense of timing, stewed through Byrne's artistic vision and adorned with a look "one notch up from reality, using lighting reminiscent of Jack Cardiff" (the director of photography on Black Narcissus).

It is hard to bracket. Maybe it's not surprising that the marketing people were left speechless. Early news reports included The Slab Boys, unfairly, among the wave of "tartan" films emerging from Scotland (a wave that is itself an uneasy mix of blockbusters like Braveheart and independents like Shallow Grave). "They expected fucking Trainspotting," says Byrne. "They should have known - they had the script - that there were no drugs." The film's premise, he says, was underscored on the cover of the production notes. It read: "No sex! No drugs! Loads of rock and roll."

Byrne's "slab boys" may dream of US culture and buy into the American dream of rock 'n' roll but that is quite different, says Byrne, to the mawkishness of "those gloopy American movies" whose central character "breaks down, weeping buckets and beating his chest". His Phil and Spanky (played, with boundless energy, by unknowns Robin Laing and Russell Barr) are cooler than dry ice, hiding their neuroses under a bushel of small talk. The untrained Louise Berry plays Lucille, "the pinnacle of all male desire". Berry was spotted on a Glasgow street by Byrne and his producer, Simon Relph: their instincts were proved right.

It's tempting to see the talented Phil, who longs to escape to art school, as being a portrait of Byrne himself. Phil's mother has a nervous breakdown and destroys his art and with it his hopes. Yet Byrne's own parents were loving, giving and encouraging. "They were working-class but I had the best of everything, in terms of art materials and encouragement."

Byrne's background as painter and graphic artist surfaces in an amazing attention to detail. When he wanted to show an iron burn on the back of the outwardly pristine Phil's shirt (to suggest his chaotic inner life), he painted it on to the fabric himself. Even his storyboards are graphic masterpieces and future collector's items.

He insists, though, that the film is "not fetishistic. The characters have stylish clothes on but... bugger that, they're only clothes. It's not a 1990s take on 1957. It was as authentic as I could make it - in my remembrance of it, not in the minutiae, which is what might have been the focus if someone younger than me had made it. I told the story as simply as I could."

The women's haircuts were cropped short or quaffed (Lucille's could match any man's for phallic erectness) and based on the "moonie" haircuts Byrne remembers from that era. "Short and very, very stylish." Byrne enlisted ex-Cream drummer Jack Bruce to create the soundtrack; Bruce in turn enlisted Scottish stalwarts Edwyn Collins, Pat Kane, Eddi Reader, The Producers and Lulu, no less.

The whole project is a labour of love. And Byrne does love these characters. When I hint that Hector (played by the remarkable Bill Gardener, aged 18) may have turned a wee bit slimy when he attains some power over his slab boy cohorts, Byrne is disconcerted. "Hector changes, yes, but I really don't know if slimy is the word. No, not slimy. I would never call them that." He has, after all, lived with them intimately for 20 years.

Before filming began, Byrne announced that "this won't be an arthouse movie, but a movie everyone will want to see". But art is what he seems to have made. He recalls going to the Glasgow Film Theatre as a student, and how arthouse then stood for something else, something ignored. The Slab Boys has already been seen at the GFT - "and, in a funny way, it's playing there has been grand."

Byrne concedes that had Tony Smith (who directed Tutti Frutti) directed the film, it might have been a more commercial work. But he's very glad the job fell to him. "Otherwise it would have been slewed through someone else's sensibilities. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed the whole process"n

`The Slab Boys' is released in Scotland tomorrow

Comments