After "a hellish year", John Byrne has a twinkle in his eye once more. He talks to Chitra Ramaswamy about working on dance show Off Kilter and why he's still "great chums" with Tilda Swinton . . .
IT FEELS like a fitting time of year to be meeting John Byrne. It's snowing outside Dance Base on Edinburgh's Grassmarket and the bleached-out backdrop, all ice-crusted cobbles and buildings leaning into the cold, suits the artist and playwright perfectly. Byrne's magnificent beard seems more full-bodied and nicotine-stained than ever, his blue eyes more twinkly, his manner more mischievous. He cuts a fine Byronic figure in high-waisted green corduroy trousers, battered brown brogues, waistcoat,
Byrne is ending what he describes as "a hellish year" with a bang. We'll come back to the hellish part but first, to Off Kilter. The ambitious dance showcase featuring new commissions by New York's Mark Morris and Scottish Ballet's Ashley Page has been described by director Morgan Deyes as Scotland's answer to Riverdance, only with laughs. Beethoven's Scottish folk songs sidle up against Franz Ferdinand, ceilidhs go hand in hand with Indian classical dance, and ballet shares a joke with Ivor Cutler. The idea is to celebrate a Scotland that is irreverent, nonconformist, quirky and not afraid to laugh at itself. It all sounds very John Byrne. His great classics such as The Slab Boys, which opened at the Traverse 31 years ago, and Tutti Frutti, the landmark Eighties series that launched the careers of Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson, were soaked with this spirit of anarchic humour.
"That's quite true," he says gruffly (it isn't only his beard that's nicotine-stained) as we head upstairs and start searching our pockets for loose change to buy tea from a vending machine. "That kind of thing is meat and drink to me." What kind of thing? "I have a love for Scotland but not a reverence," he says. "And it's an accident of birth so you have to make the best of it." He chuckles into his beard.
"Off Kilter chimes with the attitude I have towards Scotland. It's the anarchic nature of it, the sheer vivacity and joy. That's what attracts me. There are no half measures. It's not about a wee bit of this or that. It's full-on, rip-roaring, Scottish."
All of this made Byrne want to be involved. His partner, stage lighting designer Janine Davies, worked on the first Off Kilter in 2004 and is on board again this time. Byrne offered to help out as an artistic consultant and "Morag (Deyes] being Morag, asked me to design something for it". So, in the midst of finishing his first illustrated children's book, Byrne has drawn a series of six cartoon creatures in various dance poses, which he calls "the dancing devil dogs of Bishopton". They will be projected behind the dancers during the final piece, a raucous ceilidh to a soundtrack of The Rezillos and Calvin Harris. Where did he get the idea for the devil dogs? "Out of my head," he says with a roguish smile.
At Dance Base Byrne runs into Davies, who makes us tea when she sees us loitering at the vending machine. They embrace passionately, kissing and cuddling like lovesick teenagers, clearly besotted with each other. Watching them, it seems like another lifetime rather than months ago that Byrne, who turns 70 next month, was being asked to explain his relationship with the actress Tilda Swinton. The couple were together for 15 years, mostly living in Nairn, and are the parents of 12-year-old twins Honor and Xavier. When, last year Swinton announced she was in love with the artist Sandro Kopp, all sorts of ridiculous rumours ensued (on Wikipedia Byrne is still cited as being in a "polyamorous relationship").
The truth is, as usual, far less salacious. He and Swinton are no longer together, Byrne lives in Edinburgh with Davies, they also have a place in Nairn, everyone remains "great chums" and "that's all I'm prepared to say apart from the fact that I'm very happy". The day before I phoned Byrne as he was leaving his children's school nativity play in Nairn with Swinton. "Honor was wearing a beard that her mother made her because she was playing Joseph," he says. "It was better than any beard of mine. Last night I left them about to watch Hitchcock's Shadow Of A Doubt. They don't watch TV but they watch a lot of films, because of what their mum does. At the moment, it's all Hitchcock."
But the tabloid scrutiny has been intense and for a self-pronounced recluse such as Byrne it's been tough. "Hellish," he says. "It's been a hellish year. But a great year as well. It's that invasive and puerile curiosity to feed a tabloid culture. I don't subscribe to it. I have no interest in anybody's life that way so it defeats me why people go to that length to pry. I'd forgotten it was this year. Thank God it's going to be over soon. Nonsense, that's what it is." His children, he adds, coped well. "They have no interest in that garbage. They are very robust and loved."
Off Kilter will be even more of a success now Byrne is involved. His work on the National Theatre of Scotland's reworked stage version of Tutti Frutti was a resounding success and last year he added a fourth instalment to his Slab Boys trilogy, Nova Scotia. He is showing no signs of slowing down. "I suppose I used to be able to work through the night but that was 20 years ago," he says. "It's more of a daytime pursuit now. I think my work has become more interesting, well to me anyway. Getting older is fine. There is nothing you can do to stop it so you might as well stay on the bus. Keep going all the way to the terminus."
Has humour always been important to him? "Aye and it's often dark," he says. "It's the world I grew up in. That's how it was. No television, no processed humour, no standup comics. Less stimuli, less voices in your head. We just had the wireless."
Byrne's first pieces of writing were full of humour, scribbled in jotters at the age of 12, and not unlike what he would write now. "I wrote wee spoof anecdotes from the local papers," he says. "There was one about a boxing match and one about a visit to the carpet factory. It made me laugh, that's the thing. It's enough that you find it funny and it had that same humour. Very quirky and parochial. It was about the particular rather than the universal, and I've always been about that."
At 12 he also drew his first picture, a pencil drawing of The Sacred Heart that his parents hung on the wall of their home in Paisley.
Byrne recently returned to Paisley for the first time in years and was saddened by how much it has changed. The house he grew up in that his parents moved into in 1937 has gone. The central police station now stands in its place. "That whole street was levelled," he says. "They've torn the heart out of Paisley. Ferguslie Park where I spent the early part of my youth is totally gone, replaced with some kind of rabbit hutches that won't last 30 years. It was very sad. I don't care for the west coast. It's over-familiar to me."
He wrote his first two plays in secret and knew from a young age not only that he wanted to be an artist, but that he had to be. "I just made it happen," he says. "It was very much a need as well as a desire."
The snow has stopped and Byrne is late for his next engagement at the National Library where his original pop-up stage set for 7:84's The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil is on display. The secret to his success, in life as well as art, is that he honestly doesn't care what others think. You could call it arrogance but it's more quiet and understated than that. "You can't namby-pamby about and ask other people, 'is it any good?'" he tells me as he walks into the wind and it almost feels like a last-minute lesson from Byrne as 2009 draws to a close. "It's only your own business. No-one can else can tell you." v
• Off Kilter is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Tuesday to Saturday. www.edinburghshogmanay.com
A version of this article first appeared in Scotland on Sunday on December 27