Full circle: A look back at the creation of Writer’s Cramp

Scottish playwright and artist John Byrne. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Scottish playwright and artist John Byrne. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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John Byrne prepares to reunite the cast of his first play 34 years on, writes Tim Cornwell

IN JULY 1977, then Edinburgh Fringe director Alastair Moffat was typing up the late edition of the festival programme in preparation for what was, in those days, a hot metal print run. As Moffat tells it, he was nearly at the end, when three actors – all on course to becoming major Scottish stage and screen personalities – converged on his office.

Moffat recalls: “I was getting to ‘V’ and the door bursts open and Bill Paterson comes in with Alex Norton and John Bett, and they said, ‘Stop, stop, we have a new play by this guy John Byrne.’ I said, ‘Never heard of him’, and ‘What’s it called?’ They said Writer’s Cramp, and we got it in because it was a ‘W’.” The group phoned John Byrne from the Fringe office, and put the programme copy together.

It was Scottish theatrical history in the making. The venue was tiny – the old Calton Studios, a small TV studio later converted as a cinema and club venue, on Calton Road. In rich Fringe tradition, the fire department concluded it was unsafe for more than a handful of people, and tickets were just 50p. But that August The Scotsman’s writer, Duncan Campbell, gave Byrne’s madcap tale of the fictional Scottish writer and artist Francis Seneca McDade a rave write-up that topped an opening review of the festival.

The last major Scottish revival of Writer’s Cramp was at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in 2000, directed by Bett, whose career has run from co-founder of 7:84 to films including Tamara Drewe to working with the National Theatre of Scotland. The play has been little performed since the mid-1980s. But this weekend, at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – which Moffat directs, as well as the Borders Book Festival – a rehearsed reading will reunite most of the original cast. Paterson, who starred as McDade, and Norton will take their original roles. Bett recently dropped out from illness, but actor and comedian John Sessions has stepped in.

While at the time “everybody in the firmament” crammed in to see Byrne’s Fringe hit, including Billy Connolly and Sean Connery, there will be many younger people who have never seen it.

“To put it all back together, to do it at Lennoxlove is a fantastic thing,” said Moffat, who says he is pleased that the audience will include students bussed in from St Andrews, where he was elected rector last week.

Writer’s Cramp helped launch or reshape the promising early stages of several careers, particularly Byrne’s. At the time, in 1976-77, Byrne was chiefly working as an artist under the name Patrick, and as a set designer, notably for The Great Northern Welly Boot Show, featuring Billy Connolly, and for 7:84, notably the “pop-up book” mobile set for The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. The stunning success of his theatrical debut would elevate the writing to day job status.

He knew all three of his actors from those productions. Paterson, the older, was about to graduate from the 7:84 tours to the West End, television, and film, with his success really reaching its stride in the late 1970s. Alex Norton, 27 at the time and another 7:84 founder, was to hit the big time with Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero in the early 1980s and has a solid film and TV career since.

Byrne recalls how he wrote Writer’s Cramp, his first staged play, secretly, in his garage “because I dinnae have a car”. Painting as “Patrick” – on early works now priced at upward of £10,000 – he was jotting wee bits and pieces in sketchbooks. The character of McDade first took shape in a half-hour BBC radio piece delivered by Paterson.

“I had been working in secret as I always do, doing Writer’s Cramp,” says Byrne. “I never let on that I was writing a play. It’s a fatal Scottish flaw to talk about the things you havnae done and you never have. I don’t know if its particularly Scottish but it’s very prevalent, ‘Oh, I’m doing this film’, and eight years later they have still got a grubby script under the arm, it’s all about what they are going to do.”

Byrne has retyped Writer’s Cramp for Moffat – so “you can feel the back, like Braille”, Moffat says. Byrne still works on a typewriter, he says, because it forces an author to do a full rewrite, rather than tinkering with individual words or phrases on a computer: “There is no such thing as write, there’s only rewrite.”

How to define Writer’s Cramp? It made Byrne laugh in his garage, and the text is still laugh-out-loud funny today. The framing device is a meeting of the Nitshill Writing Circle to celebrate FS McDade, their late, lamented mentor. With the tongue pushed far inside the cheek, we’re promised letters, readings, and quite striking “tableau vivants”, to celebrate the life and times of the “poet, philosopher, painter, sage”.

McDade heads to boarding school at “Miss Kibble’s College” in Paisley – a play on the Kibble School, Byrne’s local borstal, from where boys in near-prison garb came home for two weeks. He gets his schoolboy taste of TS Eliot before its off to Magdalen College with a delicious riff on Oxford life where “Daders” is mooners over “Anners”, but Anners is preggers after dallying with Dickers at Twickers…

What follows are his constant efforts to scrounge fortune and fame through his artistic output, making nonsense in the process of all kinds of pretension, such as his memorable “epic poem” ‘Dimples’: “Door dreekit Dormley’s dimples hing/Roon; his knees in wrinklit rime, An’ a’ the Kings graut him a boon/Fur sick a furry woggle true.”

He is interned during the Second World War as an undesirable alien, stunned to discover he is the biological offspring of his mother’s “night of fun” with German physician Otto Dusselfurt. “He told me his name was Gilhooley,” she insists, “straight off the Belfast boat.” Later there’s a loving biography of McDade, titled ‘Feet of Clay’.

On the heels of Writer’s Cramp’s success, Byrne’s Slab Boys – though he had actually written it first – was staged. It began the polymath writer’s balancing act of visual art and theatre, as in Tutti Frutti, the television play of a wild Scottish rock band where Byrne delivered the memorable sketches of actors like Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson in gig garb. (For the past months, the Glasgow School of Art graduate from 1963 has stuck to his easel, delivering work for art exhibitions in Edinburgh and another opening in Aberdeen.)

At first, he got stuck finding McDade’s name – it was originally James Mavis O’Dowder. There are few writers – Dickens among them, he said – who you can trust to deliver names that are unusual, and convincing. “I just knew it wasn’t the right name because I couldn’t picture him,” he says. In his writing, he adds: “I can visualise and picture every character, down to what they are wearing, down to their shoelaces.”

Among the chums and sidekicks in McDade’s life episodes are the ever-present purloiner Spears, and Double-Davis. The names and characters of McDade’s school days and Oxford life, Byrne says, were inspired by a distant vision of English youth from schoolboy adventures and pranks in magazines like Hotspur or Wizard, published by DC Thompson in Dundee.

Byrne says he was confident he could write, and mostly did it for fun – he financed the Fringe show with a painting commissioned by a Scottish trust for Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow. The particular success of the original cast was that the three men played the show “straight as a die”, making it funny in a way subsequent productions struggled to do. “It was mobbed, you couldnae move, and it just went on and on and on,” says Byrne.

• The Lennoxlove Book Festival is at Lennoxlove House, Haddington, 4-6 November. Highlights include appearances by Claire Tomalin, Michael Frayn and James Naughtie. Writer’s Cramp will be staged on 6 November at 3pm. www.lennoxlovebookfestival.com