The next post till be on or before Sunday 18th March. If you want to read my latest comic novel The Lawless Book of Love you will need to look at the January and February 2018 archive, see below and to the right
TUTTI FRUTTI AND LOVE HURTS
Just over 30 years ago in 1987 the BBC broadcast a highly successful 6 part drama Tutti Frutti about a rickety Glasgow rock and roll band called The Majestics making a so called comeback after the tragic if farcical death of its lead singer Big Jazza. It was scripted by John Byrne (born 1940, and once the partner of Tilda Swinton) ‘the first post-modernist from Paisley’ who was also famed for his hit stage play trilogy The Slab Boys based on his own rough and raw experiences working in a carpet factory in the late 1950s. Much of the UK population joyously tuned in to watch Tutti Frutti, riveted and agog, because on top of the vintage rock songs it combined hectic black comedy spiralling all the way to harrowing tragedy, alongside an endearing if sentimental love affair developing between Emma Thompson (born 1959) aka Suzi Kettles the barmaid turned Majestics vocalist, and Danny McGlone another replacement vocalist and younger brother of Big Jazza. McGlone who was the walking double of his dead brother was played with panache by Robbie Coltrane (born 1950), meaning he also played Jazza as he laid lifeless and with a comical expression in the wreck of his car that he had pranged into a bus shelter when deadly drunk. Films about unheroic music bands (see also The Leningrad Cowboys by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki) are good material for comedy inasmuch as they pose the tantalising dreams of global success and massive wealth against the likelier reality if you are a Majestic of sitting cramped and hungover in a Transit van and heading for gigs in desolate little towns such as Buckie on the Scottish Moray coast. That grim little fishing port is the unlikely venue for one of the band, Vince Driver, almost being murdered and his wife Noreen because of his unrepentant adultery taking a near fatal overdose.
Vince, played with great conviction by veteran Maurice Roeves (born 1937) recently seen as a chief police inspector in the excellent Brighton Rock 2010 remake, calls himself The Hard Man of Scottish Rock, a poignant irony as one misfortune after another topples him and leads to his eventual grisly suicide. He is turning 46 in the series, married to a sedate and squashed nurse called Noreen and they have a childless marriage which he believes is down to her infertility. Noreen is sister of the band drummer Bomba portrayed with fitting bombast by one-time BBC Play School presenter Stuart McGugan (born 1944) and Bomba who was once a happy womaniser himself is now the exhausted father of two baby twins. In between bullying bass player Fud and arguing with everyone in the band and insisting with unreformed chauvinism there be no chicks/ dolls such as Suzi Kettles in the group, he loudly condemns Vince’s flagrant affair with a much younger woman Glenna, exactly half his age at 23. Dubbed by the band members Munchkins, Glenna is the dreamy and chronically immature lassie who pettishly demands Vince stop sleeping with Noreen, and dotingly knits him a hideous cardigan to wear on stage, the sleeves being so long they touch the floor. At one mindblowingly dramatic point, prior to the gig at dreary Buckie, she forgives Vince for their recent quarrel and surprises him by arriving in a taxi at the hotel. She had no idea that Vince’s wife had accompanied him there, nor that after her husband’s testy denial of their adultery, Noreen had taken an overdose, something she had done several times before, but this time in earnest. With Noreen in hospital Glenna and Vince swiftly end up in bed together, but then there is a sudden urgent phone call saying that he is wanted down in the bar.
There he finds a strange and nervous young woman who he does not realise is the same one had made the alarming phone-in call to Radio Buckie that morning, when Bomba and Danny were being interviewed about the comeback tour. Live on air she had accused Bomba of being her Dad, as she had researched the Majestics’ only other Buckie gig date back in 1963, which just happened to be exactly 9 months before her own birth in 1964. Virtuous Bomba is of course panic-stricken as he has no memory of the initialled pendant she claims he had given to her groupie Mum 23 years earlier. In fact his memory is sound enough, as wily Vince had had several of those pendants made with Bomba’s initials engraved on them, so that any future paternity would be laid at his door, not Vince’s. There is another fine comic improvisation on this appalling ploy, where their rogue of a manager Eddie Clockerty played by the excellent Richard Wilson(born 1936) of One Foot in The Grave fame, recalls that some young fan 20 years ago had clingingly showed him an adoring message saying ‘love from Eddie’, evidently another of Vince’s fabrications, though at the time Clockerty had thought it was a fan club greeting card from the global US rock star Eddie Cochran (1938-1960).
The strange young woman can’t match the names with the gaggle of band members in the bar, but instinctively she recognises Vince as her one and only Dad, and promptly goes and stabs him in the belly with a flick-knife for deserting her Ma. Cue then the arrival of the polis car with her being taken away under a blanket, and Vince being rushed to hospital and ironically placed adjacent to his unconscious wife Noreen. Earlier when he had visited her he had ranted to accusing Bomba, and said she was a headcase and he had no pity for her. The Hard Man of Rock in that guise was true to form, but John Byrne is a sophisticated dramatist and subsequently shows Driver on a downward spiral which by the final episode has him desolate with grief as he starts insisting to Danny that:
“I am the SOB Hard SOB Man of SOB Scottish AAGH Rock…”
Young Glenna’s tragic naivety is such that she pretends to be pregnant by Vince and when he will not leave his wife she finally drowns herself by jumping in the Clyde. Thoroughly devastated for possibly the first time in his macho life, childless Vince has no idea of her invention, until Noreen the nurse confronts him and says no Glenna’s pregnancy would have been impossible not because of her infertility but because of his. Vince, she tells him, had the second lowest sperm count her hospital had ever seen, a fact she had kept hidden from him when she and he were unable to have a family. Prior to that, when Noreen realises how long she has been deceived, she takes all of Vince’s prized and unreplaceable Majestics’ clothes and burns them outside their house in a vengeful bonfire. More farcically, preceding that irreversible loss and piling up the grief on Vince’s unfeeling shoulders, he had gone to track down devious manager Clockerty for his arranging a prime time TV interview exclusively with Danny McGlone and no one else in the band. Clockerty who runs a tacky clothes shop as well as a dodgy musical agency (Carntyne Promotions) is so fearful of Vince’s wrath he hides under a table behind a locked door, whereupon Vince batters the glass panel with his head and gashes his scalp severely. Throughout the series then Vince the Hard Man progresses from a massive head bandage (Danny drives him mad by calling him Daffy Duck) to a wheelchair after his stabbing, to a pair of crutches during his recuperation. Part of John Byrne’s creative originality then is to show his rock heroes at the nadir of their heroic ambitions, so that proud and vain Bomba is brought down to earth by the fact he has to look after his baby twins, while of necessity hosting in his house regular meetings about the band’s forthcoming gigs. Bomba’s coping strategy is to delegate tyrannically to the gentle bassist Fud/Frank played impressively by the late Jake D’Arcy (1945-2015) of Gregory’s Girl fame. Meanwhile the rows between Bomba and Vince and Danny about the band’s future can only end up waking the twins and driving Bomba crazy, added to which Vince and Danny peremptorily turning off his blaring TV pushes him to madness as they dare to take charge of his telly in his house, so that in a demented rage he flings Vince’s guitar through the window.
For me the finest artistic achievement in this series is not the high drama, powerful as it is, but the subtle evocation of surreal contingencies, meaning the inane and mundane stood next to the dramatic or even tragic. Thus while Bomba and Vince are rowing angrily about the band, Fud is feeling Bomba’s new sitting room carpet and making solemn comments about the necessity of good underlay. Better still both Fud and Vince the hard man become deeply absorbed in the TV showing of the children’s programme Postman Pat in Gaelic in Bomba’s parlour, and are so far estranged from their Scottish heritage they don’t even know it is Gaelic they are listening to.
“Why are they talkin daft like that?”
“It must be cos it’s for weans (little kids)”
As for black anti-climax, where for example looking further afield the celebrated US Coen Brothers prove themselves to be virtuosos, there are 2 fine examples in Tutti Frutti. In this context I need to explain that about 40% of the 6 part series is devoted to the love affair of Danny/Coltrane recently back from a desolate existence in New York as a struggling painter, who recognises an old art college pal Suzi Kettles/ Emma Thompson in the Glasgow bar where she is employed as cocktail waitress. They indulge in friendly and hectic banter where essentially Coltrane gets the best lines and Thompson is more of a foil batting off his presumptuous advances as he begs to kip on her floor, and hopefully more, for the time he is here for Big Jazza’s funeral. This motif of him pushing and she fending him off is sustained for all six episodes until their eventually falling in love on stage, and it is for me the weakest part of the drama, especially now I have watched Tutti Frutti for the 3rd or 4th time in its entirety. It is weak because it is essentially a one note riff and Thompson is too good an actor to be a foil, added to which Danny is massively overweight and feckless and penniless, whereas Suzi is slim and beautiful and practical and provident, so it is hard to see why she should end up quite so head over heels. Her earlier marriage and estrangement from a sadistic abusive dentist is revealed late in the series, when he comes round and brutally twists her arm for seeing other men, albeit Byrne was very prescient in 1987 to have the abuser bursting wretchedly into tears after his cruelty. Later Danny notices the bruises and demands explanation and Suzi breaks down as she relates the horror of the abusive marriage. Desperate for solace, she then looks to Danny supine on the sofa, but as in real and anticlimactic life he is fast asleep and snoring at her most poignant revelations.
Blacker still is the very end of the series, when Vince thoroughly heartbroken douses himself with Polish vodka on stage, once he has decided to immolate himself. Would you believe it, his crappy free gift lighter won’t work, and he tries numerous times in vain to set himself on fire to end his grief. He can’t even manage that properly, one sees him reflecting, until on the nth attempt the lighter works, and Tutti Frutti immediately ends. We don’t know whether he dies or ends up with 3rd degree burns and almost as tough as that for the programme’s fans, was the fact the series was unavailable on video or DVD until 2009, meaning 22 years after it was broadcast. The BBC would not reveal why, but it turned out it was a copyright problem over the title song Tutti Frutti, a hit number by Little Richard (born 1932) which Danny deliberately distorts in one of his performances. Because of that, Little Richard’s agents demanded an exorbitant copyright fee, until eventually it was resolved. I for one had to wait over 20 years to watch again this excellent and revolutionary TV drama, and yes it really was worth the wait but no, one should not have to wait an aeon to see what is remarkable, when as rule you can watch any old unbelievable garbage a few months after its TV or cinematic debut