Tuesday last week, three days after The Herald Magazine ran my spread on the resurrection of Tutti Frutti, 22 years on from its last broadcast. I’m pushing a trolley round Asda when I get a text from an unknown number. “Emma T assures me I should speak to you soon. I have been in a crazy six-week shoot, had no time for anything else. Shall we talk tomorrow? Robbie C.”
It takes a moment for the names to register. Then I realise that it’s Robbie Coltrane finally taking up the interview request (following a fair bit of persuasion from his mate Emma Thompson) to discuss Tutti Frutti, John Byrne’s classic series in which Coltrane played both the lead, Danny McGlone, and, in archive footage, his late brother, Big Jazza.
Two days later I find myself sitting at Coltrane’s kitchen table, in his converted barn at the top of a hill in the countryside near Glasgow. Only Tutti Frutti – and Emma Thompson – got me in the door, and once he turns up from waving off one of his precious American Jeeps as it heads for the Museum of Transport, he clearly relishes the chance to talk about what he regards as a “seminal piece;” one which he has been asked about at least half a dozen times a day since he made it.
Coltrane and Thompson tried to buy Tutti Frutti from the BBC so they could release it themselves, he reveals. “We thought it was a very important piece – not just because we were both in it, but because it was the absolute first-ever, 20 years before any other, TV series that was incredibly funny and also very serious. People think of that as the norm now but no-one had ever done anything like that back in 1987. I remember people at the BBC pestering John, saying: ‘Somebody commits suicide in this – is it a comedy or not?’ And John goes: ‘Yes, it’s a comedy. It’s a comedy and somebody dies. In other words – it’s like real life.’ And now you’ve got Clocking Off and umpteen shows like that where it’s perfectly acceptable to be funny and tragic at the same time.”
Coltrane first met Byrne in 1977. “I joined the Traverse Theatre and then John’s Slab Boys came along. I don’t think he particularly wanted me for it but he had to take me – and we hit it off very quickly. I knew his art works. [Indeed, his house is full of them.] It was a joy to do that play, it was so funny. It was the hit of the festival – there were lines and lines of people and at one point we thought we’d have to do two or three a day just to get the people in because it was mental. It’s typical John Byrne: it’s hilarious then somebody tries to kill themselves, and you go: ‘Whooooooaaaa’.”
The pair worked together on several productions, including two pantomimes – one of which featured Coltrane as a keyboards-playing pussycat named Travolta, a part that Byrne cited as inspiring him with the idea of Coltrane as the lead character in Tutti Frutti. That must have been wonderful, at that stage in his career, to have something written specially for him?
“Well, at any point – to have somebody that talented writing for you, to be worthy of their interest, is just wonderful. When I read the script I laughed till I was sore, and when Em and I sat down and went through it for the first time, we kept falling off our f***ing seats – it was so funny.”
By the time Byrne began work on Tutti Frutti, he knew Coltrane well enough to not only write Danny McGlone with him in mind from the outset, but to endow him with the actor’s personality too. Did Coltrane recognise himself in McGlone?
“Oh yeah, definitely,” he says somewhat sheepishly, “all my weaknesses and pretensions laid large. Oh, he got me to a tee!”
Even the banter between Suzi and Danny is mirrored in real life by the badinage between “Em” and “Rab”. “Yeah, we do have that kind of relationship – a lot of bantering – but John wouldn’t have seen us together before he wrote it. He’d have sussed it pretty damn quick though.”
Of course, it was Coltrane who suggested Thompson for the part of Suzi Kettles, the fellow art school graduate who, somewhat reluctantly, joins the Majestics, the rock ‘n’ roll band into which Danny has already been co-opted for their silver jubilee tour. “I won’t tell you who they wanted,” he says mysteriously, “but they had thought of all kinds of singers, and I said: ‘No, we don’t want a singer who can do a bit of acting. We want a really, really good actress. Hello? Major thrust of the story: the big romance between Suzi and Danny. She’s got to be quite irresistible and a very good actress.”
Coltrane proudly recollects how everyone became smitten with Thompson when they met her, how she mastered the guitar in just three weeks “and sings like a linty”. He reads out the debate-provoking comments from her Herald interview in which she said there is “so much genius, but so much misery” in the Scottish arts scene. “Yup, she’s not far wrong there … That’s a brilliant picture, isn’t it? That’s a lovely picture of Em, a lovely picture. God, she’s got great gnashers – hasn’t she got great gnashers?”
Coltrane’s favourite scenes to shoot were the ones he and Thompson filmed early in Suzi’s flat. “That was the first time I had been required to do that kind of acting, proper relationship acting. I wasn’t, as people have unkindly said, the most obvious pin-up as a leading man so I hadn’t had that chance before.
“Those scenes were great because you could feel the developing relationship; you saw that they were like any other couple going through their defence mechanisms before they admit that they find life impossible without each other, and I thought John traced that absolutely perfectly.”
When the show was going out, the Suzi and Danny relationship became a national obsession, remembers Coltrane. “The papers were full of ‘Will they? Won’t they?’ It was astonishing. People would beg me to tell them if Suzi and Danny would get off with each other. People offered us money – did Em tell you that?” His greatest thrill was receiving a letter from George Harrison in which the Beatle said: “Tutti Frutti is exactly what it’s like being in a band and I rather like the way you played the guitar as Big Jazza. You are fab.”
So, what does Coltrane think Danny McGlone would be doing now? “I often wondered about that because there was talk of a follow-up – plus you do have to think about that, about a character’s journey, when you’re playing him. Suzi and Danny weren’t the kind of people who would have settled down to ‘parochial mediocrity’, as Danny put it. He might have been an IT consultant by now – or working for the health board. It’s a good question, isn’t it? I think she would have been more likely to do something interesting than Danny – he was a bit of a dreamer.”
Given that in the parallel universe of Tutti Frutti, the Majestics will be celebrating their golden jubilee in 2011, does Coltrane reckon a follow-up could work?
“Frankly,” he says, “I think John Byrne could make anything work.”
* Tutti Frutti is out on DVD now. The Herald Magazine spread can be seen at http://www.heraldscotland.com
TUTTI FRUTTI GUIDE TO GLASGOW
102 Calder Street, Govanhill – location of the bus stop where Big Jazza totalled Mr Clockerty’s motor, and where Danny is interviewed for the TV expose on the Majestics
The Burrell Collection, Pollok Country Park, 2060 Pollokshaws Road – only opened three years before Tutti Frutti was filmed, this was where Suzi and Danny start to get to know each other; in his favourite section – the Twelfth Century Tapestries room.
Greek Golden Kebab Restaurant, 34 Sinclair Drive, Battlefield (0141 649 7581) – the 1970-style Greek taverna where Eddie Clockerty invited associates for a “wee shish kebab” and “a Macedonian fruit amphora”
THE WEST END
Coopers, 499 Great Western Road – back in the late 1980s, this pub was Chimmy Chunga’s, the Mexican bar where Suzi Kettles is working as a cocktail waitress when in walks her old art school crush, Danny McGlone
56 Kersland Street – Suzi’s first floor flat
2 Southpark Avenue – the dental surgery
Gardner Street – Eddie Clockerty’s shop, Manhattan Casuals
The Glasgow School of Art, 167 Renfrew Street – the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed college which Danny and Suzi visit several times during the series, notably en route to eating out on “Chicken Harry Lauder”
Pavilion Theatre, 121 Renfield Street – the venue for the climax of the Majestics’ silver jubilee tour..