This article seeks to highlight one of Scotland’s most successful TV playwrights and to trace the relationship he has to Scottish history and identity. The artist and writer John Byrne’s first television commission was an adaptation of his 1978 stage play The Slab Boys. Forming part of the Play for Today series it was broadcast on 6 December 1979. This instigated a career in TV writing that would see him produce a number of high profile and critically acclaimed dramas such as Tutti Frutti (1987), Your Cheatin’ Heart (1990) and a one off adaptation of Boswell and Johnson’s Tour of the Western Isles (1993). His TV work articulates a version of Scottishness that is forever filtered through memory and myth, however it is also far from sentimental. Rooted in his Paisley childhood, his screenplays are tapestries of working class culture, shot through with a celebration of near-contemporary postmodernity.
The article examines how Byrne depicts Scottish identity and how his particular vision uses music and pop culture as a way of discussing Scotland’s relationship to the rest of the world, most notably America. Looking at the broad sweep of Byrne’s TV work, it also considers how his background in painting and graphic design has underpinned characterization and narrative in his plays and series. Byrne’s paintings are full of self-portraits and portraits of friends and family, and this reliance on the autobiographical and the familiar can also be read in his television scripts. Byrne was writing mainly in the 1980s and ‘90s, a time of great change for British television as a whole, and so this chapter also offers a snapshot of an age of auteurist television that has perhaps past.