How’s this for a sure-fire recipe for TV success: Robbie Coltrane as a doesn’t-really-wannabe rock star about to tour small-town Scotland and Emma Thompson as his will-she-ever-be-his-girlfriend in a TV series from Mr Tilda Swinton himself, John Byrne?
First screened in 1987, Tutti Frutti tells the story of Scottish rock band The Majestics who decide to celebrate their Silver Jubilee with a tour of Scotland under the management of small-time businessman Eddie Clockerty (Richard Wilson).
When lead singer Big Jazza McGlone (Robbie Coltrane) is killed, Clockerty must find a replacement or call off the tour. In desperation, Clockerty’s attention turns to McGloan’s younger brother Danny (also played by Coltrane), just returned from New York for his sibling’s funeral.
Soon McGlone is embroiled in various ploys designed to help save the band, while all the while rocker Vincent Diver (Maurice Roëves) goes through a midlife crisis and Scotland braces itself for the tour of the century.
Winning six Bafta’s after its initial screening on BBC One, Tutti Frutti has only ever been repeated once by the broadcaster, otherwise relegated to TV history.
Watching the series today, it’s obvious that a crime has been committed in the BBC keeping it locked up for so long.
This isn’t just television, this is art: time and money may be spent trying to keep paintings and statues in the country for future generations, but we’ve been sold a pup – the release of Tutti Frutti from the archives is what we should have been fighting for all along.
This is a story of its time, a Glasgow’s Miles Better-era world of fish ‘n’ chips and chips on shoulders, where small town radio stations and village halls are the norm, glamour is something you see on TV and trying to better yourself is viewed as being stuck up rather than something to be encouraged.
In fact, nothing much has changed in the intervening decades, the eating of fish suppers in the rain still preferable to posh nosh in a restaurant and success still frowned upon.
It’s the little details that make Tutti Frutti special. The dialogue between characters feels right, their clothes look lived in, their history is obviously shared. These are men who have been forced to work together and who know each others foibles, even if they’ve grown tired of the constant search for success.
Robbie Coltrane has never been better, the down-at-heel Danny trying to make sense of his life while he falls for the redheaded Suzi Kettles, a deservedly award-winning performance from Emma Thompson.
At the time of the show’s original transmission there was much debate over the McGlone/Kettles relationship, one of the most eloquent you’ll see in UK drama. Time is given to building their characters, some scenes lasting for five minutes or more, something unheard of in modern TV.
Elsewhere, Richard Wilson (“a jumped-up haberdasher that reckons a prawn cocktail in a Wimpy Bar is a pretty lavish introduction to London nightlife”) fights for the best one-liners with gallus secretary Miss Toner (Katy Murphy) in a double act that deserved a spin-off series.
To say the pair merely provide light relief would be to do them a disservice, their interaction as vital to the piece as any other. The world-weary banter accompanied by copious cups of tea, souvenir brochure scams and the knowledge that neither could survive without the other makes them both hilarious and tragic at the same time, a theme common to the series as a whole.
While Coltrane won most of the plaudits, it’s Maurice Roëves as the constantly harangued Vinnie who steals the show from under his blue suede shoes. Coltrane may get the lion’s share of the scenes and dominate proceedings but the camera tends to linger that bit longer on Vinnie, watching him as his life slowly falls apart.
Stuart McGuigan as Bomba and Jake D’Arcy as Fud are also vital to the productions believability while Fiona Chalmers as lovelorn Glenna is tries gamely to match the standards on offer around her.
Watching the drama unfold is bittersweet, the knowledge that there are only six episodes meaning the completion of another gloriously crafted hour means you’re closer to the end.
Veering from laugh-out-loud to gut-wrenching within the space of a few seconds, Byrne and director Tony Smith crafted a near-perfect piece of drama which deserves – make that demands – repeat viewings.
Sadly there is one small issue with the series, one which John Byrne discusses briefly in a new interview on disc two. Due to union problems, half the episodes are shot on video, rather than the grittier film stock used on the first few installments. This does detract slightly from the visual impact, but thankfully the script makes up for the problem.
Commentaries or a documentary would have been welcome after all this time, but apart from Byrne’s interview and an archive Wogan appearance by Thompson, we’re given an animated photo gallery and PDFs of Radio Times listings and LP sleeve artwork.
Representing one of the crowning achievements of British comedy-drama in the last quarter century, Tutti Frutti is a unique and hugely satisfying slice of TV from the vaults of BBC Scotland which deserves a place on everyone’s DVD shelves.
Here’s hoping the DVDs sell like hotcakes…or should that be oatcakes?
Tutti Frutti is out now on DVD in the UK from 2entertain, priced £19.99.