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Slab Boys and Girls remember inspiration behind John Byrne’s play

on 23 July 2023 1

Reunited – the original Slab Boys and Girls remember the inspiration behind John Byrne’s iconic play

It took Paisley to Broadway and has had Hollywood heavyweights including Sean Penn, Robbie Coltrane and Kevin Bacon playing its much-loved characters – but now, some of the original Slab Boys and Girls who worked with renowned Scottish playwright John Byrne as teenagers in a carpet factory have been reunited to talk about their experiences which helped inspire a masterpiece.

The Slab Boys Trilogy is a set of three plays by Byrne, which tell the story of a group of young, working-class Scots during the period from 1957-1972 in the slab room of a fictional carpet manufacturer in Paisley. The company was inspired by Stoddard’s carpet factory in Elderslie, near Paisley, where Byrne worked as both a slab boy and later as a designer following his graduation from art school followed by a brief time designing covers for penguin books and sets for Scottish TV. The slab room is a small, paint mixing room where young apprentices grind colours together for the designers.

Slab Boys

The first play is set in 1957, the year Byrne joined Stoddard’s. He described his time in the factory like being in a ‘technicolour hell hole.’

Jim Rafferty met John Byrne at school as young teenagers attending St Mary’s Youth Club in Queen Street in Paisley, before becoming firm friends. Both worked at Stoddard’s ‘the result of that was The Slab Boys.’ He added: “The play has been such a worldwide success and the thing about it is its universality – you can recognise yourself or someone you know in it – and that’s what John tapped in to.”

Jim and some of his former colleagues recently met at Paisley’s Secret Collection – the UK’s only museum store set on a high street to discuss their experiences. A number of objects, including carpets designed by Stoddard’s, a design of the play’s original set and a painting, Paisley Sunset, by Byrne, will be put on display when the town’s museum reopens next year after a £45 million refurbishment.

Slab Boys

Jean Scaglione, David Blair, George Johnston, Jim Rafferty, Alex Holmes, George Grant, Bill Brown

OneRen – the charity which will operate the museum on behalf of Renfrewshire Council – has been working behind the scenes to recreate the sense of the carpet factory in 1957 that inspired a masterpiece. Creative worker, Ruth Aitken was thrilled to be asked to help. As a child, she memorised the play – word for word – from a cassette recording of a radio performance. She said: “I was delighted when I was asked to research this story and it has been such a joy. I will forever be grateful for the generosity of the original slab boys and girls who regaled me with so many brilliant and hilarious stories – many of which could never be repeated! It seems that the hilarity of the play came straight from real-life back in the slab room in the late 50’s.”

Another of the slab boys Bill Brown, added: “John was a one-off. John Byrne could have been born anywhere and still been the same. His talent was amazing. He took characters and exaggerated them a bit and produced an amazing work of comedy. He’s a credit to Paisley.”

Paisley Sunset by John Byrne

The work in the factory could be tedious, which is where the humour associated with the plays came from. Slab girl, Jean Scaglione said: “I just think it was the character of the people in the factory. We were all full of ideas, heads bursting with jokes and it just so happened that we all got together and it became something else, something special.”

Byrne’s play is a semi-autobiographical work. Byrne was raised in Ferguslie Park, not far from the factory. Unlike the main character in the play, Phil McCann whose application to go to art school is turned down, in 1958 Byrne was successful in applying to Glasgow School of Art.

His former colleague, George Johnston remembers him well. He said: “He always seemed a bit of a tricky chap, and he used to turn up for work in safari boots with no socks and massive coats. He looked eccentric and he was quite unusual, but really funny as well. He was a very imaginative man and I always enjoyed his company.”

The Slab Boys premiered at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh on 6 April 1978, before going on to be staged in Broadway in 1983 with a star-studded cast. A film version was released in 1997, starring Anna Massey, Tom Watson and Julie Wilson Nimmo.

Byrne later wrote hits including Tutti Frutti, as well as his large body of iconic art work, some of which will also be featured in the new museum.

In recognition of the part played by the group – who refer to themselves as the Slabbies or the Stoddardistas – an anonymous donation was made to support the work as part of the museum’s fundraising appeal. The group, who live across the world, still write to each other by email, conversing in Scots and keeping the memories and laughs alive.

Fellow slab boy Alex Holmes, says he hopes visitors get a sense of the fun and vibrancy of life in a factory, long before mobile phones and even television. He said: “It was a completely different world where you made your own fun. It was almost a joy to go into work. There may have been drudgery in some of the work, mixing the paints, but it was a laugh-a-minute and brilliant to see John’s talent develop. I was gobsmacked to see him just painting, using old paints and the back of a piece of paper and create something brilliant right there in the slab room. He was non-stop all the time.”

Alex recalled a time when John and the gang from Stoddard’s went into Glasgow to the Saracen Head pub in the Gallowgate, at a time when there was ‘sawdust on the floor’ and looked on in awe as Angus, the Highland bartender, lifted up huge barrels of scrumpy cider with ease.

With his parents off for the holidays and ‘an empty’ back home, a party was arranged. Alex added: “We went up to get a barrel of scrumpy but unlike big Angus, the three of us had real trouble, so we all took turns rolling it down the Gallowgate, Argyle Street and Clyde Street, and got it on a double decker bus back to Johnstone.

“We eventually rolled it up to my house there and we had a weekend long party. It was so good that John and a few others took the Monday off to continue the party and had to explain to the bosses when we went in the next day. We were lucky we weren’t fired!”

1 Comment
  • Linda Brown 4 months ago

    I was watching Slab Boys and wondered if Billy Brown was my husbands first cousin?
    Peter Easton Brown.My husband told me he had two cousins who worked at Stoddards
    Peter &Billy.Unfortunately my husband has passed away but looking at the photo their is a definite likeness,Linda Brown

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