The real “Slab Boys”: Workers behind John Byrne play Reunite

Now some of the original slab boys and girls who worked with famed Scottish playwright John Byrne in a carpet factory as teenagers are back together to talk about how their experiences helped inspire a masterpiece.

The Slab Boys trilogy consists of three plays by Byrne which tell the story of a group of young working-class Scots in the slab room of a fictional carpet manufacturer in Paisley between 1957 and 1972.

The company was inspired by Stoddard’s carpet factory in Elderslie, near Paisley, where Byrne worked both as a slab boy and later as a designer after graduating from art school.

HeraldScotland: Jean Scaglione, David Blair, George Johnston, Jim Rafferty, Alex HolmesJean Scaglione, David Blair, George Johnston, Jim Rafferty, Alex Holmes (Image: Paisley Museum)

The Record Room is a small color mixing room where young trainees grind colors together for the designers.

Byrne described his time at the factory as a “paint hellhole”.

Friend Jim Rafferty, who worked alongside Byrne at Stoddard’s, said: “The play was a worldwide hit and what makes it so special is its universality – you can recognize yourself or someone you know in it – and John capitalized on that.”

Mr. Rafferty recently reunited with other former Stoddard colleagues at Paisley’s Secret Collection Museum.

READ MORE: Has Tutti Frutti stood the test of time? – Review

Memorabilia including carpets designed by Stoddard’s, a sketch of the play’s original setting and a painting, Paisley Sunset, by Byrne, will be on display when the museum reopens next year after a £45million refurbishment.

Another of the slab boys, Bill Brown, added: “John was an isolated case. John Byrne could have been born anywhere and still be the same. His talent was amazing.

“He took the characters, overdid them a bit and created an amazing comedic work. It’s an honor for Paisley.”

Herald Scotland: John ByrneJohn Byrne (Image: Newsquest)

Working in the factory could be tiring, hence the humor associated with the plays.

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 were bursting with jokes, and then it all just came together and it became something different, something special.”

Byrne grew up in Ferguslie Park, not far from the factory.

Unlike the play’s main character, Phil McCann, whose application to study art was rejected, Byrne was admitted to the Glasgow School of Art in 1958.

His former colleague George Johnston remembers him well.

READ MORE: The designer makes his debut in Milan with an ode to John Byrne

He said: “He always seemed to be a bit of a tricky guy, turning up to work in safari boots with no socks and thick coats.

“He was eccentric looking and quite unusual but also really funny. He was a very resourceful man and I always enjoyed his company.”

The Slab Boys premiered at the Traverse Theater in Edinburgh on April 6, 1978 before being shown on Broadway in 1983 with an all-star cast.

A film version starring Anna Massey, Tom Watson and Julie Wilson Nimmo was released in 1997.

Byrne later wrote hits like “Tutti Frutti” as well as a large collection of iconic artworks, some of which are also on display in the revamped museum.

HeraldScotland: A Slab Boys Production in 2015A Slab Boys production in 2015 (Image: Newsquest)

In recognition of the group’s role — who refer to themselves as Slabbies, or Stoddardistas — an anonymous donation was made to support the work as part of the museum’s fundraising effort.

The group, who live across the world, still email each other and converse in Scottish, keeping the memories and laughs alive.

Slab colleague Alex Holmes recalled how Stoddard’s staff once took turns wheeling a keg of delicious cider through downtown Glasgow after a long night out.

Since his parents were on vacation, Holmes invited his colleagues to a party at his place.

READ MORE: A director’s life starring John Byrne’s comedy

He said: “Eventually we wheeled it over there to my house and we had a party for a weekend.

“It was so good that John and a few others took Monday off to continue the party and had to explain it to the bosses when we came in the next day.

“We were lucky we didn’t get fired!”

Grace Reader

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