by Helen Hawkins
The sudden eruptions of that cackling guffaw? The incendiary 2am emails laced with deliciously icy derision? The gleeful relating of scurrilous stories, some of them against himself? My favourite of those was about his very first Edinburgh visit, arriving with unseasonal clothes, grabbing a big woolly from a shop en route to an important meeting at the Caledonian and hurriedly putting it on in the hotel Gents, only to discover he was wearing a ladies’ sweater dress. Cue for a cackling guffaw.
Where David Johnson’s absence from this year’s Fringe will be felt above all, though, will be as a unique guiding spirit — a mischievous master of ceremonies who could turn an ordinary day into something special. Such as the afternoon I bumped into him and he asked, would I go with him to see a new comic who did her set dressed as Charles II? I did, and had my first sighting of Bridget Christie. There were gigs introducing me to a promising standup (Alfie Brown); to two guys from Limerick who performed strange songs with plastic supermarket bags on their heads (Rubberbandits); to two Americans who improvised mad, twisty plots in their jim-jams (Pajama Men); to the extraordinary, uncategorisable Kim Noble, whose 2015 show about looking for love ended with him bearing away a woman from the audience on a white horse that David’s team had waiting outside the venue.
Even those four acts don’t cover the eclectic range of DJ’s “awkward squad”, as a critic has described his spotted talents. He could be a tastemaker onstage, from the subversive ribaldries of his good friend Mark Ravenhill (Shopping and Fucking) and the visceral energy of the staged Trainspotting to the winning comic monologue Anorak of Fire and the political heft of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, directed by his friend Alan Rickman. He backed shows featuring hunky Australians with their privates on parade in Puppetry of the Penis, and ran Sing-Along-a-Sound-of-Music screenings, where all-comers dressed as nuns and sailor-suited kids. If DJ liked it, he’d back it to the hilt. Especially if it was unsettling and provoking, though he seemed equally happy watching a performance of Salad Days. He loved giving the showbiz envelope a big fat-fingered nudge, while giving audiences a damn good time.
The maverick all this suggests was one of the most generous and loyal chums a person could have. His heart — and wallet— seemed impossibly big, his appetite for entertaining people bottomless. Sometimes he would simply sing: he knew every word of most musicals and everything in the Harrow School Song Book. He loved the pinpoint satire of Fascinating Aïda, but also the punky cabaret of drag-star Christeene. Mostly he loved squiring likeminded people, underwriting their fun and nurturing their naughtiness.
DJ’s client roster has included all the above, as well as Stewart Lee, Sandi Toksvig, Graham Norton, Eoin Colfer, Sue Perkins: this year, we hope to find another act he would have liked, and would have backed to the hilt.
David Johnson Obituary - The Times, 11th March 21
David Johnson Obituary - The Guardian, 1st January 21
David Johnson, theatre producer who stormed the barricades of the cosy world of showbiz - Herald Scotland, 28th December 20
David Johnson Obituary - The Stage, 16th December 20
‘The last of a certain kind of demimonde bon-viveur’ - Chortle, 14th December 20
Theatre And Comedy World Pays Tribute To David Johnson - Beyond The Joke, 13th December 20