David Johnson, theatre producer who stormed the barricades of the cosy world of showbiz
Born: October 12, 1960.
Died: December 13, 2020.
DAVID JOHNSON, who has died aged 60, was a theatre producer whose ebullient largesse and fearless eye for an off-kilter hit was rooted in the creative anarchy of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Household names such as Graham Norton, Stewart Lee, Sue Perkins, Alexei Sayle and Steve Coogan all worked with Johnson, who also brought American provocateurs Bill Hicks and Michael Moore to the UK.
In the in-yer-face 1990s, collaborating with Mark Goucher as G&J Productions, Johnson co-produced commercial tours of Trainspotting, Harry Gibson’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s seminal novel. Tours of Marabou Stork Nightmares and Filth followed.
At one time, the dynamic but short-lived G&J seemed to have cornered the market in grenade-lobbing theatrical assaults on what a commercial hit could be. Mark Ravenhill’s era-defining play, Shopping And F******, went to Broadway. Enda Walsh’s explosive debut, Disco Pigs, hit the West End after being picked up during its sensational Edinburgh run at the Traverse Theatre.
Johnson also oversaw the stage version of Nick Hornby’s novel, Fever Pitch, and there was an 11-year-long West End run of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works Of Shakespeare (Abridged).
With London’s Bush Theatre, he took Tim Fountain’s play Quentin Crisp: Resident Alien, starring Bette Bourne in the title role, to Edinburgh and New York. Also with the Bush, he produced the UK tour of future Mamma Mia! writer Catherine Johnson’s breakout play, Shang-a-Lang. Others passing through his orbit included shows by Steven Berkoff, Jackie Clune and former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.
As well as recognising the shock value of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, Johnson took on more serious endeavours. Alan Rickman’s production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, which went from the Royal Court to New York, was one. The Colour Of Justice: The Stephen Lawrence inquiry, was another.
Johnson liked to ruffle feathers, and didn’t shy away from a fight.
A spat with commercial giant the Ambassador Theatre Group saw him pen an open letter to the company in 2014 after it requested complimentary tickets to see Fascinating Aida’s Edinburgh show; he accused ATG of having an “easyJet/Ryanair mentality” towards charging artists for incidental costs while touring their venues. He described his own company as “big and busty enough to tell you to pay your way in Edinburgh, or get bent”.
Johnson’s generosity and warmth to artists, on the other hand, knew no bounds, and he was loved back in abundance. In a tribute published on comedy website chortle.co.uk, Stewart Lee praised Johnson, who produced several of his shows, as “a combination of George Melly, whom he adored, Withnail’s Uncle Monty and Paddington Bear”.
Like so many of the professional awkward squad who became his charges, Johnson was a provocateur and a troublemaker who liked to stir things up. Sometimes it was naughty fun, but in his heart, Johnson was a great humanist who stormed the barricades of a cosy showbiz world to take what used to be known as alternative comedy and fringe theatre into the mainstream.
David Johnson was born in Duffield, near Derby. He went to prep school at Trearddur House School in Anglesey, Wales, before being packed off to Harrow, which he hated, then to the London School of Economics. He worked as a publicist for public relations firm Laister Dickson, before falling into producing by way of Hysteria, a benefit for HIV and sexual health charity, the Terrence Higgins Trust, starring Stephen Fry.
After forming G&J in 1991, Johnson tapped into the zeitgeist with a vengeance, picking up on a new generation of artists and audiences who wanted a bit more excitement than what regular theatre and comedy was serving up. If G&J and Johnson had a raison d’etre, it was recognising that the old dividing lines – between comedy and theatre, and between the alternative and the commercial – didn’t matter any more. The trail G&J briefly blazed mirrored the brash, in-the-moment attitudes rising out of a broader pop culture sensibility, with hidden depths aplenty beneath the bravura.
Johnson continued with this attitude after G&J’s demise. With Richard Temple, he produced Shang-a-Lang, Puppetry Of The Penis and Sing-A-Long-A Sound Of Music.
In 2008, he co-founded Password Productions with John Mackay. Since then, the company roster has included shows by Rubberbandits, The Pajama Men, and American drag-terrorist, Christeene. In 2011, Password brought Marc Almond to the Traverse to perform solo in Stewart Laing’s production of Ten Plagues, by Mark Ravenhill and Conor Mitchell.
Always in the thick of things, Johnson was an associate of Soho Theatre, and became a trustee of Edinburgh Festival Fringe stalwarts, the Pleasance. Long regarded as one of the greatest gossips around, Johnson’s passing was marked by Popbitch, the scurrilous showbiz scandal website, to which he was a prolific but anonymous contributor.
At the time of his passing, Johnson was working on 2021 tours for Fascinating Aida, Stewart Lee and Sandi Toksvig. When they eventually happen, his final gifts to the arts entertainment world will have his uproarious presence ingrained throughout their every laughter-strewn moment.
Johnson is survived by his mother, Sandy, and his sisters Deborah and Sarah.