‘The last of a certain kind of demimonde bon-viveur’
Tributes from Stewart Lee, Sue Perkins and more as comedy producer David Johnson dies at 60.
The words of comedy and theatre have today paid tribute to ebullient producer David Johnson, who died yesterday at the age of 60.
A familiar, larger-than-life figure at the Edinburgh Fringe and the London scene, Johnson produced tours for the likes of Stewart Lee, Sandi Toksvig, Stephen Fry, Fascinating Aida and Sue Perkins.
He was admitted to hospital four weeks ago, where his condition quickly declined.
While his death was not Covid-related, his friend, the publicist Sally Homer, said: ’In a way the virus killed him… he wasn’t a man built for self-isolation nor closed theatres.’
In a fulsome tribute, published below, Lee said: ‘David Johnson changed the course of my life, and many people’s, for the better, and he was the perhaps the last of a certain kind of demimonde bon-viveur, departing the Soho he haunted just as the very streets and structures he loved are gradually erased from the memory.’
Perkins added: ‘He was sensitive, bombastic, kind and funny. I can still hear his naughty cackle in my ears. I was lucky to know him. Those of us who had that privilege will miss him hugely.’
Boundary-pushing comedian Kim Noble said: ‘It was an honour just to know, be around…let alone be represented by such a supportive, large, loud, mischievous and loving man as David Johnson.’
And I, Daniel Blake star Dave Johns said: ‘Edinburgh will be a little less shiny and a lot less fun without this lovely man.. he’ll be sadly missed.’
Johnson, who was an associate of the Soho Theatre and trustee of the Pleasance Theatre, staged shows through his company Password Productions, which he set up with business partner John Mackay in 2008.
Other productions included Steve Coogan’s Perrier-winning Edinburgh show, Bill Hicks’ UK dates and Mark Ravenhill’s plays.
Farewell to a legendary bon viveur
David Johnson made me realise showbiz could be both fair and fun, which was all I ever wanted from it.
As the public face of the Password Productions company he ran with John Mackay, David was unlike any live promoter I had encountered – transparent and honest and loved by venues he dealt with – and he seemed to chose projects solely on the basis of how much he thought he would enjoy seeing the finished product.
If you needed help organising a benefit to pay for William Blake’s memorial stone, David would do it simply for the fun of it. This open-minded and professionally curious attitude lead to a roster of clients stretching from the silver satirists Fascinating Aida, via the resurgent godfather of alternative comedy Alexei Sayle and punk provocateur Malcolm McLaren, to the confrontational cabaret of Christeen and the unclassifiable genius of Kim Noble, a list of names I was honoured to be a part of.
As a person, David was physically and emotionally larger than life, and seemed to have emanated simultaneously from many different eras of his spiritual home, Soho. Beyond the usual comedy and theatre types, his contacts and confidantes encompassed the flaneurs of the Colony Room, the punk cognoscenti and The Blitz Kids, and various forgotten tributaries of the occult and the surreal. If I ever needed an out of print book by a member of The Order of The Golden Dawn, David knew where to find it.
When I introduced him to relatives they felt as if they had met a legend, and always asked me how my lovely promoter was. David was a combination of George Melly, whom he adored, Withnail’s Uncle Monty, and Paddington Bear, that embodied the disappearing ideal of the Soho character, and he takes with him a suitcase of slanderous anecdotes that are amongst the funniest and most fascinating I ever heard, including an unpublishable one so devastating in its cultural and historical impact that it leaves all exposed to it awestruck.
Whenever he chose to drop in on us when we were on tour, we knew we were in for an evening of great wit and staggering revelations. But David’s serious concerns came out, for example, in the small hours twitter wars he waged, deploying his quick wit against the racists and homophobes he found there, and in his support for various passion projects of political theatre, which made a lifelong admirer of his late friend Alan Rickman.
David Johnson changed the course of my life, and many people’s, for the better, and he was the perhaps the last of a certain kind of demimonde bon-viveur, departing the Soho he haunted just as the very streets and structures he loved are gradually erased from the memory.
DILLIE KEANE OF FASCINATING AIDIA
Blisteringly intelligent, an enormous presence, not just in a room but also in my life and so many other lives. A man with a heart as big as a mountain and a limitless capacity for friendship – and that friendship was completely inclusive.
He loved it when friends of his became friends independently. Possessed of absolute theatrical nous and intellectual curiosity: a stalwart champion of the new, the marginal and the edgy, he loved performance that had the power to shock, but only so long as it was true.
Always encouraged me to be better, to write better. Funny, rude, kind, affectionate, ferocious, impatient, testy, sentimental, given to tears easily, and infinitely generous. Loved making a party happen. Made a party happen wherever he was.
Adored his family, and created a family of his own, particularly with his many women friends. An absolutely incalculable loss on a personal level to an astonishing number of people – and Edinburgh will never be the same again.
David was the sort of person you’d read about in a novel; larger than life, his character filling the margins and crowding out the greyer, lesser players. To be honest, everyone was a greyer, lesser player by comparison.
David was the quintessence of old Soho; a bon viveur, a raconteur who loved nothing more than a bottle of red and a filthy anecdote to wash it down with. In a universe of PR, spin and ‘best practice’, David was just rollicking and unapologetically good company.
What I loved most about David was his love of the theatre. It was contagious. In the darkest moments, after a miserable preview in a grubby pub attic, David would emerge from the shadows and make you feel like Judy Garland at the Palladium. His enthusiasm became your enthusiasm. His optimism became the engine of the work. If he believed in you, you felt like you could fly.
David was the ultimate symbol of an old-school arts scene that’s fading fast. That, in itself, is cause for sadness today. He was sensitive, bombastic, kind and funny. I can still hear his naughty cackle in my ears. I was lucky to know him. Those of us who had that privilege will miss him hugely.
It was an honour just to know, be around…let alone be represented by such a supportive, large, loud, mischievous and loving man as David Johnson. He once flew himself to New York just to offer me his support for a show that was going disastrously wrong there. He revelled in the loathing the New Yorkers had for my show each night.
Although i wont miss the red wine laced bearded lip kisses you’d give me, as greeting..I’m totally gutted you’ve gone david.
The Malbec the world over tastes somewhat sad tonight.
BLINDBOY OF IRISH COMEDY RAPPERS THE RUBBERBANDITS
When I first came over to London. I was wet behind the ears. David rescued me from bad management and not only showed me the ropes of the industry, but showed me infinite compassion and kindness. Under DJ and his team, I felt loved and part of a family. It will stand with me for the rest of my life.
David had an ability as a producer to offer criticism of work that through his charm and wit could leaving you feeling better than before you first received it. You’d be better and happier for his appraisal. I found his company exhilarating, on our nights together drinking after a show, with his many good friends; amassed as part of a life of wit of kindness, I had the feeling we were going to be written about as part of a wonderful era. He was kind and funny and his energy would wake you, as if you were more alive in his presence.