David Johnson Obituary
Comedy impresario, producer for Stephen Fry and committed bon viveur
With his booming voice and giant teddy bear persona, the theatre producer David Johnson was something of a Soho character, often holding court in the Groucho Club or dining at Quo Vadis, the Ivy or Joe Allen. He was known for his off-the-wall, edgy productions and had a talent for divining theatrical potential in creative works that had originated with other audiences in mind, ranging from the American stand-up comedian Bill Hicks to the former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and the dramatisation of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.
Another aspect of his character was his unstinting championship of performers, especially when it came to bearding increasingly corporate theatre organisations. In 2014, for example, he wrote to a functionary of the Ambassador Theatres Group who had asked for a pair of “arts industry” comp tickets. He declined the request and scolded ATG and its private-eq- uity owners for meanness on the grounds that they charged £15 a day for the use of wi-fi in their dressing rooms and even charged Sandi Toksvig £1.80 for the glass of water she sipped on stage during her show. “Don’t you think ATG should give a blt of a leg-up to the artists that have made the huge financial commitment to be here – instead of shoving out the begging bowl and pestering people for freebies?” he asked.
From his early twenties onwards he smoked “like a Satanic mill”, as John Mackay, his partner in Password Productions put it; and Stephen Fry recalled the extraordinary way in which Johnson would smoke a cigarette almost down to its filter in a single, desperate, needful drag, like something you might see in a cartoon.
David Johnson was one of three children born to Peter Johnson and Sandy Johnson (n6e Bates), in Duffield, Derbyshire. His father worked for the family firm, a wire manufacturing business, in Manchester, and David attended a prep school in Anglesey, Trearddur House, from the age of seven, because the clean air was thought to be better for his asthma.
A boy ‘who preferred indoor’ pursuits, he read voraciously and enjoyed the theatre. Taken to see a production of SaladDays he sang his way through the entire show in an otherwise almost empty house, finaily earning a round of applause from the performers on stage.
He went to Harrow which he did not find congenial, and then began to study for a degree at the London School of Economics but dropped out when he came out as gay and met Mackay, a young drama school student, in a Soho speakeasy called the Pink Panther. They began cohabiting in 1982 by which time Johnson was working for the Soho-based music PR firm Laister Dixon, promoting pop music acts such as Tina Turner and Dionne Warwick. His first experience of producing live performance was an Aids comedy benefit called Hysteria, starring Fry, in aid of the Terrence Higgins Trust.
In 1990 he made his first visit to the Edinburgh Fringe, to promote Ruby Wax and John Sessions, and while there he met Alan Rickman for whom he later co-produced the play My Name is-Rachel Corrie, which went from the Royal Court to New York.
On his first visit to the Edinburgh Festival he met the producer Mark Goucher, with whom he subsequently went into business as G&L. Together they won the Stage/TMA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Regtonal Theatre in 1997.
Among the artists and per- formers whose shows they pro- duced were Graham Norton, Steve Coogan and Steven Berk- off. He produced the stage ver- sion of Irvine Welsh?s ‘Trainspotting (before the film was released); Nick Hornby’s novel Fever Pitch and the ll-year-long West End run of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged).
In the late 1990s Goucher and Johnson were putting on as many as 20 productions – spanning plays, cabaret and stand-up comedy – at the Edinburgh Festival. Regional theatre programmers grew to trust their taste and commercial nous when it came to offbeat material. Eventually, they became overextended and decided to go their own ways.
Johnson’s next insight was to see the potential of an Edinburgh Fringe act called Puppetry of the Penis, in which two well-endowed young Australian men created origami shapes on stage using their genitals, which were projected on to a big screen. Because it was non-sexual, non-threatening and very funny, its largely female audience would be left helpless with laughter. Johnson collaborated with the producer Richard Temple to put it on at the old Whitehall Theatre in 2000. After some initial reticence, Westminster council permitted the marquee display to include the word “penis”.
The following year,’he produced Sing-a-long-a Sound of Music. This had started in a care home, where someone had provided subtitles of the lyrics. He persuaded 20th Century Fox and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organisation to let him have the rights, hired the Prince Charles Cinema in the West End, and it became a hit, screening in 70 theatres and cinemas nationwide. Audience members would don fancy dress items, such as nun’s habits, dirndls and lederhosen.
One man came in Hasidic Jewish garb, which was a little confusing. When the compere Jackie Clune asked him why, he responded: ‘A Jew a Jew to you and you and you” – a spoof of the lyrics of “So Long, Farewell”. Sing-a-long-a Sound of Music enjoyed an international tour, which included a sell-out show at the Rose Bowl stadium in Los Angeles.
Johnson also produced book tour shows for Stephen Fry’s Mythos and Heroes and Stewart Lee’s one-act play What Would Judas Do? Johnson thereafter produced several shows for Lee, having encouraged him to move away from stand-up and into complex conceptual narratives with a big reveal at the end. Lee described Johnson as “a combination of George Melly, whom he adored, Withnail’s Uncle Monty and Paddington Bear”.
Having feasted with panthers in his youth, Johnson had grown set in his ways and preferred a busy social life to attempting new domestic relationships, while his penchant for fine living ensured an ever-expanding waistline. He kept working until his own curtain call, continuing to be almost more ambitious for his performers than they were themselves.
David Johnson, theatrical producer, was born on October 12, 1960. He died of respiratory failure on December 13, 2020, aged 60.