Skip to main content

David Johnson - An Obituary

David Johnson - Theatre producer

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. Now 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 eleven-year West End run of The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged)


With London’s Bush Theatre, Johnson 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, Johnson produced the UK tour of future Mamma Mia! writer Catherine Johnson’s breakout play, Shang-a-Lang. Others passing through Johnson’s 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 Enquiry, was another.


Johnson liked to ruffle feathers, and didn’t shy away from a fight. A spat with commercial giants Ambassador Theatre Group saw Johnson pen an open letter to the company in 2014 after they requested complimentary tickets to see Fascinating Aida’s Edinburgh show. Johnson 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, 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 on Anglesey in Wales before being packed off to Harrow, which he hated, then to the London School of Economics. He worked as a publicist for PR 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. 


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’être, it was recognising that the old dividing lines - between comedy and theatre, and between the alternative and the commercial - didn’t matter anymore. 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, Johnson 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. More recent endeavours included shows by the likes of Kim Noble, whose indefinable fusions of stand-up, theatre and live art were tailor-made for Johnson.


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 byPopbitch, the scurrilous showbiz scandal website for 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, Johnson’s last 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.

The Herald, December 28th 2020




Popular posts from this blog

Big Gold Dreams – A Story of Scottish Independent Music 1977-1989

Disc 1 1. THE REZILLOS (My Baby Does) Good Sculptures (12/77)  2. THE EXILE Hooked On You (8/77) 3. DRIVE Jerkin’ (8/77) 4. VALVES Robot Love (9/77) 5. P.V.C. 2 Put You In The Picture (10/77) 6. JOHNNY & THE SELF ABUSERS Dead Vandals (11/77) 7. BEE BEE CEE You Gotta Know Girl (11/77) 8. SUBS Gimme Your Heart (2/78) 9. SKIDS Reasons (No Bad NB 1, 4/78) 10. FINGERPRINTZ Dancing With Myself (1/79)  11. THE ZIPS Take Me Down (4/79) 12. ANOTHER PRETTY FACE All The Boys Love Carrie (5/79)  13. VISITORS Electric Heat (5/79) 14. JOLT See Saw (6/79) 15. SIMPLE MINDS Chelsea Girl (6/79) 16. SHAKE Culture Shock (7/79) 17. HEADBOYS The Shape Of Things To Come (7/79) 18. FIRE EXIT Time Wall (8/79) 19. FREEZE Paranoia (9/79) 20. FAKES Sylvia Clarke (9/79) 21. TPI She’s Too Clever For Me (10/79) 22. FUN 4 Singing In The Showers (11/79) 23. FLOWERS Confessions (12/79) 24. TV21 Playing With Fire (4/80) 25. ALEX FERGUSSON Stay With Me Tonight (1980) 1. THE REZILL

Losing Touch With My Mind - Psychedelia in Britain 1986-1990

DISC 1 1. THE STONE ROSES   -  Don’t Stop 2. SPACEMEN 3   -  Losing Touch With My Mind (Demo) 3. THE MODERN ART   -  Mind Train 4. 14 ICED BEARS   -  Mother Sleep 5. RED CHAIR FADEAWAY  -  Myra 6. BIFF BANG POW!   -  Five Minutes In The Life Of Greenwood Goulding 7. THE STAIRS  -  I Remember A Day 8. THE PRISONERS  -  In From The Cold 9. THE TELESCOPES   -  Everso 10. THE SEERS   -  Psych Out 11. MAGIC MUSHROOM BAND  -  You Can Be My L-S-D 12. THE HONEY SMUGGLERS  - Smokey Ice-Cream 13. THE MOONFLOWERS  -  We Dig Your Earth 14. THE SUGAR BATTLE   -  Colliding Minds 15. GOL GAPPAS   -  Albert Parker 16. PAUL ROLAND  -  In The Opium Den 17. THE THANES  -  Days Go Slowly By 18. THEE HYPNOTICS   -  Justice In Freedom (12" Version) 1. THE STONE ROSES    Don’t Stop ( Silvertone   ORE   1989) The trip didn’t quite start here for what sounds like Waterfall played backwards on The Stone Roses’ era-defining eponymous debut album, but it sounds

Edinburgh Rocks – The Capital's Music Scene in the 1950s and Early 1960s

Edinburgh has always been a vintage city. Yet, for youngsters growing up in the shadow of World War Two as well as a pervading air of tight-lipped Calvinism, they were dreich times indeed. The founding of the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947 and the subsequent Fringe it spawned may have livened up the city for a couple of weeks in August as long as you were fans of theatre, opera and classical music, but the pubs still shut early, and on Sundays weren't open at all. But Edinburgh too has always had a flipside beyond such official channels, and, in a twitch-hipped expression of the sort of cultural duality Robert Louis Stevenson recognised in his novel, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a vibrant dance-hall scene grew up across the city. Audiences flocked to emporiums such as the Cavendish in Tollcross, the Eldorado in Leith, The Plaza in Morningside and, most glamorous of all due to its revolving stage, the Palais in Fountainbridge. Here the likes of Joe Loss and Ted Heath broug