Dave Johns is the personification of the spirit of the Fringe and proof positive that magic can happen here in Edinburgh, according to Guy Masterson, who directed him in 2003, in a career changing series of acting roles kicking off with Angry Man No 6, in 12 Angry Men.
Almost twenty years later and Dave still gives great anger. “It’s daylight robbery ! Ah mean Are they fucking taking the piss ?” he demands, rhetorically. “I tell you what, if I had known what it was going to cost us for accommodation before I signed the contract with the Gilded Balloon, I wouldn’t have come up.”
Bringing a show up to the Fringe – even as a simple stand-up – has not been a chap’s cheapest option for August for quite some time.
“I worked out two years ago, if I did nothing – no management or PR or any of that stuff – and just paid everyone 5 quid to come to my show I’d’ve lost 2000 less than what I did.” he says.
But now, there is a general feeling, shared by Dave, that we have reached a turning point.
“I think it’s about time performers get together and just go … nah” says Dave. It is a thought.
Luckily audiences will at least have this year to see him again, although he does have a plan B for next year : “If I’d known about the ripoff accommodation” he says, absolutely seriously. “I might have got an earlier time and just travelled to Newcastle every day”. I am seeing a surge in LNER bookings at the mere mention.
Dave shares most people’s disappointment at the failure of this year’s Fringe to learn from the experience of last year’s scaled down, less frantic, less rabidly commercial version
“It was just like the old Fringe “ says Dave, as does just about everyone who was there. “ It was easy to get around … it was fun. All the shows did really really well, ‘cos they didn’t have the big mega shows to compete with. It had a proper fringey feel.”
Sadly this year’s version is turning into the worst of all possible Fringes.
Anyway. Dave is here and he is here to have fun.
He has been a regular gigging stand up for 33 years. And then he became “a filum star”
“I think it’s funny that Dave Johns is one of the longest serving comedians on the Fringe, and he made his name at 60 as a fucking actor!” says Guy MAsterson “Up to then, he played the smallest roles in all my shows! He was just happy to be in them!”
The fame and fortune “all started because of 12 Angry Men,” agrees Johns, Masterson and writer and comic Owen O’Neill are still arguing as to who exactly decided to cast the entire play with comedians. And the last time I spoke with Guy Masterson he said that it might even have been Mary Shields, then a lynch pin at Assembly. But that is what they did. And, to cut a not particularly long story short, Angry Man No 6 became I, Daniel Blake, fillum star. Now he has sung sea shanties and learned French, won awards and walked red carpets but he always comes back to stand up.
“It is an addiction” he says cheerily “Once you do stand up it is very hard to give it up … Standing in front of an audience of strangers and making them laugh. There’s nothing like it. “ Having spent a few years doing whatever he does to a camera, controlled by a director and then rearranged for six months in an edit, Dave enjoys something else about stand up “I had to learn the filming technique, but with stand up I just feel in total control. I feel totally comfortable up there.” Plus “You know straight away if they like you” he says “.
Of course, fillum fame means “Now I’m in position where don’t have to flog my arse for anything else but laughs” says Dave. “I’d do stand up for nowt
“I’ve no necessity to make loadsa money on stand up I just wanna break even.” He barks a laugh. “So like I need to make 50,000 to break even in Edinburgh”.
“This is the show I’ve always wanted to do” he says.
Previously been guilty of thiinking I have to make it more than stand up, give it a theme give it a meaning. Now I think, no, fuckit, I don’t. I just have to be funny, I’m just coming to tell jokes and have fun with the audience.
I mean, all the first people I came up with were just being funny, I dunno where all this theme and stories and narrative thing happened. I mean when Ross Noble was doing stuff up here he never had an arc … or a great profound moment.” Never, in the entire history of stand up comedy, has a truer word been uttered.
Even better for what Johns calls his “little following”, he is playing the Gilded Balloon Wine Bar.
“ I think it’s weird when a big touring comic – someone who can sell out arenas – comes to the Fringe and plays some huge venue. Why wouldn’t you play a tiny little 100 seater ? It would be such a thrill for your fans, they never see big star like this. I mean, like Paul McCartney did a little 600 seater pre Glastonbury, and it was amazing.”
But, sadly, not all performers are like that. Not all look past the numbers.
“First and foremost you have to love what you do” says Dave, who obviously does. And that love is made up (after 33 years in the biz) of so many happy memories, few of which involve the arena gigs he has done.
He was a newbie, sharing the Pleasance Attic with Dylan Moran the year Dylan won the then Perrier, he tells me. Even amidst small venues, the Attic is small, “I think there were about 30 seats” says Dave :and only about four rows. And one night I came out and, sat in the back row, arms folded, were Harry Hill, Bill Bailey, Frank Skinner and Mark Lamarr. Bastards. All just sat there watching”
Now you are not going to create a memory like that playing the EICC, are you ?
However you might, sitting in the dark in the Gilded Balloon’s Wine Bar listening to the greatest thing to come out of The Toon since its Brown Ale “talking funny shit” for an hour. And, given the expanded skillset that fillum stardom has given him, might we expect a sea shanty to close the show ? “Depends how badly the show is going”, says Dave. That’ll be no sea shanty then.
Dave Johns:A Comic’s Tale, Gilded Balloon, Teviot, Wine Bar, 20.45pm, August 16-28