We like to talk about mavericks. The other day I went to see a show in which a comedian talked about her family of mavericks. Except they weren’t really – just a bunch of slightly crazy older folk who she took videos of; and they weren’t very funny. On the way out I said to my husband, “I don’t think they’re as mad as my family” and he wholeheartedly agreed. We think people we know are wacky and offbeat, but make a show and it is often self indulgent gibberish
But David Johnson was a proper maverick and he would have had nothing to do with shows like that. If he felt a show had a place on the Fringe he brought it here and the list goes from early hits like the original production of Trainspotting and The Reduced Shakespeare Company (with his then producing partner, Mark Goucher) through absolute favourites, such as Fascinating Aida, to the totally out there, ‘what-on earth-am-I-watching?’ like the Irish, plastic bag wearing, comedy hip hop icons Rubberbandits or the radical ‘post-punk drag terrorist/moral vacuum philosophy of Christeene (the latter of whom I still sometimes cannot close my eyes without seeing – her screaming voice in my head)
But David really was a one off in these days of mediocrity. Personally, I met him in about 1990 when we were both in the offices of Matthew Freud when he was working on the AIDS fund raiser ‘Hysteria’ There was good intent, but somehow we realised that we worked better with bad intent. He used to stay with me in Edinburgh. He was a bloody nightmare – climbing in through a window when he had lost his keys. Or indeed when he had left his keys having discovered a new show at midnight (such as Puppetry of the Penis) or a ‘lovely boy’ in the New Town Bar at about the same time. Other times he invited people back and kept the neighbours up with the ‘vileness of their conversation’ as he did with Tim Fountain – although to be honest I managed to sleep through the whole thing.
We lost David in 2020, or perhaps he left us. David didn’t really do anything solely to please other people but he had a brilliant eye for finding something that would appeal – sometimes subversive and sometimes almost rescuing an act that had perhaps lost their way or was just dispirited from being badly managed. His killer instinct was also tempered with a rare moral courage and he wasn’t scared of picking a fight for the right cause. As one fellow producer wrote, ‘he laughed in the face of pomposity and poured scorn on injustice’.
His legacy will be the largest financial prize on the Fringe and he would be highly amused that the David Johnson Emerging Talent Award will hand over more money than the venerated Edinburgh Comedy Award.
On Sunday the recipient of this new accolade will be announced at a show at 6pm at Assembly George Square. It will be fabulous – with a line-up including Stewart Lee, Fascinating Aida, Dave Johns, Camillie O’Sullivan, Lynn Ferguson and Rhys Nicholson and in his name a Fringe performer will be given (in addition to a cash prize of £11,000) an award (hand-crafted by comedy legend, Simon Munnery) that will mean more to him than something a decided by committee and overseen by a lawyer.
I can’t emulate the wonderful, drink-fuelled ranting emails that DJ would fire off at midnight but we can come along to celebrate the last of the true great mavericks.
The David Johnson Emerging Talent Award, 18.00, Assembly George Square, August 28