I, Daniel Blake star Dave Johns on returning to the Fringe

Dave Johns will be bringing his show I, Fillum Star to the Pleasance (running until 27 August). Picture: Steve Ullathorn
Dave Johns will be bringing his show I, Fillum Star to the Pleasance (running until 27 August). Picture: Steve Ullathorn
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DAVE Johns’s experience of playing the lead role in a multi-award-winning Ken Loach film has inspired him to share it with us, writes Kate Copstick

Google “Ken Loach quotes” and you’ll get enough inspirational thoughts to start a revolution. But none lingers in the mind on an everyday basis quite like the one Dave Johns had printed on mugs for cast and crew of I, Daniel Blake when the film wrapped. “Puddin’ is the enemy of creativity,” says Johns. “Ken doesn’t let any of his actors have puddin’. You have puddin’ then you get that sugar drop in the middle of the afternoon.” He crunches a Kettle crisp. “Enemy of creativity.”

Dave Johns with Hayley Squires 
in a scene from I, Daniel Blake. Picture: Contributed

Dave Johns with Hayley Squires in a scene from I, Daniel Blake. Picture: Contributed

Loach’s gain, I learn, was Whitley Bay’s loss. After 30 years in the business of live stand-up comedy, Dave Johns, watching a workable, professional live circuit die in a landslide of open spots and part-timers, had decided to quit.

“I just happened to take my daughter to Scarborough and the donkey rides were there and it was a lovely sunny day and I thought… that looks a’right, so I talked to the donkey man. The guy said he worked just the summer and had a place he goes to in Spain for the winter – so I started to look into it.”

But just as Johns was negotiating the turbulent waters of third party insurance for donkey wranglers, he got a call from Fringe theatre’s eminence grise, Guy Masterson.

“It all started because of 12 Angry Men,” says Johns, of Masterson’s surprise runaway hit of the 2003 Fringe. Masterson and writer and comic Owen O’Neill are still arguing as to who exactly decided to cast the entire play with comedians. But that is what they did. I suggest to Johns that he might just owe everything to his mate O’Neill. He chokes slightly on his crisps. “Yeah, put that,” he says.

I thought it would be a little arthouse film, a nice little thing to finish with, y’know… show to the grandkids… and then it went to Cannes and it just went… batsh*t crazy

He did The Odd Couple (with Masterson again), added True West and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to his burgeoning acting CV and co-adapted The Shawshank Redemption for stage with O’Neill. Every play, in every way, he got better and better.

Masterson told him that Ken Loach, inset right, was doing a new film and was looking for a man in his late fifties. A Geordie. “And I was, like, ‘I’ve made up my mind to run donkeys now…’” But Masterson passed on the phone number of the casting director, who still treasures the text Johns sent her: “My name’s Dave Johns, I’ve been a stand-up comic for 30 years. I hear Ken is looking for a guy my age for his new film – I’d be up for that.” He got the audition.

“I came in an’ cracked on with Ken,” he says of the pivotal meeting. “At the first meetin’ he asked where I was from and what my dad did and we talked about football. He didn’t want to know what I’d done before.”

After the auditions, Johns was back to thinking about donkey licences, “when Ken phoned me up and said, ‘Will you be in my film?’” He shrugs like he’s still amazed about it.

“When they phoned up to negotiate I said, ‘Now, I don’t have an agent, so don’t go diddlin’ us!’” He giggles. “As if Ken Loach would do that. Anyway, when they told me how much I thought, ‘Wow, that’s saved my bacon… I could buy all the donkeys I wanted’.”

Loach, Johns says, likes working with comics. “He says stand-ups are really good at communicating.”

And communication is key. “Ken took me on one side and he says ‘in every scene Dave, all you have to do is listen. If you listen to each other and get the right emotion, it will look right on the screen’. And I said, ‘Alright, I’ll do that then!’” And he did.

While the narrative of a Loach film might be constructed, the emotions are all real.

“He doesn’t give you a script,” says Dave. “So I didn’t know the end till a couple of days before we finished.” He is obviously a fan of the Loach Method. “He only gives you a couple of pages at a time because then you can’t get together and go, ‘Our big scene’s coming up on page 38… we’ll do it like this’.

“That scene where I go to the brothel to find Hayley,” says Dave, “he’d kept me apart from her for, like, four days and I was feelin, like, sorta deprived of seeing her – Hayley – and so when I went there and I knew I was going to see her I felt as if… like, it was my daughter, and when I go in through the door and when I saw her in all the… fancy underwear… and she said, ‘Oh no, Mr Blake, you shouldn’t be seeing me like this’… I just couldn’t… the tears just came… cos I was thinking, ‘What the f*** are you doing, you don’t have to do that.’” He nods. “And Ken did that because he says you can’t fake shock.”

But while the emotions were natural, some things simply had to be learned. “I had to go for two days to this woodwork course to learn how to carve the fish,” says Dave. “I came back to Ken like he was me dad and went, ‘Look what I made!’ and he said, ‘Well done!’ I was really proud.”

The whole DIY aspect of the film came as something of a surprise to his wife. “She said, ‘You’ve never hung a door in yer life’,” he says. But even she was “well impressed” by the fish.

Johns genuinely thought that that might be as much of a result as the film would get. “All I thought was, just make the best job you can… you’ve got the lead in a Ken Loach film. I thought it would be a little arthouse film, a nice little thing to finish with, y’know… show to the grandkids… and then it went to Cannes and it just went… batshit crazy.”

Indeed it did. Thirty-eight awards, including the Palme d’Or, Bafta Best British film and Empire Magazine’s Best Newcomer for Johns. Awards are A Good Thing, he thinks. “They keep the film in the public attention. When it won the Palme D’Or they couldn’t dismiss it as leftie shite propaganda, even the right- wing papers, who hated it. It showed the truth.”

The strength of the ecstatic reception – a 14-minute standing ovation – took director and cast by surprise.

“We were having dinner the night before it was shown and our guy came in and said, ‘We’ve done four screenings and something really weird’s happening. We’ve had reviewers coming out in tears’. And I was thinking, ‘Oh shit! I’m making them cry… how’s that for a review… he’s ruined Ken Loach’s career?’

“Next day we did the red carpet thing and the punters were lookin’ at me comin’ out me limo thinking, ‘Who’s the old baldie bloke’? It was just the second time I’d seen the film. The first time Daniel gets a laugh, my comic’s instinct kicks in and I thought, ‘We’re OK’.”

He opens another bag of crisps. Poor man hasn’t eaten all day. “They all sit in silence for the credits. I leaned over to Ken and whispered, ‘I’ve usually f***ed off by this bit’.”

They were instantly awash with praise from the likes of Juliette Binoche, Donald Sutherland, Steven Spielberg and someone Dave refers to as, “Y’know, the head of Cannes”.

“They were saying incredible things. Then I walked back to the hotel and Woody Allen was in the lift and I thought… now someone’s takin’ the piss.”

But I will say no more here, because this August, for the first time since his month in the Pleasance Attic 18 years ago, Dave Johns Stand-Up Comedian returns to the Fringe. And he will be telling you the entire glorious story.

“I’m going to milk this cow till there’s nothing left,” grins Johns (not entirely necessary as he has already done two more films and there is more in the pipeline). But coming back to the comedy section of the Fringe programme was genuinely a big decision.

“I’ve never really felt comfortable in Edinburgh as a stand-up. There’s just too many stand-ups there and then there’s the pressure of selling the show … I remember feeling this is not what stand-up is about – stand-up is about going to a pub, a little dingy basement and just… making strangers laugh.”

Talking of which, he tells me, Ken Loach has a great sense of humour. Who knew? “I just used to take the piss out of him,” says Johns. “We were doing a shot in the bathroom, and it was really tight, so Ken had to stand in the shower. It had a glass door and I shut it on him and pressed a pretend button and said, ‘To the 60s , Professor, your spiritual home’.” Loach laughed. And I would think he is a tough audience.

As we walk to the Tube, he tells me about the time he took fellow comedian Ian Stone to the premiere in Sarajevo. After the glamorous red carpet capers, they were coming back to their luxury hotel in their chauffeur driven limo and Stone sighed happily, leaned across the soft leather of the back seat and said softly to Dave Johns: “Don’t you ever dare f*** this up.” I don’t see that happening.

• Dave Johns: I, Fillum Star is at the Pleasance, until 27 August, 7pm