The Electrifying Mr Johnston: new play to tell the story of the politician Churchill dubbed “the King of Scotland”

The cast of The Electrifying Mr Johnston, from l-r: Alan MaKenzie, Beth Marshall and Stephen Clyde PIC: Calum Hall
The cast of The Electrifying Mr Johnston, from l-r: Alan MaKenzie, Beth Marshall and Stephen Clyde PIC: Calum Hall
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Have you ever heard of Tom Johnston? It wouldn’t be surprising if the answer is “no,” because although Johnston was one of the most powerful Scottish politicians of the 20th century, he was neither a brilliant, radical orator nor a flamboyant Westminster parliamentarian, but instead chose to focus most of his life’s work on the government and development of Scotland, in the crucial period during and after the Second World War.

“People get forgotten, you know,” says Robert Dawson Scott, whose new play about Johnston, The Electrifying Mr Johnson, is about to tour Scotland, in A Mull Theatre double-bill with a series of short play-readings known as Bite-Sized, “particularly if, like Tom Johnston, they are personally modest types who don’t seek fame and celebrity.

“Yet his life was absolutely extraordinary, ranging from Red Clydeside before the First World War, when he was a young campaigning journalist, through his election as a Labour MP in 1922, and his wartime years as Secretary of State for Scotland in Churchill’s cabinet, to his crucial postwar role as the founder of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, which led to the building of all those 70-plus dams that are still a vital part of the Highland landscape today. He wrote a furious book on land ownership in Scotland called Our Noble Families, organised the evacuation of St Kilda, reorganised Scotland’s hospitals in ways that prefigured the NHS, and was widely recognised as a brilliantly effective politician and administrator. Honestly, even a single glance at his biography is enough to make anyone think wow, what a man.”

All of which makes Johnston’s life a particularly appealing subject for Dawson Scott, who graduated from Oxford in the 1970s and spent decades working as a theatre publicist, arts journalist and media executive – he is a former arts editor of The Scotsman, and now works at STV – before deciding, in his late 50s, to act on a long-standing impulse to write plays of his own.

“I did a lot of theatre as a student,” says Dawson Scott. “And of course, being an arts journalist was a kind of 30-year masterclass in how to do it, and how not to do it. I had always wanted to have a go at writing a play; and I had this one idea – about the Great Train Race of 1888, the competition for the fastest time from London to Aberdeen between the North Eastern Railway and the Caledonian Railway – that just wouldn’t go away. So I started to write it.”

In September 2013, the rollicking, panto-style Great Train Race had its first performance at A Play, A Pie And A Pint in Glasgow, to an enthusiastic response; and since then, Dawson Scott has seen a touring revival of The Great Train Race by the Borders company Firebrand, a full Edinburgh Fringe production of his second play Assessment – a chilling dystopian satire on the current language of assessment for benefits – and now this new Mull Theatre production of The Electrifying Mr Johnston, which will tour to Edinburgh, Greenock, Musselburgh and Stirling, as well as across the Highlands and islands.

“I think it’s fair to say that every play I’ve written so far is quite closely related to external information,” says Dawson Scott, who is now considering a future play about an incident in the life of his remarkable grandmother Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, the founder of International PEN. “I don’t know if it’s the journalist in me, but I feel much happier writing on some kind of basis of fact. And that means that I don’t feel that the meaning of what I write is absolutely enshrined, in some poetic way, in the precise words I’ve written. In fact, what I enjoy about rehearsal is the rewriting and changing and cutting, in response to the actors; because in journalism that happens to your words all the time.”

Alasdair McCrone, Mull Theatre’s artistic director, agrees. “Robert is a very relaxed writer to work with,” he says, “because he is so comfortable with the rehearsal process, and the changes that emerge from it. We’ve been talking about this play for several years, and I’m delighted to see it happening – not least because, having grown up in Lanarkshire, and now having lived in Mull for many years, I’m very interested in Scotland’s industrial history, and in the failure of so many attempts to develop the Highlands and Islands in ways that would halt the decline in population, which continues to this day.”

Dawson Scott himself is hoping that his three-handed play will focus people’s minds on exactly what it takes – ethically, personally and politically – to push through a scheme as bold and complex as Johnston’s vision of Highland hydro power; and on whether, 70 years on, his great plan should be judged a success or a failure. “One one level, it was a stunning success,” says Dawson Scott. “It brought electric power to almost every home in the Highlands; and almost all of the dams are still there and working today, providing more than 10 per cent of Scotland’s electricity.

“Yet at the same time, it didn’t kick-start the industrialisation and re-population of the Highlands, as Johnston hoped it would. So there are many questions about Tom Johnston’s vision of hydro power that are still live and relevant today – questions about land use and ownership, about our sources of energy, and about the use and abuse of political power itself; and our hope is that the show will encourage discussion about the past and future of development in the Highlands, as well as telling a story worth telling, about a remarkable 20th century life.” - Joyce McMillan

The Electrifying Mr Johnston Plus Bite-Size is on tour across Scotland from 8-28 February. For details see www.comar.co.uk/whats-on