REVIEW: Dave Johns, I Fillum Star

He was a stand-up comedian for more than thirty years, and nobody knew who on earth he was. He thought of being a spy. Or so Dave Johns says. That is, until a certain Ken Loach film made him a star... the most unlikely star you'll ever meet in your life.

I, Daniel Blake, in which Wallsend-born Johns played the title character, was one of those films that reached out to and intensely affected many, me included. Around its close-to-home "rage against the machine" drama, it built a bold and heartfelt narrative about survival, identity and love.

Identity was paramount then, and it is paramount now for Johns, keen to show Belfast's Black Box that beneath all the acclaim and awards he is still the same Dave Johns his original fans have always known – someone who makes people laugh.

He gets off to a good start by joking about how Ken Loach found him to start with. Supposedly, Johns received a kestrel (Kes?) with a piece of paper attached to his leg. But that would be the spur-of-the-moment fantasy we'd want to believe.

What really happened, Johns' ten-minute phone conversation with Loach, is nowhere near as fairytale-like, but more interesting. We are told that Loach needed a working-class man for the part (and he found one), but we also learn that both men bonded by talking about a scene from Kes. And that Loach, when working with you, doesn't use a script but goes over a couple of pages at a time, surely as a natural means of finding your way into a character.

That highlights one of the best things about I Fillum ("Film") Star. The show is told as a series of anecdotes that merge fantasy with reality, but never seem scripted for a moment, and carry us along with spontaneous outbursts of effective humour amidst always intriguing insights. For example, while deeming that it was remarkable that journalists were leaving the Cannes screening of I, Daniel Blake, the Palme D'Or winner, in tears, Johns admits thinking at the time that they thought the film was rubbish! Such are, even if Johns is joking, the misconceptions one can get through observing crying.

Other highlights from Cannes include how Johns was shocked at paying twelve euro for a glass of wine, how someone thought Phil Collins had kidnapped Ken Loach, and - if I hear it right - a close encounter with Steven Spielberg in which he implied that Mark Rylance wasn't even the tallest actor in The BFG.

Although even the above don't compare to the time Hugh Grant won a film award and told Johns that he should have won it instead. What Grant didn't expect was a "Gi' us it then!" from Johns. This is more than mere name-dropping, this is genuinely funny and lively, and it continues into a series of BAFTA stories featuring Meryl Streep, Woody Allen and Nicole Kidman, all of which show Johns at arguably his loudest and most confident.

Away from discussing the spotlight, Johns' amiable (and profane) brashness is more muted but he continues to amuse, mildly shock and entertain while delving – mildly – into philosophy and politics. Concluding that "you should never meet your heroes, you'll always be disappointed" and musing on the subjectivity of stand-up while frankly debating the aftermath of Brexit is a tough ground to straddle, but he manages it well.

If I Fillum Star feels rather short at around an hour, we have at least had time to appreciate a man every bit as memorable as his on screen alter ego. Johns may well have realised that one thing most of his local (and now international) fans love about I, Daniel Blake is seeing Dave Johns play and be himself.

Simon Fallaha

Dave Johns, I Fillum Star took place at Belfast's Out To Lunch Festival.

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