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Bald on blondes: what makes Terry Johnson tick? | reviews, news & interviews

Bald on blondes: what makes Terry Johnson tick?

Bald on blondes: what makes Terry Johnson tick?

Freud would have had fun with a dramatist who exhumes comics, geniuses and sex symbols

Terry Johnson: 'It continually shocks me that people think I’m clever'

Who is Terry Johnson? For a period of two decades between, say, 1982 and 2003, he was predominantly a playwright. He was sufficiently successful at it that for a period in 1995, three of his plays were on in the West End at once. But the plays have slowly dried up – the last was in 2006 – and nowadays he is very largely a director. His latest gig as a director is a 20th-anniversary revival of his play Hysteria!

If the plays have stopped coming it’s because Johnson's enthusiasm for writing about deceased cultural icons has run out of steam. Much of his best work exhumes dead geniuses and/or dead comics. In his breakthrough hit Insignificance (1982), Marilyn Monroe demonstrates the theory of relatively to Einstein using balloons and a train set (pictured below, Theresa Russell in Nicolas Roeg's film version). Hysteria (1993) lies on the couch in Sigmund Freud's Hampstead study and tries to work out if it's a serious psychodrama or a farce also starring Salvador Dalí. And then there was Hitchcock Blonde, which investigated Hitch’s voyeuristic, unconsummated relationships with a series of blocks of blonde ice.

As for the dramas about comics, Dead Funny (1994) was set at a wake for Benny Hill. Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick (1998) explored the morose lives of the Carry On regulars Barbara Windsor, Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Imogen Hassall, the so-called Countess of Cleavage who committed suicide aged 38. It changed its name to Cor, Blimey! when moving from the National to ITV. Also on television there was Not Only… But Always (2004), his drama about the fruitful but vexed partnership of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

While the work has accrued clutches of important awards, you don’t need to be Dr Freud to be curious about his preference for the company of characters with whom audiences already have their own relationship. “Well, there’s no great mystery,” he said when I interviewed him in 2003. “It’s just that I find it easier to write people who come pre-packaged. I find it relatively difficult to create characters. The same thing that attracts me to them attracts an audience to them, in that they know who they’re coming to see. They arrive with pre-conceptions which you can play with.”

The other thing he has written about is of course blondes. There was Monroe, and his only attempt at a living figure, Barbara Windsor (pictured below left, Samantha Spiro), as well as Janet Leigh’s nameless body double in the Psycho shower room. These temptresses have reared up in his work despite the playwright’s own considerable resistance. When I first interviewed him in the mid-1990s, Johnson was going through a short moment of playwright’s block, possibly occasioned by his 40th birthday, but also his fear of writing “about falling in love with a younger woman”. He fretted about older peers who "hit 40, then they write a play about falling in love with a younger woman, and that's usually the worst play they've ever written. What happens is you want to get nearer to yourself as a writer, but the danger is you begin to get narcissistic and up your arse.”

Those feelings were initially smothered or at least diverted as Johnson had a huge West End hit adapting The Graduate for the stage, in which a younger man falls for the older Mrs Robinson. But they duly found themselves more overtly refracted in his Carry On script and then, more powerfully still, in Hitchcock Blonde. “With some shock I watched Cor, Blimey! and realised I’d done it accidentally. So I thought, all right, I’ll face front on the midlife crisis drama.”

It’s a very rare play by Johnson which doesn’t ask an actress at some point to remove her clothes (or in the case of Dead Funny, an actor). The last was Piano/Forte (2006) at the Royal Court, which explored the relationship of two daughters of a disgraced MP occupying opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. In mining the agonies of Hitchcock, Johnson confronted addressed the distribution of power between creator and beautiful muse. It looked like an apologia pro sua vita. “What happens,” he explained at the time, “is you get to a certain age as a playwright and you realise you’ve got to write more personally or you’re going to be writing ever more facile stuff. You’ve got to begin undressing.” (Pictured overleaf, blonde undresses in Hitchcock Blonde in Minneapolis)

Johnson’s slow retreat from writing for the stage – from undressing - was perhaps inevitable. He has always been given to eeyorish musings on the sheer pointlessness of being a playwright. His father was a builder. An unbookish upbringing in Watford was an unlikely launchpad for a career in theatre. Johnson was “cripplingly shy”, and thinks he veered towards theatre, like so many others (albeit first as a very unemployed actor), out of a sheer craving for attention, which may also explain his penchant for brightly patterned shirts. “Certainly the urge for attention pure and simple will make more theatre artists than dentists. If you track it back what do you find? You find a child undergoing severe attention deficit of some description. I’ve ended up a bit divorced from it all in an odd way - divorced from normal life. It’s probably not the life of a writer that does that. You become a writer if you’re divorced anyway.”

He read drama at Birmingham and wrote Insignificance, his first significant play, in Bushey library at 24. The germ of the play was a titbit of ultimate fantasy gossip he came across that Marilyn Monroe wanted to sleep with Einstein. It took him another 11 years to see Hysteria staged. Both plays are, among other things, hugely clever attempts to get under the skin of men who changed the face of the 20th century. It can only be a clever playwright who can turn their complexities into entertainment.

“It continually shocks me that people think I’m clever," Johnson counters. "It’s a bit like a darts player being told they have great motor skills. I don’t feel clever. I’m an ignoramus, I’m absolutely appalling at spelling, pub quizzes, I have no overview of the world, politics. I watch stupid TV.  The cleverness closes like a door behind you. If I come out of having written a play, if I turn round and look back at the play, I genuinely have no recollection of how one got there.”

It’s a very rare play by Johnson which doesn’t ask an actress at some point to remove her clothes

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