Among my fellow students at the Royal College of Art Film School in 1966 was a tall, reserved young man called Ian Johnson. Bespectacled, soberly dressed, with shortish hair at odds with mid 60s fashions, Ian only stood out in a crowd if the crowd comprised colourful art school students. At some point in our first year at college, he disclosed that he was a member of a small theatre company specialising in comedy sketches. Ian was certainly not without humour – he would smile at one’s jokes – but the idea that he could actually induce laughter in others seemed implausible. He then announced that his company’s latest show, titled ‘I Am Amazed!’, would be presented in the lecture theatre in two weeks’ time.
I can remember a number of the sketches quite clearly but more compelling than a resumé is a consideration of Ian’s remarkable transformation on stage. Supported by two other performers, a man and a woman, he found space in nearly every sketch for a volcanic display of rage, idiocy, amazement (as promised) and broadband emotional incontinence. His audience was flabbergasted. Many were weeping helplessly with laughter as Ian rose and rose again to epileptic heights of physical and vocal grotesqueness.
In the ensuing months Ian returned to his modest, amiable ways. He lived with his parents and helped out from time to time in their fish and chip shop. He rarely had girlfriends, as far as we could tell, and talked about himself sparingly. He made one or two amusing short films then, as graduation loomed, joined forces with Neil Hornick, Cindy Oswin and myself in Hornick’s interventionist theatre group, The Phantom Captain. We improvised bizarre situations in streets, clubs and theatre festivals, eventually breaking away from Neil to dance our own steps in our own company, which we called Lumiere & Son. This trio split up a year later, leaving me with the company name. I was yet to team up with Hilary Westlake and relaunch Lumiere & Son, which would then run for twenty years.
Ian continued to live in his parents’ home and after some years working as a film editor, he found employment as a lecturer on a film course based outside London. I bump into him now and again and we tend to reminisce about life on the road. He cracks the odd joke, puts on a funny voice for a moment or two but never lets rip. He could, I’m sure, summon up those awesome energies in an instant. That instant, however, would have to unfold in a performance. On a stage, when the rules of engagement are clear and attention is being paid appropriately, Ian would unleash the torrents that seem not to define him so much as demonstrate to us, his startled admirers, what it takes to be civilised.