Brian Beacom

DANIEL Blake star Dave Johns isn’t aware of it all, but as we drink tea in a comedy club café in his home town of Newcastle, he constantly bobs up and down on his seat.

Not exactly Tigger-bobbing, more like a very big baby in a high chair.

The kinetic energy suggests a man who needs to be on the go, always moving forward.

And it’s no surprise to learn he has three new films coming out over the months ahead, as well as returning to the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time in 18 years.

But what’s more of a surprise, given his talent and energy, is that Dave Johns was 36 before he first took to the stage as a stand-up.

He was 59 before he became a film star – “the first ever called Dave” – with Ken Loach’s multi-award-winning benefits scandal story.

Today, on his 61st birthday, Dave rewinds on his long journey to showbiz success and you realise it’s taken so long because the road ahead was heavily potholed.

And, the father of a teenage daughter reveals, manholed.

Schooldays revealed the shy little boy from working-class Byker was far from academic. “In the maths class the teacher would give me a bit of paper and I’d draw airplanes,” he recalls.

Dave also had a distinctive stammer and his future looked bleak, but one day the clouds parted. Just a little. He tried youth theatre in Wallsend and loved it.

But the curtain on this world came down almost as fast as it had gone up.

“My mates thought this acting stuff was weird and reckoned I had become a total w***er.”

He adds, with a shrug: “My parents certainly didn’t encourage performance. My dad’s mantra was ‘Stop showing off’ and that stuck with me for the longest time.”

Dave’s father was a joiner. “When I left school at 15, he told me he had an interview set up for me as an apprentice bricklayer.”

And so Johns slapped mortar on to bricks. Badly.

“Rather than let me build houses on the new estates, the building company told me to build manholes. That’s all I did for two years, on my own.”

He grins: “In a way it was good because I would put on Radio 1 and if it was sunny I’d lie in the sunshine.”

After serving his apprenticeship, Dave drifted into a range of jobs. But he felt the pull of the performance world.

“One day I saw an ad for the Tyne Theatre and Opera House, who were looking for someone to work the flies and build the sets.”

Dave was now in the theatre, but at the hammer-and-nails end. Part of his brain was saying, “Go on, Dave. Get up there. Have a go, son”.

But the other half remembered his dad’s mantra: “Stop showing off.”

And there were few role models in Newcastle. “Even the Likely Lads were posh Geordies.”

However, a trip to London in 1989 changed Dave Johns’s life. He went along to the Comedy Store, loved the concept and decided to set up his own version of the comedy club in the Tyne Theatre bistro.

He became a compère by default. “I compèred only because I couldn’t afford the £100 they were asking for. I was on the dole at the time, and I managed to get Jo Brand [then new to the scene] and Jack Dee to play the first night.

“But I had to pay Jack Dee out of my dole money. I was 30 quid short of his £100 fee.”

Dave didn’t stammer on stage and went on to become a successfully stand-up.

Comedy morphed into acting when he teamed up with other comedians such as Bill Bailey to perform Twelve Angry Men – American accents and all – at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He followed the success with appearances in the likes of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, alongside US actor Christian Slater.

Buoyed up, the Byker boy now reckoned he could re-write The Shawshank Redemption as a play. He was right.

“And I’ve only got CSE English,” he laughs. “But so long as you have spellcheck you have nothing to fear.”

Never in a million years, however, did he imagine he could become a film actor. One day he received a text saying Ken Loach was looking for a Geordie actor his age to appear in a new film.

“I never thought I should bother applying but I sent a text to the casting director saying, ‘I’m a stand-up comedian. I’d be up for it’.”

Ken Loach realised Dave Johns was a natural. The film soared and the awards kept on coming.

Before he knew it, the film was being played in Cannes in front of 2,000 people where it received a 40-minute standing ovation. It was all too surreal.

Donald Sutherland told Dave the film broke his heart. What? Sutherland praising the manhole king?

“And I got nominated for Best European Actor. I became friends with Isabelle Huppert. I wondered, ‘How the hell did I get here?’”

Dave Johns has all the loveable excitement of a man who’s won the lottery, yet you just know he won’t forget the manhole days and move into the world of flash cars or celebrity.

“Funny enough, that’s what my Edinburgh show is about,” he offers.

“It’s about me being wide-eyed, meeting Spielberg and chatting to him about giants and Woody Allen.

“I, Fillum Star is about being plucked from almost nowhere to the red carpet world, to the Baftas.”

He adds, smiling; “I just can’t believe how my life has turned out, man. It’s like the TV series Life On Mars.

“I feel I’m going to wake up from a coma and say, ‘You, know, I’ve just had the strangest dream’.”

* Dave Johns’s I, Fillum Star is at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Pleasance Dome (Venue 23), August 3-27, 0131 556 6550,