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Authors: Brian Johnston

An Evening with Johnners

BOOK: An Evening with Johnners
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Nicholas, Rupert, Sophie,
Harry, Emily, Georgia,
Olivia and Sam.

The stories in this book are taken from the original recordings of
An Evening with Johnners
recorded at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury on 25 April 1993 and the Richmond Theatre, London on 21 November 1993 and produced by Barry Johnston and Chris Seymour for Barn Productions.


The number one bestselling audiobook of
An Evening with Johnners
by Brian Johnston is available on CD and as a download and is published by Hodder & Stoughton Audiobooks, 338 Euston Road, London
NW1 3BH.


Grateful acknowledgement is made to Tony Alexander for the use of his letter about the Ian Botham ‘leg over’ incident.


Special thanks to John Ireland for his brilliant illustrations.

The interval piece is reproduced by kind permission of
Private Eye.


‘When I Discovered You’ was written and composed by Irving Berlin © 1914 Irving Berlin Inc., USA and is published by B. Feldman and Co. Ltd, London


elcome to the centenary edition of
An Evening
with Johnners,
reissued with new illustrations by John Ireland to celebrate one hundred years since the birth of Brian Johnston on 24 June 1912.

This book is based on the stories told by Brian in his one-man show
An Evening with Johnners
during the spring and autumn of 1993. Sadly, in the two decades since those performances, several of the people mentioned by Brian have died, including Denis Compton, ‘Hopper’ Levett, John Snagge, and his former
Test Match Special
colleagues, Bill Frindall, Alan McGilvray, Don Mosey, Jim Swanton and Fred Trueman. But they live on in Brian’s stories and so we have kept his anecdotes exactly as he told them.

Technology has also advanced considerably over the past twenty years. It is amusing to read Brian telling his
audiences about a controversial innovation that was being tried out in Australia, where action replays were shown on a big screen at the Test match grounds. He worries that it might make life more difficult for umpires in the future. In the days before the widespread use of email and the internet, Brian also expresses admiration for the
scorer Bill Frindall, because of all the overseas telegrams that he has to read every morning, and the huge number of reference books that he has to carry around with him. How times have changed.

When these performances took place in 1993, the famous ‘Leg Over’ giggle had occurred only about eighteen months earlier, and many audiences were hearing the recording for the first time. Now it has become a part of broadcasting history and in 2005 it was voted ‘the greatest sporting commentary of all time’ by listeners to BBC Radio Five Live. Brian would have found that truly hilarious.

It is hard to believe that my father would have reached his century this year. In the pages of this book, and in the memories of all those who love cricket and laughter, he is forever ageless.


Barry Johnston

n March 1993 I went to see my father at the Hawth Theatre in Crawley. He had just started a nationwide tour of his one-man show
An Evening with Johnners
and was playing to packed houses everywhere he went.

I had heard most of the anecdotes and jokes at least a dozen times before but I soon found myself laughing out loud along with the rest of the audience. It did not seem to matter if the stories were familiar or the jokes were corny; in the words of Frank Carson, it was the way he told them!

And no one told a story like Brian. He would draw you into his confidence as if he had never told this to anyone before and when he came to the punch-line, he would deliver it with such obvious delight that you could not help but laugh, no matter how preposterous the gag.

The show was a triumph and afterwards I thought how wonderful it would be to have a recording of it for posterity, to play to my children in years to come. So I arranged for a recording to be made at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury a few weeks later.

As I listened back to the recording, I found myself thinking that it sounded good enough to release commercially. Brian was on top form that night and the audience obviously loved him. So I contacted Roger Godbold at Listen For Pleasure, EMI’s spoken word label. Roger explained that spoken word recordings generally took a long time to make a profit, but he felt that if we were lucky, we might be able to sell about five thousand copies in the first year.

Brian was unsure at first. He worried that if people could buy a recording of all his best anecdotes, then they would not need to buy tickets to see him in person. I managed to persuade him that the laughter from the audience was so infectious that it would make people want to go and see his show even more. In the end he agreed, but I suspect it was more as a favour to me than because he believed it was really true.

The audio cassette of
An Evening with Johnners
was released in October 1993 and sold more than five thousand in the first two months. By Christmas it was the number one bestseller in the spoken word chart and it went on to sell more than one hundred thousand copies in under
two years and earned a coveted Gold Disc award. At one point the cassette was selling so fast that it even entered the pop album charts and reached as high as number forty-six, above stars such as Elton John and UB40.

The sadness was that Brian never lived to see it, because he suffered a heart attack on 2 December 1993 and died peacefully in his sleep just a month later. He was eighty-one.

Brian had been telling all his stories and jokes for years at cricket dinners, ladies’ luncheon clubs and hundreds of other charity events and functions. He had developed a number of set speeches, depending on whom he was addressing. He could tell his most famous gaffes, or tales about his colleagues on
Test Match Special
, the royal occasions,
Down Your Way,
or simply collections of jokes – about judges, bishops and even animals.

In the early 1980s Brian’s long-time agent, Dabber Davis, had the idea of putting all the stories together into an occasional
Evening with Brian Johnston.
Brian would start by talking for about forty-five minutes and then, in the second half, take questions from the audience. But Brian had so much material that he soon found it easier to talk through the whole show.

One of the first such evenings was at the Sevenoaks Festival. Brian was used to doing after-dinner speeches and he asked Dabber whether he ought to wear a dinner jacket for the occasion. He laughed when Dabber said
that if he did, he would probably frighten half the audience to death. From then on, he always wore a lounge suit on stage.

Those early performances were a great success. Then in 1992 I heard from an old colleague of mine from my younger days as a musician. Jeff Watts had played bass guitar in the pop group Design with me in the mid-seventies, but now he was a successful promoter and he wondered if my father would be interested in doing a nationwide tour of his one-man show. Brian was intrigued by the idea and said that if Jeff could find any theatres prepared to book him, then he would give it a try.

So Brian made his debut with
An Evening with Johnners
at the Chichester Festival Theatre in March 1993. It seats about one thousand four hundred people but the tickets sold out so quickly that they could have easily filled it twice. Brian was amazed.

He had no props. He sat on a high wicker stool, with a table alongside him for a glass of water, and sometimes a vase of flowers. That was it. No notes or lists to jog his memory. For two hours he would tell his stories with wit and perfect timing, with no hesitation and no mistakes. It would have been a bravura performance for a comedian or actor of any age, but Brian was then eighty years old. It was a remarkable feat of stamina and endurance.

Brian’s old friend John Woodcock, the former cricket correspondent of
The Times,
went to see him at the
Playhouse in Salisbury and told Brian’s biographer, Tim Heald, that he buried his face in his hands after hearing Brian’s opening lines. ‘Wooders’ had been hearing the same jokes since 1948. He can’t tell that one, he thought, but the audience roared with laughter and he soon realised that there was nothing to worry about. Brian was a natural comedian.

His performance was so relaxed that it never seemed rehearsed, but he was always trying to improve his act. After I saw him in Crawley, the first thing Brian wanted to know was which jokes had worked best. There was a story about Eton which I felt had gone down a bit flat. He agreed and never told it again.

Jeff Watts says that, in the car on the way home, Brian would always go over that night’s performance, checking that the audience had enjoyed it or if a new joke had gone well. In quiet moments, Jeff was often surprised to hear what sounded like brass band music, although the radio was switched off. It would be Brian making trumpet noises softly under his breath.

On the way to a show, Brian would frequently drop in for tea with old friends. It made the day seem more like fun than work. He liked to get to a theatre early so that he could get a feel of the stage. He would sit on his stool and chatter away until he felt comfortable. Then he would retire to his dressing room, where he made himself at home, listening to his radio, doing the
Daily Telegraph
crossword and enjoying cups of tea and a plate of biscuits. He was completely at ease and could not wait to get on stage and entertain the audience.

The performance was originally meant to be two halves of forty-five minutes each, but Brian kept adding new stories and soon this had crept up to about sixty minutes each half. When one evening Brian was on stage for more than two hours and twenty minutes, Jeff had to persuade him to keep the show under two hours – otherwise he might have gone on all night.

Normally Brian performed on an empty stage or in front of a curtain, but at the Theatre Royal in Windsor the stage was set up for the following week’s performance of the play
The Happiest Days of your Life
starring Patrick Cargill. The set was a school hall with steps leading up to a balcony. Brian was delighted. At the end of the performance he told the audience, ‘Thank you very much. Now I’m going up to bed,’ and walked straight up the steps and out of sight.

Afterwards Brian would go straight round to the front of house to sign books and autographs and meet the audience. He once joked that he had signed so many copies of his books that they were more valuable without his signature. His audiences were usually an interesting mixture of older couples who had been listening to Brian for more than forty years, and younger cricket lovers who knew Brian from
Test Match Special.
He always had time for his
fans, even though he wanted to get home after a show, no matter where he was.

Brian loved to tell jokes and he was a brilliant storyteller. He would embellish them with little details that brought them to life. You have only to read his two stories in this book about the Duke of Norfolk to see what I mean. My earliest memories as a child are of my father trying to teach me some of his favourite old music-hall jokes.

‘My car’s called Daisy.’

‘Why’s he called Daisy?’

‘Because some days he goes and some days he doesn’t!’


‘There were forty men under one umbrella and not one of them got wet.’

‘It must have been a jolly big umbrella.’

‘No, it wasn’t raining!’

If he had been away for a while, Brian would run through all his corny old jokes to see if I remembered them. When I got them right he would look as pleased as punch.

He was always on the lookout for new jokes and sometimes they would find their way into his act. I confess that I told him the one about the lady driving up the M1 knitting a pair of socks. I saw it in the children’s section of my Sunday newspaper. I knew it would make him
laugh because it was so simple – and so silly. If Brian heard a joke that he liked, he could not wait to pass it on, although he did not always remember where it came from. A few days after I told him the M1 story he rang me up to tell me his latest joke: ‘An old lady was driving up the M1 …’

He would often ring up his close friend William Douglas Home, the playwright, and before William even had a chance to speak, Brian would say, ‘A man went into a pub with a newt on his shoulder …’ and he was off.

Jeff Watts says that the phrase he remembers Brian saying the most is: ‘People are so kind.’ In spite of all his years of experience, Brian never got over the fact that people were prepared to leave the warmth of their homes, to go out on a cold, wet and windy night, and pay to hear him talk for a couple of hours. When members of the public told him how much they enjoyed the show, he was genuinely grateful.

Jeff never saw Brian nervous before a performance, except once, before going on stage at the Richmond Theatre in London. Brian had been there as a young man to see some of his favourite comedians but he never dreamed that one day he would appear on the stage himself. On top of that, the theatre had sold out in record time, so he felt a particular responsibility to be at his best.

We recorded the show for a broadcast on Radio 2 – later released commercially as
An Hour with Johnners
– and on our original recording you can hear Brian stumbling over his opening remarks – something he never did – and he sounds a little unsure of himself until he tells the story about the couple celebrating their diamond wedding anniversary. After the audience greets the punchline with a huge laugh and applause, you can feel him relax. From then on he gave the performance of his life, and the CD and cassette of
An Hour with Johnners
was nominated for Best Contemporary Comedy in the 1995 Talkies Awards.

He was to perform only one more show. Ten days later he suffered what proved to be a fatal heart attack. In retrospect, he had been overdoing it. After nineteen dates in the spring he had performed another fourteen in the autumn, as well as continuing to give after-dinner speeches, commentating on
Test Match Special
and hosting the radio series
Trivia Test Match,
along with all his other engagements.

After Brian’s death, the public outpouring of affection was overwhelming. None of the family ever imagined that he would be missed so much. I think Brian had a better idea of how popular he was from the audience reactions he received all around the country, but even he would have been astonished at the front-page newspaper headlines and the glowing tributes on radio and
television. The
Daily Telegraph
described him as ‘the greatest natural broadcaster of them all’.

And yet it nearly did not happen. Before the war, Brian had worked for the Johnston family coffee business in the City, although he always dreamed of going on the stage as an actor or a comedian. After being demobbed, he was invited to dinner with the BBC war correspondents Stewart MacPherson and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, whom he had met while serving in the Grenadier Guards. He told them he was looking for a job in the entertainment world and MacPherson put him in touch with the BBC’s Outside Broadcasts Department.

Brian passed an audition and joined the BBC on 13 January 1946. He planned to stay for only a few months but he was to work for the BBC for the next forty-eight years. His first programmes were live radio broadcasts from the music-halls and theatres around the country. Between 1948 and 1952 he presented the live feature ‘Let’s Go Somewhere’ on the Saturday night programme
In Town Tonight
. Among his one hundred and fifty stunts Brian stayed alone in the Chamber of Horrors, rode a circus horse, lay under a passing train, was hauled out of the sea by a helicopter and was attacked by a police dog.

He was one of the first broadcasters to work for both television and radio. In the fifties and sixties he presented children’s television shows such as
All Your Own, Ask Your Dad,
What’s New,
while on radio he interviewed
hundreds of personalities on
Today, Meet a Sportsman, Married to Fame
and many other series. He also broadcast from the Boat Race for forty-two years.

Brian appeared on dozens of panel games and quiz shows including
Sporting Chance, Twenty Questions
Trivia Test Match
and commentated on all the major state occasions such as the funeral of King George VI, the Coronation and the Prince of Wales’ wedding. He officially retired from the BBC in 1972 but turned freelance and he presented
Down Your Way
for the next fifteen years.

Finally, of course, Brian was a cricket commentator on television from 1946 and he became the BBC’s first cricket correspondent in 1963. After he was dropped by television for telling too many jokes, Brian transferred to radio in 1970 where he became a national institution on
Test Match Special.

At the age of eighty, Brian achieved his life-long ambition with
An Evening with Johnners
– to get up on stage in front of a sold-out audience and tell jokes, like his music-hall hero, Max Miller. He so enjoyed doing his one-man shows and he was thrilled by their success. He told me several times in his last few months that he wanted to give up all the after-dinner speeches and luncheons and concentrate on doing his theatre performances. Sadly, he ran out of time.

BOOK: An Evening with Johnners
8.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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