With his biblical white beard and vibrant woolly hat, Dave Johns is unrecognisable. He appears like an Arctic explorer. It’s solely when he takes off the hat and divulges the acquainted shiny pate that you simply realise it’s him in any case – Daniel Blake.
Earlier than I, Daniel Blake, Johns was a jobbing comic. He’d not even had a bit half in a film, by no means thoughts starred in a single. Then Ken Loach’s movie premiered at Cannes in 2016, acquired a 15-minute standing ovation, gained the Palme d’Or and reworked Johns’ life.
Since then he has performed main males in films, written a one-man present about discovering success in his 60s (I Fillum Star) and has now tailored I, Daniel Blake for the stage. It’ll premiere in Newcastle, the place the movie was set, earlier than touring the nation.
Daniel Blake is a middle-aged widower who has a coronary heart assault and is benefits-sanctioned for turning down work his medical doctors have declared him unfit to do. He grew to become an everyman for our age – shorthand for anyone on advantages screwed by the system. In an act of heroic resistance, he spray-paints “I, Daniel Blake, demand my attraction date earlier than I starve” on the facet of the Jobcentre Plus constructing. The movie, written by Paul Laverty, launched many people to meals banks for the primary time.
Loach has spent his profession documenting social injustice. On the time of its launch, I, Daniel Blake was described as his angriest movie but. Which makes it very offended certainly, incensed that Britain had reached its nadir with David Cameron’s “large society” – individuals residing on the earth’s fifth richest nation reliant on charity to maintain themselves from ravenous. Little did we all know. Again then, there was only one food bank in Newcastle. Now there are 9 (and 80 within the north-east). Again then, meals banks had been utilized by individuals struggling to outlive on advantages. Now they’re additionally utilized by nurses and lecturers.
“Seven years on, I nonetheless have individuals on the street come as much as me and say, ‘Oh my God, that movie Daniel Blake, the way it hit a nerve,’” says Johns, now 67. We meet in Byker, a district within the east of Newcastle, the place he grew up. Right now, the forged are rehearsing the play with the director Mark Calvert in a former youth centre. Byker is filled with formers – former council homes, former outlets, former youth centres. It was all the time a deprived space, however, Johns tells me, when he was rising up it appeared a lot extra alive and hopeful. “A part of the rationale we’re within the scenario we’re in is as a result of there isn’t actual social housing now,” Johns says. “It’s all housing associations.”
Over their lunch break I chat with Johns and Calvert. They speak about their duty to honour the movie, whereas creating one thing new. In 2019, Johns was given permission to adapt I, Daniel Blake. They hoped that it might be on stage by 2020, however then got here the pandemic and lockdown. Three years on, it’s lastly prepared. “Dave has written about 40 drafts of it,” Calvert says. “Yeah,” Johns says, wanting as if he’s about to drop.
Why so many? “As a result of I didn’t need to put the movie on stage. We had been all the time pondering, how can we do that? We had been looking for the medium to inform the story.” They’ve expanded the backstory of Katie, the only mom from London whom Daniel befriends after she has been moved from a homeless shelter in London to Newcastle as a result of it’s cheaper; up to date the story to the current; and launched immersive components. Quotes and stats will probably be beamed from the stage to permit viewers to check the phrases of presidency ministers with the fact.
“It makes me livid that in seven years, nothing has modified,” Johns says. “Aside from it’s acquired worse,” Calvert says. “Austerity and Brexit had been an ideal storm. And now there’s the price of residing disaster. There’s a line within the play when Katie says, ‘I don’t reside, Dan, I simply exist.’ I ponder how many individuals have the identical feeling.”
They direct me to the sheets of paper pinned to the wall. “Listed below are the details,” Calvert says. And he reads them aloud. “The variety of emergency meals parcels distributed since 2017-18 has greater than doubled, from 1,354,362 to 2,986,203 in 2022-23, with greater than 1,000,000 meals parcels supplied for youngsters. And the north-east now has the highest level of child poverty in any area throughout the nation.”
What disgusts each males is when politicians insist that I, Daniel Blake exaggerates individuals’s hardship. Calvert mentions a robust BBC documentary concerning the Newcastle West End Foodbank. “It adopted a outstanding girl referred to as Anita and her son Brett and it’s soul-destroying … Anita will get common credit score and did all of the issues individuals assume individuals on advantages don’t do – she had three jobs. We met her final week and each different sentence she was bursting into tears.”
She used to donate to the meals financial institution a 12 months in the past and now she’s utilizing it, says Johns. “She stated, ‘If I didn’t have the meals financial institution, I don’t know what I’d do,’ and you may see it. After we got here out, Bryony Corrigan, who’s enjoying Katie, stated: ‘I’ve simply met the actual Katie.’ So when individuals go, ‘It’s not actual,’ you simply go, ‘You’re residing in a unique world from what we’re.’”
Once they break from rehearsals, I ask the forged what they need individuals to get from the play. “We need to reignite consciousness,” Corrigan says. “Lots of volunteers on the meals banks had been saying individuals have stopped donating as a result of they’re struggling a lot. And there’s nonetheless a variety of disgrace about accessing them.” David Nellist, who performs Daniel, tells me: “This play feels extra related by the day. We should always all be ashamed – to not use them, however to have them in any respect.”
Calvert remains to be deciding which political quotes to make use of within the present. There are such a lot of crackers to select from. He factors to at least one from David Cameron in 2010: “The big society is about liberation – the most important, most dramatic redistribution of energy from elites in Whitehall to the person and girl on the road. We have to create communities with oomph.” Then there’s Jacob Rees-Mogg in 2017: “To have charitable help given by individuals voluntarily to help their fellow residents I feel is reasonably uplifting and exhibits what a very good compassionate nation we’re.” Johns says certainly one of his favourites is from Thérèse Coffey when she was secretary of state for well being and social look after slightly below two months in 2022: “Poor individuals are richer than you assume.” He’s getting outraged, simply wanting on the phrases.
One enormous change since 2016 is that Labour misplaced the “crimson wall” within the 2019 election. “I used to be horrified when Blyth and Hartlepool went Tory,” Johns says. “I simply couldn’t imagine what made them try this.” Calvert: “My dad needed Brexit and voted for the present authorities. He’d by no means voted Tory earlier than.”
Johns: “I’ve observed that when working-class individuals get frightened about their jobs or don’t really feel protected, they have a tendency to hearken to rightwing propaganda. They’ll go, ‘Regulation and order, aye, I imagine in that. Queen and nation, aye, I imagine in that.’ They are usually swayed by these arguments.” He can’t get his head round it. “I don’t know why that’s as a result of in working-class communities, they’ll do every part they’ll to assist one another, however they have a tendency to hearken to rightwing propaganda. I’ve tried to determine it out for years.”
Each males grew up in working-class households in Newcastle and say they nonetheless have impostor syndrome working within the arts. “I really feel my selections have been restricted by my class identification,” Calvert says. “I feel that’s woven throughout the entire area.” He says that his dad and mom nonetheless don’t actually perceive what he does now as a director. “They assume I’m a trainer.”
Johns laughs in recognition. “They see a present and go, ‘So what do you do?’” Calvert: “They’ve stated they’ll come to the exhibits I’ve made, however they by no means do as a result of going to the theatre is just not of their world.” Johns and Calvert try their greatest to alter this with the play, with a batch of free tickets for meals financial institution customers and Byker residents, they usually’re placing on a bus to take them to the theatre.
For Johns, his first theatre journey was life-changing. He went along with his faculty to see Loss of life of a Salesman on the College theatre, the place Northern Stage was resident. “It blew me away. Residing in Byker, I by no means thought you may be an actor or do something like that. I assumed that was for posh individuals. So it’s good bringing this play to Northern Stage now. My English trainer, Miss Atwell, can be astounded that I can write a script. I used to be bored out of my field at college. Hated each minute of it. I preserve pondering, if Miss Atwell may see me now.”
He spent 5 years as a bricklayer after leaving faculty at 15 and says he was horrible – lazy and unskilled. “I bear in mind the boss saying, ‘The day you end your apprenticeship you’re out of right here.’” The boss was nearly as good as his phrase. “The day after I got here out of my indenture, they stated, ‘You’re gone.’” He did odds and sods on constructing websites for years, acquired a job backstage on the Tyne Theatre and Opera Home when he was 30 and began performing standup in his mid-30s. “I generally see apprentices that labored with me on the constructing websites they usually say, you had been ineffective however you had been actually, actually humorous.”
For 25 years, he nearly acquired by as a comic. Then he was forged in I, Daniel Blake. “I used to be so happy that after I went for the audition I used to be going to fulfill Ken Loach. I had no concept I used to be going to get the half, not in 1,000,000 years. Then he saved calling me again. Then he supplied me the half.” You sense he nonetheless actually can’t imagine the way in which life has turned out.
He tells me about his first day on set. At lunchtime, he went to the catering truck and set his coronary heart on the noticed dick for afters. “I went, ‘Can I’ve the noticed dick?’ they usually went, ‘No, you possibly can’t have it!’ and I went, ‘Why?’ they usually stated, ‘As a result of Ken gained’t permit you to have pudding.’ And I went, ‘Ken! Why can’t I’ve pudding?’ and he goes, ‘Pudding is the enemy of creativity.’” He bursts out laughing. “It’s one of many biggest issues I’ve ever heard. And it’s true. You’ve got a crash within the afternoon as a result of it’s all mendacity on you.”
After the movie’s success in Cannes, he discovered himself being recognised by worldwide stars. “I had Donald Sutherland coming as much as me and going ‘Dave!’ And me going to him, ‘Donald!’ Loopy! After we gained greatest British thingy on the Baftas, Ron Howard acquired up off his desk, got here as much as us and went to Ken, ‘Mr Loach, I simply need to say I like all of your movies and I hope that I’m making movies after I’m your age.’ And Ken goes, ‘Oh, thanks very a lot.’ After which he turns round and whispers, ‘Who’s that?’ and I am going [bawls]: ‘It’s Richie Cunningham from Completely happy Days!’ He nonetheless wasn’t any the wiser.”
Now Johns is measuring his burgeoning movie profession in love scenes. “I acquired jiggy with Alison Steadman in 23 Walks. And I’ve simply carried out a movie in Belgium the place I’m in a relationship with Olivier Gourmand, who gained greatest actor at Cannes. I used to be the star within the movie and I saved pondering, ‘This movie is resting on my shoulders – that is completely insane.’”
Johns and Calvert return to the topic of selection. Though alternatives appeared so restricted after they had been rising up, they did handle to pursue their chosen careers. Selection is on the coronary heart of a civilised society, they are saying. And lack of selection is on the coronary heart of I, Daniel Blake – and the world it depicts.
Calvert says that on a current go to to the meals financial institution, one of many volunteers talked about a lady who had requested for baked beans. Johns takes up the story. “They had been giving her some beans and it was own-brand, and he or she went, ‘Have you ever not acquired any Heinz, as a result of I like Heinz?’ And other people had been going, ‘You’re taking what you’re given.’ Properly, why must you not have selection simply since you’re poor and struggling?” He appears appalled. “It’s like, simply eat your gruel and be grateful for it.”
I, Daniel Blake opens at Northern Stage on 25 Might, then excursions nationally