The Ornate Johnsons: interview
The Ornate Johnsons areneither ornate, nor called Johnson, but their sell-out sketch shows are some of the most inspired around
They’re called the Ornate Johnsons because Brian Mitchell (pictured second from left) and Joseph Nixon (not pictured) included a character with the name Ornate Johnson in a play they once wrote about America in the 1920s. ‘When we were chewing over what to call the sketch group, we chose this pretty much at random,’ Mitchell says. ‘As you can see, we are not ornate. And in the United States “johnson” means “penis”.’ In that context, it’s peculiarly appropriate that four members of the current team appear to have been blessed with the male appendage.
The core group, consisting of Mitchell, Dave Mounfield, Laurence Relton and Glen Richardson, came together at the University of Sussex back in 1988. Many others have worked with them since, Clea Smith is the latest addition. ‘It’s enormously difficult getting everyone together, as we all have our own projects,’ Mitchell explains. ‘For that reason, the OJs have progressed in fits and starts. We’ve taken several sabbaticals. But we’ve done about 15 different shows over the years.’
Their individual credits, which in full would run to several pages, include a Perrier nomination, writing for TV as well as radio and the stage, serious acting, penning gags for Basil Brush and contributing to ‘The Cheeky Guide to Love’ and ‘The Cheeky Guide to Student Life’. Mitchell’s writing partner is Joseph Nixon, familiarly known as ‘the unseen Johnson’, although he makes an occasional Terry Gilliam-like appearance in a show. ‘He was in on the OJs from the start,’ Mitchell says. ‘He and I co-write most of the sketches. We were at primary school together in a colliery village in Derbyshire. We were born there. Apparently John Hurt was born there too.’
At the start their aim was to bring back energy, drama and extravagant performances to the world of sketch comedy. ‘And to do stuff that wasn’t political or PC,’ Mitchell adds. ‘People forget how oppressively right-on everything was around 1989. All the shows have tended to be a collection of loosely linked songs and sketches that make no point beyond raising a laugh.’ In a sell-out residency at the Soho Theatre early this year, the OJs’ repertoire contained the ‘Soft Rock News’ (news headlines delivered in the style of a Meat Loaf-like rock duet), dodgy ‘Star Trek’ (self-explanatory), Shakespeare’s pub quiz (even more so) and a piece where Louis Armstrong gets arrested for sexual assault after he takes the lyrics of ‘What a Wonderful World’ a bit too literally.
This time they’re doing a Christmas special. ‘There’s something both horrible and funny about the enforced jollity of Christmas,’ Mitchell says. The aphrodisiacal effects of mistletoe will be explored in graphic detail. So will the weird stuff that’s put on tins in Christmas hampers. There’s an ‘Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special: the Opera’ and a hell-for-leather, three-minute version of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. ‘Oddly, it’s almost as moving as the original,’ Mitchell claims. Overall the show follows a kind of time line, charting the preparations up to midnight mass on Christmas Eve and then homing in on the big day itself.
There are more sombre moments. A father tells his son that Santa Claus doesn’t exist and goes on to reveal a few more unpalatable home truths. ‘We are all alone in the universe and all that awaits us when we die is dark, black, unending oblivion.’ That’s his Christmas message. George Michael and Bob Geldof are executed for writing Xmas songs with illogical lyrics. Rudolph tells Santa to stick his sleigh up his arse. Something for everyone, it seems. Though strictly not for kiddies.
So, all in all, how would Mitchell characterise what’s most significant about the OJs? How do they compare with rival sketch groups? ‘We have a combined age of 183. We’re not on MySpace. Or YouTube. And none of us went to Oxbridge.’
The Ornate Johnsons play the Hen & Chickens Theatre from Dec 12 to 23.
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