SURPRISE star of Cannes Film Festival, Geordie comic Dave Johns admits he was in the middle of applying to operate donkey rides on North-East beaches when the film that changed his life came along.

“I’d been a stand-up for 30 years and I’d done a lot of travelling and I was looking around for something to do. I talked to the guy who ran the donkeys at Scarborough and I quite fancied the idea because I remembered donkey rides at Whitley Bay... and there hasn’t been donkeys on a North-East beach since the 1970s,” he says.

He ended up with a lot more to bray about. Thanks to taking the lead role in I, Daniel Blake – the 2016 Ken Loach movie about the failings of the UK’s welfare system – which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the Locarno International Film Festival Prix du public and this year’s Bafta for Outstanding British Film.

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“I had this dream of a donkey empire taking in Whitley Bay, Cullercoats and Tynemouth, and Ken Loach came along and ruined it by giving me the role of Daniel Blake. And my career changed from that point,” Johns says.

With another two films on the way, Johns has rediscovered his comedy mojo and, after a successful Edinburgh Fringe Festival season he was offered the chance of making his Newcastle Theatre Royal debut on Sunday, October 1. The cheekily-named I, Fillum Star tells the tale of how Johns ended up rubbing shoulders with Woody Allen, Stephen Spielberg and Meryl Streep at film festivals.

He got the starring role after featuring in plays up in Edinburgh. “I did Twelve Angry Men in 2003, which involved comedians doing serious acting. It got great critical acclaim and I did One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The Odd Couple. In 2015, out of the blue, the producer of those plays told me that Ken Loach was looking for a guy my age to be in his new film.

“I was so close to doing nothing about it, but I sent a text to the casting director which said, ‘My name is Dave Johns. I’m a stand-up comic. I’m 59 years of age and I hear Ken Loach is looking for a guy my age. I’d been up for that’. I did three castings, three auditions with different actresses, one down in London and one up here. I didn’t realise how many other actors had been up for the part. I went into the production officer and there were all these Geordie actors and I said, ‘Were all these up for the part?’ and they said, ‘Yeah’. It was mind-boggling.”

He particularly enjoyed filming in Byker where he was born and brought up. “But, never in a million years, hand on heart did I think this would happen to it and we’d win around 24 awards and I’ve won four acting awards. Now I’ve made two films which are coming out next year.”

One is called Walk A Panther, by 20th Century Fox, which is a British comedy with Stephen Graham, Teesside’s Stephen Tompkinson, Sue Johnston and fellow Geordie Jill Halfpenny about British wrestling’s famous names like Mick McManus coming out of retirement to save a Yorkshire pub.

“That comes out in March, and the other one is about Bert Trautmann (the famous Manchester City goalkeeper who played on with a broken neck in the 1956 FA Cup Final) and I play the manager of his first football team, St Helens Town. So, now I have a new film career at the age of 62, which is crazy.”

Johns’ comedy career took off in 1989 when the Newcastle Tyne Theatre backstage crew member launched Newcastle’s Comedy Club and invited the then budding comics Jack Dee and Jo Brand to appear. “I’d seen the London Comedy Store in about 1988 and it blew my mind. It was what I’d been looking for all my life. Until then, the only comedy was in Working Men’s Clubs. I put on a comedy night in the Tyne Theatre’s Bistro and it went crazy. Then we got Lee Evans, Steve Coogan and Frank Skinner and I got in comedy by hosting the shows. Jo Brand always reminds me of my first joke, which was pretty dire. I can’t remember it all now but it was about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and, even now, she reminds me by saying the car’s name. That brings me down to earth, even after all the awards the film has won,” he says.

Johns wrote I, Fillum Star because of what happened on the red carpet at Cannes and all the film award receptions he was invited to. “There were so many huge stars I met and I put the incidents into a show which went amazingly well. I was asked about playing my home city and was expecting them to say a small venue, but it was, ‘Okay we’re doing the Theatre Royal’. It was the place I’d wanted to do ever since I started out. I’ve done comedy festival gigs at the Tyne Theatre and City Hall, but never one that is just me on stage for 90 minutes. It’s a dream come true.

“I won’t be anxious, more excited nervous. I’ve been doing this for so long that I don’t get nervous. I do get nervous about appearing in a film. I, Daniel Blake was my first and Walk Like A Cougar was my second. Now I’m appearing with seasoned actors like Stephen Graham who has worked with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m back to learning, but apparently I can do it and I’ve got a new career in my 60s.”

  • Dave Johns, Newcastle Theatre Royal, Sunday, October 1. Tickets: £19.50. Box Office: 08448-112121 or http://theatreroyal.co.uk