A rough magic

Terry Johnson, king of the cerebral West End comedy, is swapping the magic of theatre for the TV screen. Just a blip, he tells Jasper Rees
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Last year, Terry Johnson came down with a virus that might appropriately be called London Bus Syndrome. You wait five years to see a play of his, then three turn up in the West End at once. Not bad, given that he's only ever written six. Insignificance, which throws Monroe and Einstein together into a room, was on at the Donmar. Hysteria!, which does the same to Freud and Dali, was in the Royal Court's season of classics at the Duke of York's. And Dead Funny, which ferociously exposes the barrenness of comedy bores by gluing all the best lines to the one character who hates Benny Hill, sent customers home from the Savoy squawking with satisfaction.

Do we deduce that the intellectual play is storming the barricades of the blockbuster musical? Johnson is Eeyoreish on this matter, as on most others. "Pure economics," he says. "I had a big hit in Dead Funny, and the whole raison d'etre of the West End is what will sell. So they decided I would. I had been trying to get that show on with Frankie [Frances Barber, who played Marilyn] for two-and-a-half years. It wouldn't happen again. Just a blip."

He ought really to be cashing in with play number seven, but: "Nothing has hit paper. If you put the thumbscrews on me and said I absolutely may not leave this room" - we are in Johnson's kitchen in Streatham - "until I've written a play, it would probably be about falling in love with a younger woman." You get the impression he'd rather give birth to octuplets. Having turned 40 last Christmas, he frets about older peers, who "hit 40, then they write a play about falling in love with a younger woman, and that's usually the worst play they've ever written. What happens is you want to get nearer to yourself as a writer, but the danger is you begin to get narcissistic and up your arse. I'm busy avoiding it."

Very busy, in fact. In the past 12 months he has directed in Chicago for the Steppenwolf company run by John Malkovich, for whom he has also written a television script about Howard Hughes. He directed The Memory of Water, Shelagh Stephenson's hit currently on in Hampstead, understudied the character in Dead Funny who has to take all his clothes off; and converted Hysteria! into a film which he will direct. He's also trying to turn Dead Funny into a three-parter for television. And battily scheduled by the BBC for the August bank holiday is The Bite, his thriller about an ordinary Anglo-Australian couple who become heroin mules in Burma to dig themselves out of debt, then have to live with the fall-out. The attractions, apart from the pedigree of the script, are compelling performances by Lesley Manville and Pamela Rabe as mule and trafficker, and another of Keith Allen's villainous comic cameos (to add to his many Comic Strip turns).

It sounds an improbable project for Johnson. But then so was 99-1, the gritty undercover cop series starring Leslie Grantham and a lot of polystyrene coffee cups. Neither show was his brainwave. For The Bite, Lavinia Warner of Warner Sisters gave him the idea and the research, and hired his imagination to flesh them out. Typically, though, his take on the genre is inquisitively maverick. "Whereas most thrillers last for two hours and finish, this thriller lasts for three hours. And what happens in the last bit is what happens to people who get involved in thrillers. Is there such a thing as a happy ending? What I'm very respectful of the producers for hanging on to, under quite a lot of co-production pressure to make the piece simpler, is that, when you feel the story is about to end, it goes into a completely different gear."

There always was more than one Terry Johnson. The split artistic personality rears its head(s) in Hysteria!, a play that lies on the couch in Freud's Hampstead study and tries to work out if it's a farce or a serious psychodrama. (The farce, by the way, will be amputated from the film.) With Dead Funny, a wry comedy about two sexually dysfunctional marriages that combust at a wake for Benny Hill, the list of critics who found Johnson guilty of yoking together two incomplete plays had shrunk. But the adjective they still pin on him is Stoppardian, summing up his not-quite-unique brand of highly cerebral flippancy. The label dates back to the playfully pedagogic scene in Insignificance, premiered at the Royal Court when he was only 26, in which Monroe uses balloons and a train set to explain to Einstein the theory of relativity.

"I think it's a fairly facile comparison," he says. "Tom Stoppard once wrote a play with famous people in it [Travesties]. So what? We share a similar delight in logic and madness, but I think I invade that territory and bring back prisoners, whereas, with Stoppard, it's his territory. There are other playwrights that I aspire to be compared with far more than Stoppard. I love Mamet's dialogue and I love Caryl Churchill's construction."

He was already hedging his creative bets as a student at Birmingham, where he studied writing, directing and acting. For David Edgar's Arts Lab he broke his authorial duck with a play called Interminus ("more or less sums it up really"). A simplified career resume shows that he gave up acting - "I was mediocre and it cost me blood" - when the Bush staged Amabel, the first of his dramatic hypotheses, which imagines that one of Degas's dancers was also one of Toulouse-Lautrec's whores.

Although long a jobbing director, he didn't get his mitts on his own work until Dead Funny. "Nobody would let me," he says, "because writers can't direct; they can have nine-month runs in the West End, but they can't direct." This chippy sarcasm also bares its fangs when he fulminates against the theatre's Oxbridge mafiosi, who, he argues, stall the advancement of redbrickies like himself. He rejects the idea that his plays contain no autobiography - "The bit of me that is Marilyn Monroe is a fairly abstract bit, but it exists."

But if one thread does run through Johnson's plays, it is a rootlessness, a sense that their author could come from anywhere. In fact, he comes from Watford, "the most faceless town anywhere", where he led a blameless youth as "an authority coward: I couldn't conceive of not doing homework, because presumably eventually your world imploded. I was a very dull boy until I was 24."

It's as if he has learnt to avoid homework by bashing out entertainments like The Bite. But under the sardonic bravado - "Who the fuck wants to be a playwright?" - it's clear that, like his drug smugglers, he has been bitten by something over which he has no control. "The theatre is a very exotic place for a chap with my background. I still get a kind of adolescent thrill walking through a pass-door, because when you walk backstage you do enter into a forbidden space. You can tell by the weight of the door. It's forbidden. And it's forbidden because it's magical, it's absolutely magical. I defy anybody to walk across a darkened stage waiting for a performance without thinking, 'This is magic!' "

n 'The Bite' is on BBC1 this Saturday at 9.15pm and Sunday at 9pm