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Ventriloquist1

1971. A provincial variety club. Darkness.  The hum of An expectant audience. Suddenly the single spotlight directed on the small stage reveals a ventriloquist and his dummy.  A nymphet clad in a clinging, short cut dress sits on the lap of an older man with greying temples. She is gazing intimately into his eyes. One foot crooks around the man’s calf, the other swings a big boot provocatively over his leg. Her hand nestles under his on her thigh.  But nothing is quite as it seems on first viewing; the girl with the flowing hair; all movement and animation is no prepubescent. He is rather stiff and his movements ponderous. He is smartly dressed, but he is not clean shaven. Look more closely. This five o’clock shadow is not formed of stubble but is painted; there is a slot either side of the lower lip which runs to the sides of the chin, just like a ventriloquist’s dummy… and then things begin to make sense. The vacant stare of the man is not entrancement: the rigid posture is not self-consciousness; the clumsy gesture of the hand hesitating over hers is neither decorum nor guilt and self loathing of an adult male caught grooming a minor. He is not in control of this situation, he is being manipulated. Literally so, as he is the dummy in this particular ventriloquist’s act. Meet Joe Johnson. The girl is actually in her early forties and has been controlling him as a means of catharsis for fifteen years. Meet Jo Johnson.

Her back story was haunted by the spectres of contemporary western society , and her act was her way of coping with how they they had stalked every waking hour of her teen years.

Jo had been introduced into showbusiness by her father at an early age. She became the foil perched on Joe’s lap. Ostensibly, this strategy was employed as a newsworthy gimmick designed to increase interest and bookings  at a time when all performers needed a hook which might lift them above their peers. In truth, he needed a ‘talking doll’ because creeping stagefright increasingly limited his ventriloquial capacities. The strategy worked. Audiences loved this confident young girl. However, this success came at a price. The more applause his ‘dummy’ garnered, the more depressed the man. In 1950, Joe auditioned for that most English of occupations, ventrilioquist for radio broadcast, but was overlooked in favour of rival Peter Brough. Crude audience research of the time had suggested that listeners would respond more positively to [public] schoolboy ‘Archie Andrews’ than an eight year old girl with an attitude. Joe’s brittle character produced shards of insecurity and low self esteem, the jagged edges of which snagged his only child. The abuse he inflicted upon her seems to have developed from psychological cruelty; became physical and eventually sexual by the time she was fourteen. This was to provide the sharp grit around which Jo would later mould the pearl of her solo act.

The early 60’s proved a period of metamorphosis. Increasing physical and mental debility forced Joe to commission a second dummy; a life-sized doppelganger for himself, which  Jo could control with her right hand through hidden access on the left side of its torso frame.  Initially employed only when Joe was incapacitated, Jo found that this full control liberated her. A feisty teenager now with her hands on the levers of power, she began to deviate from the original act’s safe script and to introduce barely disguised autobiographical elements. The audiences responded positively, encouraging further character development. In 1962 After seeing one performance through a fog of stage fright, in which Jo referred to her onstage partner/father’s’ ‘unmanliness’, Joe attacked his daughter for her treachery. A battle of words developed into clenched fists and had two results; he gave her a broken rib and she gave him an ultimatum that she would never work with him again.  Aged twenty, Jo became a solo performer. She would never see her father again, though his flawed character traits would form the central persona of her onstage partner.

Her revised act coincided with a period  in which censorship governing the arts in general and theatre in particular, began to lift.* This enabled Johnson to push the limits of her material. Her act was deliberately designed to wrong foot a new audience. They may have expected a comfortable sketch in the manner of Ray Alan, a man engaging in light repartee with a mannequin on his lap. This is how it rolled out in the first few minutes. Witty exchanges only gradually edged into darker areas. “Jo and Joe Jo” became an exercise in empowerment . Payback for years of incest. Dressed in curve-enhancing outfits and big boots, Jo acted as temptress to her older clumsy partner, then humiliated him through a dazzling array of insults, contempt, belittling inferences to impotence and quantitative endowment. Audiences initially registered shock but gradually, and often led by the female section of her audience, they became fully engaged with this very edgy  and well written material. Eventually, critics concurred; here was a real talent, at both writing and handling scripts at the cutting edge. Germaine Greer cited her act in a 1968 article on feminist performance  in comedy theatre, remarking on “her unerring aim at the dark heart of misogyny” and compared the viewing experience to “an evening spent in the company of Martha and George [Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?]; by turns fascinating, and horrifying; but never less than captivating.”[1]    Larger venues, bookings, critical acclaim and enthusiastic audiences encouraged Granada TV producers to come courting. In early 1967, Negotiations for a slot for satire programme ‘On The Braden Beat’ broke down when Jo refused to tone down her material . She argued that their audience would be sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate her material. controllers had less faith in their public. The offer was withdrawn, depriving the public a potential opportunity to see Jo and a young Peter Cooke together [what might that combination have produced?]. Networks simply couldn’t have transmitted her act, because it referenced concepts of incest and  patricide. The 60’s might have been a time to air these issues through the medium of sober documentary -not through comedy. Even today, society is extremely febrile paddling this  particular murky backwater of the human psyche. Consequently, There are no official television clips of any of her performances.**  Actually, Jo didn’t want to surrender a whole tour’s worth of material to a national audience at a single screening. In any case she preferred the intimacy of a few hundred people in small venues; private members clubs and pubs.

What we do have are some hand-written scripts. Heavily annotated, they reveal a remorseless self-critical faculty at work; pushing an idea to the very limit of taste, shuttling the punchline to and fro across a monologue of searing frankness. A character carefully developed -then ruthlessly deconstructed .  What these sharp, often sour lines cannot convey is the delivery. They do not show the vocal pitch or consummate timing which by most accounts, is what gripped her audiences -often by the throat.

By the late seventies, Jo’s core audience had shifted from variety to an area of performance where she found herself feted by New wave musicians and avant-garde artists. Perhaps her most notable name-check was during the reading from “Interior Scroll” by  feminist performance artist Carolee Schneeman.[2] However, her course of self-help appears to have reached completion at this time. Therapy and self-help rather than financial concerns had always guided her career. She made one final tour which reprised older sketches linked by less acerbic observations  than those of earlier days.  In 1977, after a performance in the side lounge at the Derby Hall in Bury -still at the very top of an admiring support bill which included Howard Devoto,  she left, never to return to the spotlight. No photo essays for the supplements, very few [and no extensive] post- career interviews, ” Everything I ever needed to make public, I said during my act”[3].  She had managed to disappear from public view completely  by 1980. It seems she emigrated; either to Madagascar or Panama and into contented, self-imposed obscurity.

Postscript follows: Meet Jo Jo Johnson [2]

[1] Germaine Greer: ” Puppets pulling Strings”; the Observer  May 1968                  [2] Schneemann performed Interior Scroll in East Hampton, New York and Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, 1975                                                                            [3]  “The Empowered Ingenue leaves the Stage”  intervie with Nick Benson  NME  June 1978

* The path toward liberalism in Britain at this time mile posted by numerous events; three examples will suffice here:  a]”Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” was released as a film in 1960, expanding the popular audience for Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 novel. It frankly addressed issues of free love, adultery and abortion in a realistic style. b] The “Lady Chatterley Trial” Nov. 1960 holed literary censorship below the waterline.  c] The Stehen Ward prosecution and the Profumo Affair marked the end of deference to the British establishment and heralded the birth of a new wave of satire in popular culture. 1963

* * A trawl through  YouTube has uncovered nothing by way of  unofficial footage. Her appeals to her audiences to refrain from filming her shows seems to have been  faithfully adhered to.

More work from the ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ project can be viewed at:       http://www.smokingbrushfineart.com

Paintings will be on show as part of

“The Manifestation Of Dreams”

with Clare Ferguson-Walker and Adam White

11th July to the 22nd

at the POWERHOUSE  Landysul  SA44 4AH

Opening times: 10am to 4pm every day except Sundays

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