David John - A talented, fun-loving Liverpudlian

4 minutes read
Posted 5 June, 2024
A familiar face in Arrowtownn David John

A familiar face in Arrowtownn - David John

David John is best known in the south for his incredible artistic talents, but his quick wit and words have also been recognised on the national and international stage as a playwright, poet, and scriptwriter.

Accolades, however, are not what life’s about for this fun-loving Liverpudlian, born shortly after WWII ended in 1945. The bombsite remains of the port city were his playground growing up when food was rationed. “I didn’t see a banana until I was three,” he says.

David’s early school was ‘old Dickens-style’. “I belonged to a gang at high school. It was a slum area. You had to be a hard knock to live there.”

David’s fascination with art began when his dad left him at the Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery where he discovered Cezanne’s famous painting ‘The Murder’. “I fell in love with painting. I just wanted to draw.”

At 14 he set up in the park selling pencil portraits. “I charged sixpence each and made heaps.”

By 17 he was studying at Liverpool Art School, during an incredible time in Liverpool’s music scene. He’d watch hometown boys The Beatles playing at The Cavern, long before they were famous, Eric Clapton performing with The Yardbirds, and went to Bob Dylan’s first British Concert Tour. “I heard ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ before the record was available,” David says. John Lennon graced the Art School where his first wife Cynthia stayed on as a student while John left for Hamburg with The Beatles. “I did life drawing with her.”

These exciting times made David restless, so he hitch hiked solo around Europe in his late teens, something not done in the 1960s. South Africa’s sunshine beckoned at 21 where he met first wife, Dee. David sold paintings there before heading to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands where he got permission from the Lord Mayor to set up downtown with the artists.

Eventually they headed to Montreal where he made good money painting portraits. New York followed then back to England when Dee fell pregnant with eldest son Sam. “There was no way I was bringing up kids in England.” They got free passage on a P&O ship to Australia in exchange for teaching art. Dee was the model.

David won a major art award in Adelaide, but the flies and heat drove them to New Zealand where tourists recommended Queenstown. “I couldn’t believe it. Everything was so pure and clear, the trout in the lake. You could see the bottom in 5-feet of water.”

They settled in Arrowtown – population 375, where realtor John Newman found them an A-frame and the disused Stables site as an art gallery.
“Peggy Newman arrived with a whole bunch of groceries, and I fell in love with the place. I was hooked,” David says.

With so much beauty, landscapes became his thing, exhibiting in Queenstown and Invercargill’s Anderson Park Gallery where he won a premier painting award in the early 1980s.

Renowned for his humour, he once convinced Aussie tourists that while there were no snakes, there were “feral poodles” at Macetown. They’d been abandoned at Millbrook and were killing sheep and attacking tourists. They’d just learned, while safe downtown, they could be at risk as camping ground prey, when a local lady behind them lost it laughing.

Eventually David and Dee parted, second son Joe staying with Dad in Arrowtown.

An early co-founder of the Arrowtown Autumn Festival, David began writing comic shows for the festival, drawing packed crowds – The Wedding, a spoof on Southland weddings, Robin Hood, and A Fashionable Murder, in which he played ‘Inspector Smallcrust’, among them.

“I’d find out who could tell a good joke in the pub, get them to portray their favourite star, then write them into the show.”

“One night during ‘Hang onto your Plums’ we almost had to break up a fight. Grown men in bonnets and nappies fighting over who got the blue teddy bear.”

A performer in Showbiz Queenstown musicals too, David’s has always written stories and poetry, while also working as a photographer for Jim Boult’s Mountain Scene.

But it was the combination of David’s words and entertainer Kevin Lynch’s music that turned his ‘Ballad of Millie Hall’ about Arrowtown’s goldrush flood into a full-scale musical, ‘Rush! The Stage Musical’. An investor, and Fortune Theatre director, got on board, opening to a crowd of 2000 at Dunedin’s Regent Theatre in 1998.

“We had 12 songs and in three or four months I had to deliver almost twice that.”

“I had both my boys on either side in the front row with standing ovations. You can’t buy that.”

‘Rush’ was picked up around NZ, in England and the US.

Hardly surprising that daughter Fineen, 20, is now pursuing a writing career making David and partner Lyndal proud.

From leftJ DavidJ Mark Hadlow and Kevin Lynch at The Regent Theatre in Dunedin the night Rush opened in 1998

David with Mark Hadlow and Kevin Lynch at The Regent Theatre, Rush opening night


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