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Doing the Rounds

PUBLISHED

12:00 19th February 2013

by Russell Kempson

Russell Kempson visits South Wales for Swansea's semi-final tie with Chelsea

It is a damp day in Swansea city centre. Patchy sleet is threatening to turn into heavy snow; shoppers tread carefully on the slippery pavements. 

Yet it is warm and welcoming in the Grand Theatre, the chandeliers sparkling from the ceiling in the ornate Footlights Cafe Bar and Restaurant.

Five minutes, let alone half an hour, in the company of Kevin Johns is warming, too. He is bright and bubbly, charming and amusing, with an overwhelming zest for life in all its varied forms. 

Dull is a word that does not exist in his vocabulary; he is on the go virtually 24/7, cramming more into a month than many might do in a year.

His CV is quite staggering - actor, entertainer, stand-up comedian, charity volunteer, for which he received an MBE, and radio show presenter. And that's just for starters. There's more. Kevin is also a minister, Swansea City club chaplain and, perhaps most dearest to his heart, a Swans supporter since 1968.

And like many fellow fans of the South Wales club, few matches stir the memory more than when Swansea defeated Hull City 4-2 at their old Vetch Field ground on 5th May 2003 - the final day of the season. Victory kept them in The Football League, a James Thomas hat-trick helping them to avoid the ignominy of a descent into possible oblivion.

Johns, 50, casually dressed in a duffle coat and jeans, sips his peppermint tea. "It was an incredible day but, in many ways, horrific," he says. 

"If we had lost and Exeter City had won, we were out of the League. And everyone knows how difficult it is to get back. It was a massive day for us and the whole city was behind the club.

"I've never prayed for us to win a game but I went on to the North Bank [at the Vetch] a couple of days before and said a little prayer.”

It inspired the play, ‘To Hull And Back’, produced by the Swansea-based Fluellen Theatre Company, of which Johns is a leading member. Another play, ‘Toshack Or Me!’, celebrated the club's promotion into the First Division in 1981 and, completing the Swans trilogy, ‘Wemberlee! Wemberlee!’ marked the 4-2 win over Reading in the 2011 Championship Play-Off Final at Wembley.

If the overwhelming emotion was relief after the Hull win, it was unconfined joy after the defeat of Reading. "After the game, I was doing some stuff for the Swans website and video," Kevin recalls. "A lot of people had gone into the dressing-room but Leon Britton [the Swansea midfielder] was still there and we got chatting.

"We remembered that when we beat Hull, it was 4-2, and we'd just beaten Reading by the same scoreline. In both games, a player had scored a hat-trick [Scott Sinclair at Wembley] and there were penalties in both games, too. It was as if the two matches mirrored each other exactly. It was a bit spooky really.

"For everyone who was there in the days of the Hull game - all the players, officials, staff and fans - they deserved their moment at Wembley. And the open-top bus parade in the city was fantastic. There were 50,000 people lining the streets. It was just phenomenal."

Mind you, Johns almost didn't make it to the end of the game at Wembley. After giving a stirring oration on the microphone on the pitch before kick-off he got rather carried away in the press box as Swansea rattled in the goals. And his antics caught the eagle eye of a stadium official.

"There are those in the Press area who have no emotional attachment to the teams and are there just to report on the game," Kevin says. "There's a code of conduct in there but you just forget it. So when we scored our first goal, I jumped up and celebrated in a way that I shouldn't have.

"I got a bit of a look from the guy and, when we scored our second goal, he gave me another look. When we scored our third, I ran the length of the Press box, high-fived all the boys from BBC Radio Wales and kissed Lee Trundle [the former Swansea striker]. Or maybe he kissed me.

"I was quickly reminded of the code, the etiquette. I remembered I'd seen the half-time buffet in the Press lounge and thought: 'I'm not missing that. I'm staying here'. So I apologised and went back to my seat. By the time we scored our fourth goal, I think the guy had given up on me."

Johns only narrowly avoided ejection yet it illustrates the passion that he feels for every facet of his hectic life. And many of his interests are inextricably linked. 

"The year before last, we did the play 'A Christmas Carol'," Kevin says. "But we had to cancel what was due to be the gala launch because it clashed with Swans against Manchester United. Five people in the company were season ticket holders, and football comes first."

Football comes first today, with the second leg of Swansea's Capital One Cup semi-final against Chelsea at the Liberty Stadium in the evening. The Swans lead 2-0 from the first leg at Stamford Bridge. But not before Johns has to practice a line read, with his fellow cast members, for Fluellen's upcoming production of ‘You're Having A Laugh’, a composition of the two comedies – ‘Ole! Mrs Roberts’ and ‘To Whom It May Concern’ - by Welsh writer Ray Williams.

Johns checks his watch. Still time, before rehearsal, to keep talking. About acting, his charity work, his radio show, the ministry. Is he known as the Rev Kevin Johns? "Yes, I am," he replies. "But I don't use that or my MBE, either. With all those letters, it's all a bit of a mouthful. I'm just Kev. Just Kev Johns."

Kev reveals his love of the stage and the church. "The only thing I ever wanted to do as a youngster was to be an actor," he says. "My plan, my dream, was to go to drama school. But just weeks before that was due to happen, I felt it was right to go into the ministry. I surprised everyone, including God, by applying for a bible college in London. From the age of 12 or 13, the Christian faith had been a huge part of my life.

"I was supposed to be at college for two years but, after a year, I decided it was not for me. I went performing and spent a year building up a comedy-magic show. But I then went back to the same course, this time at the Elim Bible College in Capel, Surrey. I finished there and went to a ministry in Garston, Liverpool. It was an OK area, just about, but I did do a lot of work helping drug addicts and prostitutes.

"For a number of years, I was itinerant. Travelling, going around starting youth groups and Sunday schools all over the country. But I had a young family and I was struggling a bit so I got back into performing. That took over again. Now I sit comfortably between both worlds. It's my acting and broadcasting that pays the bills, I have to earn a living, but I'm planning to do a little more church work over the next couple of years.

"Everyone at the club is aware of what I do. If needed, I can get involved with the players as a counsellor. If not, I don't get in the way. There has been a number of occasions when players have made contact with me. But the things I do, no-one ever knows about. It's done confidentially. Most of my work is with the fans, like officiating at funerals and assisting families when tragedy has struck."

Tragedy affects Kevin deeply and yet, at the same times, invigorates him to help. Not just with his work at the club or in the ministry but elsewhere, too. It is why, in 2010, he received the MBE for services to charity in Wales. 

"Volunteering is important to me," he says. "I'm a performer, a communicator, and can introduce concerts, do charity auctions, all sorts of things. But the voluntary sector comes in many shapes and sizes and there are far tougher jobs than I do."

As Johns waited to collect his MBE from the Queen, he chatted with a British soldier who was to be presented with a military award for bravery. "He had been in Afghanistan and had run 400m - that's a full circuit of a running track - under fire from the Taliban to rescue his comrades and Afghan nationals," Kevin says. 

"He took a vehicle, he got them out of there. It was so humbling to meet him. It is people like him who really deserve to be honoured."

It was a proud day for Johns' family - wife Rosie, son Owain, 25, and daughter Bethan, 22, and his mother and father, Wendy and Allan, although Wendy almost caused a stir. 

"Mum and dad couldn't get tickets but still got in," Kevin says. "Not for the actual ceremony but they were outside waiting and I got permission for them to come into the first courtyard.

"When I went out to fetch them, mum had decided that she'd had enough and was on her way in, followed by two armed policemen. I think they might have learnt how to stop the Taliban but not a Welsh mother. Mum and dad did manage to get into the area where all the photographs were taken so, in the end, we got some nice pictures."

Not so much pictures but soundbites on Johns' morning show on Swansea Sound, which he presents from 6am-10am Monday to Friday - and Sundays also - and has been doing so since 1995. "I was a variety act, did some radio shows and then got a few more," he says. "It's topical humour, phone-ins, competitions, typical morning-show stuff.

"I'm not a skilled radio presenter. I've got a clumsy voice, and I usually make mistakes, but we call ourselves 'The Heart of the Community' and that's what we are. It's a show that tries to express the local community and put a smile on people's faces in the morning. We don't pretend to be what we're not."

Weather updates feature prominently on the show. As Johns leaves the cosy Footlights Cafe and disappears upstairs to an empty dressing-room for the line read for 'You're Having A Laugh' - "A veritable feast of laughs," according to the Western Mail - the sleet outside has become a snowstorm.

Johns, script in hand, co-star Jessica Sandry and fellow actress Claire Novelli read their parts, the echoes reverberating around the room. Kevin's voice booms faultlessly, until a momentary lapse when he misses a line. Williams, the author of the play, sits close by and refreshes Johns' memory. Kev takes a brief break and looks out of the window. More snow, an avalanche from the skies. "Will the game be on tonight?" must cross his mind.

Peter Richards is Fluellen's artistic director and producer. And an actor...and a Swansea season ticket holder. He reveals: "I always remember Kev saying to me: 'Pete, I love working with you, you're my favourite director. Because every time I work with you, I know I'm never going to miss a Swansea game'. We never rehearse when the Swans are playing.

"Kev's a terrific actor. And he's got a bigger range than I think is generally accepted. He's a great Dame in pantomime and he does brilliant stand-up. We did a one-man show with him last year called 'Taffy Shakespeare', which was based on the dubious premiss that Shakespeare didn't write his plays, that they were written by a Welsh stand-up comic.

"It featured 'Macbethan', 'Romeo and Blodwyn' and 'A Coracle of Errors'. It went down really well. We've done the Swansea City trilogy now. I'm not sure if we can flog it any more. Mind you, if we win the Capital One Cup, maybe we might be able to think of another good play."

In another dressing room, Johns, Richards and Sandry continue to rehearse. This time, with actions as well as words, two chairs representing the window ledge that a suicidal Mason, played by Kevin, is threatening to throw himself off. The mood is intense, concentrated, but the laughs come thick and fast. The audiences, eventually, should not be disappointed.

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Richards is happy. "Well done, well done," he says. And Johns reflects on the two sessions. "Not bad for just four days' rehearsal," he says. "I haven't quite learnt it yet. I've just come out of panto and all my panto lines are still in my head. We've got only four days before we open but it'll be fine. You do struggle for lines sometimes, your eyes go blank, but it doesn't happen that often. It's the way you get out of it that counts."

And so to the serious business of the day, Swansea versus Chelsea. Snow swirls around the Liberty Stadium, a JCB clears the pathways, cars struggle through the slush. Could the match be postponed? Kevin carries on as usual, with a pre-match 'turn' in the Morfa Lounge to entertain the diners.

Taking the microphone, he gently teases a table full of Chelsea fans - "You must be from North Wales" - and then homes in on a young woman grabbing her fill from the buffet. "'Ello, my love. Have you got enough food on that plate. At least you've left enough room for the mash." The woman, suddenly the centre of attention, smiles...and blushes.

The snow has eased, the pitch looks fine. Game on. Kevin, now down near the touchline, reads out the Swansea team with typical gusto. "Let's Get Ready to Rumble" blares out over the PA. At kick-off, Johns scurries up the steps to try to take his usual place at the back of the TV and radio press area. It is almost full but he squeezes in, just.

Swansea soak up the sporadic Chelsea pressure and retain their 2-0 aggregate lead. Five minutes before the break, Kevin returns to the pitch to take charge of the half-time penalty shoot-out. It does not go smoothly. The goal collapses, Cyril the Swan, the club mascot, and his better half Cybil stage a fight - "There's a bit of a domestic going on here," Kevin tells the crowd - and then Cyril, the goalkeeper, is knocked over and almost knocked out as a fierce spot kick thumps into his beak.

Back in the stand, for the second half, Johns squirms in a spare seat that he has found as the clock runs down. He claps regularly, nervously, and has to stand up for the agonising closing minutes. Yet Swansea hold on, comfortably, and book their place to meet Bradford City, from npower League 2, in the Final.

Kevin disappears to conduct the post-match ceremonies and congratulate the players. "It hasn't sunk in yet," he says later. "It just shows you how far this club has come. We loved the Vetch with all our hearts and we'll never forget its memories but, since we've come here, things have gone so well for us. Every season has been something different and this is just another step in the growth and development of Swansea City."

With perhaps a little help from him upstairs? "God gives people gifts," Kevin replies. "If you believe in God, you have to accept that he gives talent and loves to see people enjoying themselves, laughing, having fun. He's not a killjoy. I'm not saying he was watching the game tonight but an all-knowing, all-seeing God would have loved to see the Swans at Wembley."

Almost a month on, in Cup Final week, I catch up with Johns. 'You're Having A Laugh!' went down well at the Grand Theatre and is now due at The Grand Pavilion in Porthcawl. Kevin is also rehearsing for his next part, in 'Hobson's Choice'. "It's such an iconic play, with a lot of dialogue," he says. "It's probably the biggest challenge of my life."

Johns, understandably, has kept his diary free from taking Sunday service at the weekend - "I'm sure he will understand," he says - but has already said a prayer. "There's no harm in asking God for us to be at our best against Bradford," he adds. "I've just asked him to look after us."

And Kevin, as at the 2011 Championship Play-off Final, will have a five-minute pre-match spot at Wembley, warming up the Swansea crowd. "No pressure, then," he says. "I've thought of a few things I might say - hopefully, something sensible - but, like last time, I'll probably go from the heart."

Unlike last time, Johns will try to keep calm in the press box should the Swansea goals rain in. No fist-pumping celebrations amid the mostly neutral journalists. "I think that most people forgave me," he said. "But I'll make sure I behave myself this time. I promise."

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