Screenwriter for whom the green light still shines

Johnny Ferguson


The gritty thriller Gangster No. 1 , which was released in 2000 and starred Malcolm McDowell, Paul Bettany and David Thewlis, was a quintessentially British film, but its screenplay was written by an Irishman from Glenageary, Co Dublin.

Johnny Ferguson, who died last week after a short illness, adapted the script from the original 1995 stage play, and though it came at the tail end of the trend for “London geezer- gangster” films in the Guy Ritchie mould, it earned Ferguson a nomination for best screenplay at the British Independent Film Awards, and looked set to make him many directors’ first choice of writer.

But screenwriting is all about hard graft, with the hope of a green light at the end of the tunnel. Following Gangster No 1 , Ferguson wrote a script for My Boy , the story of Thin Lizzy singer Philip Lynott, adapted from the book by Lynott’s mother, Philomena. Sally Field was lined up to play her part but the project fell through.

However, the green light still shines for Ferguson even after his untimely passing. His adaptation of Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture is going into production this year, with Ferguson’s close friend Noel Pearson producing. Pearson is also producing Ferguson’s co-written script for Magnificat , a modern fairytale about an Irish monk who becomes pope. Another Sebastian Barry adaptation, A Long, Long Way , set against the backdrop of the first World War and the Easter Rising, may yet see the light of day.

He also wrote the 2007 television miniseries Fallout with Declan Jones, and the TG4 documentary Pimpernel Sa Vatican .

A way with no words
Johnny Ferguson definitely had a way with words. He also had a way with no words, says his younger brother Conor. He could talk for Ireland on his favourite subjects – Myles Na gCopaleen, the Marx Brothers, Irish art – but he could also maintain an unnerving silence if the small talk didn’t capture his imagination. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, recalls Conor – and he had a very broad definition of a fool.

He was the son of the businessman and art collector Vincent Ferguson, who was a former director of Independent News and Media. Magnificent artworks were part of the furniture at the family home in Glenageary – Vincent and his wife Noeleen collected works by Basil Blackshaw, Michael Mulcahy, Terence P Flanagan, Barrie Cooke and Charlie Brady, among others. Johnny inherited his parents’ appreciation for art, and treasured a portrait of his father painted by Blackshaw.

He attended CBC Monkstown and UCD, and had a talent for music, leading a popular local band, Thunderbirds Are Go! In later years, he and his close friend the author Pat McCabe would regularly bring their guitars down to the Flat Lake literary and arts festival in Co Monaghan to take part in Radio Butty, an evening of music and chat hosted by McCabe.

Novel idea
After graduating from college he went to London, where he worked as a journalist. When he returned to Ireland to seek work as a copywriter the country was caught up in Italia ’90, so he had the novel idea of sending red cards out to the advertising agencies, with the suggestion that they hand the red card to employees distracted by the World Cup and hire him.

Soon he was writing ad copy for various agencies, including Dimension, and his work was regularly winning Shark and Icad awards. But writing killer ads wasn’t enough to satisfy Ferguson’s creativity, so he took the plunge and became a full-time screenwriter.

When his parents retired, they moved to Rosses Point in their native Sligo, and when his father died in 2007 aged 75, Johnny moved to Sligo to look after his mother. In recent years he had been living in Blackpitts in Dublin with his girlfriend, the actor and writer Ali Joy White. When he fell ill he was “well looked after” at St James’s Hospital, and when he took a turn for the worse he and Ali moved their wedding day forward to April 10th.

His last days were spent reconnecting with friends and family members. “He had a lot of boxes to tick off,” says Conor.

Although Johnny “ clearly rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way in his time,” says Conor, “it’s amazing how many people he helped and inspired and encouraged to tap into their own potential.”