Mitchell and Nixon met at primary school in a colliery village in Derbyshire, and started to write plays together when they were just fourteen years old. In 1988, Mitchell, a talented musician, moved to Brighton, to study composition at the University of Sussex. Nixon, following a degree in American Literature at the University of Essex, also moved to Brighton in the early 90s. It was in Brighton, in 1992, that they founded The Ornate Johnsons, a sketch troupe named after a character they had created in a Damon Runyonesque play set in 1920s USA. Mitchell told Time Out that their aim was 'to bring back energy, drama and extravagant performances to the world of sketch comedy; and to do stuff that wasn’t political or PC. People forget how oppressively right-on everything was around 1989. All the shows have tended to be a collection of loosely linked songs and sketches that make no point beyond raising a laugh.’
The original members of the Ornate Johnsons were Brian Mitchell, David Mounfield and Laurence Relton, and they first performed at the Marlborough Theatre Brighton, in January 1992. They were later joined, at various times, by Glen Richardson, Paul Putner, Louise Law (née Judkins), Beth Fitzgerald, Jo Neary and Clea Smith. Nixon, familiarly known as ‘the unseen Johnson’, does not perform, 'although he makes an occasional Terry Gilliam-like appearance in a show.'
For BBC Southern Counties, Matt McGuire reviewed an Ornate Johnsons show at Brighton Festival in 2007: 'The OJs did what they always do: deliver genuinely fantastic, original, playful, surreal and dynamic comedy sketches, including bribery on the Starship Enterprise; football commentators’ on the drama of a man stuffing a pie down his face in seconds; Only Fools And Horses, the opera; and a man who always finishes his girlfriend’s sentences.'
In 2007, BBC4 broadcast the Ornate Johnsons' Edwardian Spectacular, recorded at Wilton's Music Hall. This was followed by a two-week run at the London Arts Theatre, where audiences were 'invited to follow the troupe through the pages of Edwardian history and join The Pankhurst Sisters on Tour, marvel at the devillish magicks of Aleister Crowley and gasp at Charles Rennie Mackintosh – Superhero! This one-hour show brings together the great events and discoveries of the day – from the exploration of the Polar Regions, via Pavlov’s dogs, to the sinking of The Titanic. Not even the Great Houdini can escape. And there’s a man with a wooden arse.'
In 1994, Mitchell and Nixon gave up sketch comedy to write a dramatic trilogy: Three Short Plays about Shops and Love. The first was Moonlight over India, a romantic comedy, in the style of Guys and Dolls, set in a 1950s New York drug store. The store is run by Harry, an artist at the soda fountain, whose greatest creation, which he calls 'Moonlight over India' is a 'Triple Chocolate - white, milk AND plain - Double Fudge, Chopped Walnut, Four Scoop Sundae.' The central character, Ed the Bean, is a chocoholic whose girlfriend, Myrtle, thinks it's childish for a man to be interested in candy. Ed is saved from Myrtle by Lara, a tough dame who also loves chocolate. They find love by sharing a 'Moonlight over India'.
The second play was The Bargain, a farce set in the 19th century Russia of Gogol and Chekhov. The central character is the pawnbroker, Riskin, a conceited, indecisive, half-wit who is planning a wedding proposal. Riskin lives with his disapproving mother, and the pair have a comic double act reminiscent of Galton and Simpson.
MOTHER: Dullard! Clod! Pinhead!
MOTHER: Mental defective! Dimwit! Jackass!
RISKIN: Mother! One day you will run out of insults to level at me!
TATIANA: She has a book of them.
The plot has many comic twists and turns, commented on in soliloquoy by Riskin: 'Oh, this is like the plot of some terrible novel! What’s going on? Right – I must tackle this logically – I’m good at logic. Was it not I who recognised, in my early twenties, the important link between over-eating and obesity?'
The third play Metronome, took its setting, Paris in the 1960s, from Nouvelle Vague cinema. But the style was that of Terence Rattigan, as a sophisticated English couple, in the act of breaking up, visit a music store where the man buys a piano. Much is left unsaid. The woman says, 'If I think about it, my one real regret is that I shall leave here without you and I ever having had what might be termed a 'blazing row'.' The man replies, 'I understand these sort of public histrionics are currently very fashionable, in the theatre, anyway. One only has to walk past the Royal Court to risk being struck on the back of the head by a flat-iron.'
The reference to the Royal Court was an acknowledgement of how unusual such plays were in the early 1990s, when British theatre was dominated by experimental companies, like Theatre de Complicite, and the extreme 'In-yer-face theatre' of the Royal Court. Rattigan was deeply unfashionable in the 1990s. But the Rattigan revival of 2011 suggests that Mitchell and Nixon may have been ahead of their time.
The three plays are very different in style, yet they share similar themes. The central male characters are indecisive ineffectual dreamers. Ed the Bean and Riskin are both overgrown children. The women are practical, decisive, and adult, and it is their decisions which shape the course of events.
Although conceived as a trilogy, only the first two plays were originally staged together, at the Nightingale Theatre Brighton, transferring to Komedia, Brighton, in 1995. The plays were both directed by Nicholas Quirke, who also played Riskin. Peta Taylor played Riskin's mother. In Moonlight over India Ed and Lara were played by Simon Merrells and Beth Fitzgerald, and Harry, the drug store owner, was played by Ross-Gurney-Randall.
The complete trilogy was finally staged in May 2004 at the Sallis Benney Theatre, Brighton. The production, directed by Brian Mitchell, had Ian Shaw as Ed the Bean and Duncan Henderson as Riskin. The man and woman in Metronome were played by Duncan Henderson and Beth Fitzgerald.
Mitchell and Nixon’s next play, Spy, was inspired by 1960s British spy films and TV series, including The Ipcress File, James Bond, The Saint, The Prisoner and The Avengers, with one scene echoing Alain Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad. The central characters are Stroud, another naive male, and Miss Eve, a femme fatale, who breaks into his office one day dressed like Miss Peel from The Avengers. She reveals to him that, for the previous fifteen years, he has been working for ‘the largest intelligence organization in Chingford.’
The play was originally performed at the Nightingale Theatre, Brighton, in 1995, with Mitchell as Stroud and Clea Smith as Miss Eve. Mitchell and Nixon revived and revised it, in 2006, for the East Anglian Pulse Festival, with Duncan Henderson and Beth Fitzgerald in the lead roles. Lynne Mortimer reviewed the production in the East Anglian Times: 'This was a fabulously convoluted story about a Chingford based intelligence organisation and it required any number of paralyzing, knock-out and truth inducing drugs to be administered in the course of the action....Duncan Henderson is magnificent as Stroud, the hapless employee who has spent 15 years trying to avoid being noticed because he doesn't actually do any work. One day, he finds another woman has taken the place of his indisposed secretary - a woman who has a habit of kissing him....Probably no one is who they appear to be and, just when the audience imagines it may have worked out what is going on, it is tossed a googly as one twist in the tale is succeeded by another and then another....There have been many imitators and spoofs of the spy story, but none I think as clever and laughter-provoking as this one'.
In 2010, New Perspectives produced Those Magnificent Men, Mitchell and Nixon's comedy about the first ever non-stop Transatlantic flight of Alcock and Brown. The play, directed by Daniel Buckroyd, originally had C.P.Hallam as Alcock and Richard Earl as Brown. Philip Reeve reviewed the play: 'Without ever being disrespectful to the real Alcock and Brown, they manage to turn their heroes into a classic British comedy duo in the tradition of Morecambe and Wise, with CP Hallam's Alcock the long-suffering straight man and Richard Earl's Brown the buffoon. And as if history and comedy were not enough, there are points where the characters step out of the action and era of the play to discuss the whole notion of biographical dramas, and shoot down in flames the recent trend for plays and films based on the lives of politicians, comedians and celebrities; works which twist the facts to make the story more interesting....This is a superb piece of theatre, beautifully written and engagingly acted, and it deserves to be widely seen. '
Julie Watterson, in The Stage, wrote, 'The production is full of laughter, pathos and ingenuity, with strong direction from Daniel Buckroyd and creative design by Helen Fownes-Davies, who uses basic trunks for a variety of clever purposes and facilitates the quirky construction of an amusingly credible version of the Vickers-Vimy-Roils aeroplane.'
When the play went to the 2011 Edinburgh Festival, Ian Shaw took over the role of Alcock.
In 2015, the play was revived with Mitchell in the role of Alcock and David Mounfield playing Brown. Richard Perry, reviewing a Leicester performance in the Western Park Gazette, said 'If you ever want to see the Charge of the Light Brigade performed in your living room, Brian Mitchell and David Mountfield (sic) could probably do it with sticks, a cushion and a flared nostril apiece....It's a very funny, hands on hips, chin jutting out into the sunset look at old fashioned British heroism and epic boys' own daring do in the face of insurmountable odds and near certain death.'
Mitchell and Nixon's 2011 play, Big Daddy Vs Giant Haystacks, is a comedy about the world of British wrestling, written for the actors Ross Gurney-Randall and David Mounfield. Gurney-Randall played Big Daddy, the 26 stone 9 lb wrestler famous for his feud with the 6 ft 11 inch tall Giant Haystacks, played by Mounfield.
Writing about real people usually means there is a wealth of material to draw on. Not in this case. Apart from mentions in a few ghosted autobiographies and tabloid newspaper interviews there was virtually nothing. This meant we had to look in some odd places for our data. We had our memories of course; we both remembered Big Daddy on 'Tiswas' and Kendo Nagasaki being unmasked. We remembered the spectacle of seemingly thousands of old ladies at a fever pitch of excitement by the ringside, waving their umbrellas in the air and chanting 'Easy easy!' It was this excitement we wished to transmit by translating wrestling into theatre. Which, of course, is what it always was.
The play was a big hit at the 2011 Brighton Festival, where it won a best actor award for Ross-Gurney Randall. At Buxton Festival, it won the Fringe Awards for Best Theatre Production and Best New Writing. In 2013, it went to the Assembly Rooms for the Edinburgh Festival, where Michael Coveney hailed it as 'a sharp and funny sketch show about the heyday (and Haystacks) of television wrestling, with some astute popular cultural referencing and more physical theatre than the entire dance programme at Summerhall (this year's seriously trending, and trendy, venue).'
Philip Reeve reviewed the play for The Solitary Bee:'Actors Ross Gurney-Randall and David Mounfield don't just portray Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, but an immense supporting cast of lesser wrestlers, managers, and TV executives; there are even walk-on parts for Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra and Princess Margaret....It's all as funny as we've come to expect from Mitchell and Nixon, but it's never just funny: they have a deep sympathy for the people they write about. Ross Gurney Randall's Big Daddy is particularly impressive; reluctant at first, then half believing his own publicity; his unease at having to visit the bedsides of dying children as part of his brother's publicity schemes, and his grief and guilt about the death of an opponent, are exceptionally well-drawn; he's almost a tragic figure (albeit a 26 stone tragic figure in a spangly leotard)'
Scenes from the play were included in the recent BBC4 documentary ‘When Wrestling Was Golden’.
In 2013, Mitchell and Nixon's Seven Studies in Salesmanship was staged at the Brighton and Buxton Festivals. The piece, featuring David Mounfield, Heather Urquhart, Jenny Rowe and Daniel Beales, was made up of seven short plays linked by the theme of selling. Graham Duff, writer of Ideal and Hebburn, reviewed the Brighton show: 'Matching big laugh-out-loud gags with touching moments of genuine poignancy, Seven Studies in Salesmanship is a beautifully crafted portmanteau production. Much more than just a satire of selling techniques, the show also grapples with narcissism, betrayal and obsession. From urban romantic entanglements to sci-fi vignettes and skewed Roald Dahl-esque morality tales, these stories frequently take unexpected twists and turns.'
Mitchell and Nixon's The Opinion Makers is a musical comedy about a market research company in Swinging Sixties London. The play, directed by Daniel Buckroyd, opened in October 2013 at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, with a cast including Mel Giedroyc, David Mounfield and Julie Atherton. The Mercury Theatre website, which describes the play as 'Mad Men meets Carry On', provides this synopsis: 'When the utterly incompetent team at Fernsby Market Research find themselves facing the stiffest challenge of their professional lives – to report what the British Public really think of world famous ‘Doctor Campbell’s Lotion’ in readiness for a re-launch – there’s only one thing for it; make it all up! After all, that’s what market research companies do, isn’t it?'
The Colchester production received mixed reviews. Quentin Letts, in the Mail, described it as an 'underegged crusty effort.' Revived for the Brighton Festival in May 2014, with Mitchell himself directing, it was more successful, winning an Evening Argus Angel award. Tom Locke, reviewing it in the Argus, wrote, 'Whether there will be a wittier, better crafted or more entertaining show at the Fringe this year remains to be seen, but Brighton boys Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon have set the bar high....This performance was sold out and the reaction at the end was unanimous – a hit!'
In 2016, for the 180th anniversary of the birth of W.S.Gilbert, Mitchell and Nixon wrote a stage adaptation of some of the 'Tall Tales and Bonkers Ballads' he contributed to Punch and Fun magazines. Gilbert (No Sullivan) includes three stories (The Finger of Fate, The Burglar's Story and Foggerty's Fairy) and two Bab Ballads (Annie Protheroe and The Yarn of the Nancy Bell). The show, performed by Mitchell and David Mounfield, toured in Autumn 2016. According to Louise Schweitzer, in the Argus, 'Mounfield and Mitchell romped with minimum props and maximum gusto through Gilbertiana....It was a very clever show from two enormously talented and very funny actors.'
Mitchell and Nixon are the authors of two books in the Cheeky Guide series: The Cheeky Guide to Student Life and The Cheeky Guide to Love. Both have also contributed to David Bramwell and Tim Bick'sThe Cheeky Guide to Brighton, Nixon writing on 'Vegetarian Brighton' and Mitchell, a self-confessed 'lard lover', a 'Heartfelt Defence of the Greasy Spoon'. The guide to Brighton has gone through five editions, in which Mitchell has gradually documented the loss of the town's old fashioned caffs: 'I have felt like a latter-date Canute, trying to resist the tide of coffee chains, gastro pubs and juice bars.' In a typical review, of the Corner Cafe, Hove, Mitchell writes, 'I particularly recommend the homemade bacon pudding, which once moved my colleague David Mounfield to tears and has certainly brought me close to the condition known as Stendhal syndrome.'
Until 2015, Mitchell and Nixon wrote a regular column, Bare Cheek, in Brighton's Latest 7 listings magazine. Regular features include a surreal list of 'Fantabulous Facts About Hove' ('Hove library contains the only known copy of the Necronomicon in existence'; 'Due to some legisaltive anomaly, all court sessions in Hove are conducted in Jamaican patois'); Etiquette with Hetty Kwet; Edward de Bonehead's Lateral Thinking Puzzles; and 'Ask Uncle Nick', an agony column hosted by local resident, Nick Cave ('Strewth!').