I, DANIEL Blake star Dave Johns isn’t aware of it, but as we drink tea in a comedy club café in his home town of Newcastle, he constantly bobs up and down on his seat. Not exactly Tigger-bobbing, more like a very big baby in a high chair.

The kinetic energy suggests a man who needs to be on the go, always moving forward. And it’s no surprise to learn he has three new films coming out over the coming months, as well as returning to the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time in 18 years.

But what’s more of a surprise, given his talent and energy, is that Johns was 36 before he first took to the stage as a stand-up. He was 59 before he became a film star – "the first ever called Dave" – with Ken Loach’s multi-award-winning benefits scandal story.

Today, on his 61st birthday, Johns rewinds on his long journey to showbiz success and you realise it’s taken so long because the road ahead was heavily potholed. And, he reveals a little later, manholed.

Schooldays revealed the shy little boy from working-class Byker was far from academic. “In the maths class the teacher would give me a bit of paper and I’d draw airplanes,” he recalls.

Johns also had a distinctive stammer and his future looked bleak but one day, the clouds parted. Just a little. “I remember the class being taken to see [Arthur Miller's] Death Of A Salesman, and we got to go backstage. I was fascinated. Then a teacher suggested I try youth theatre, thinking I needed to find myself, I guess.”

Johns's instinct told him the teacher was right and the 15-year-old worked up the courage to knock on the door of the youth theatre in Wallsend. “The woman in charge looked at me and asked if I’d been sent from Heaven. Turns out they were doing a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream and were looking for a Puck.”

Small, impish and naturally funny, Johns was perfect. But the curtain on this world came down almost as fast as it had gone up. “My mates thought this acting stuff was weird and reckoned I had become a total w***er. I could understand their thinking; this was a middle-class world where people have loads of confidence and I didn’t have it. In this arts world you always feel you will be found out.”

He adds, with a shrug: “My parents certainly didn’t encourage performance. My dad’s mantra was ‘Stop showing off’ and that stuck with me for the longest time."

Johns's father was a joiner. “When I left school at 15, he told me he had an interview set up for me as an apprentice bricklayer. I told him I didn’t want to do it. He told me I wasn’t going to lie about the house.”

And so Johns slapped mortar onto bricks. Badly. “Rather than let me build houses on the new estates, the building company took me to the nearby fields where they were excavating the foundations and told me to build manholes. That’s all I did for two years, on my own.” He grins: “They were really deep, like chimneys in the ground. But in a way it was good because I would put on Radio 1 and if it was sunny I’d lie in the sunshine.”

After serving his apprenticeship, Johns drifted into a range of jobs. “I once swept the Tyne Tunnel, cleaning down the walls of grease. It was soul-destroying. Meantime I had a fantasy in my head that I could somehow do a job I liked.”

He knew he was funny. He’d been a funny schoolboy. His Puck had worked. (He didn’t stammer on stage.) His teachers had come to see it and were positive. He never thought he could become an entertainer. But perhaps subconsciously a seed had been planted?

“Maybe you’re right. Maybe I was hoping for that because one day I saw an ad for the Tyne Theatre and Opera House, who were looking for someone to work the flies and build the sets. I just loved being in this world.” He adds, laughing: “Now I know all the words from every song in Man Of La Mancha [the 1960s musical].”

Johns was now in the theatre, but at the hammer-and-nails end. Part of his brain was saying, "Go on, Dave. Get up there. Have a go, son." The other half remembered his dad’s mantra: "Stop showing off." And there were few role models in Newcastle. “Even the Likely Lads were posh Geordies. Tim Healy [star of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet] was still a kid at this time. There were no Geordie film stars.”

A trip to London in 1989 changed Johns's life. He went along to the Comedy Store, loved the concept and decided to set up his own version of the comedy club in the Tyne Theatre bistro.

He was on the dole at the time, but somehow, the timing felt right. “A lot of working-class people were part of this scene. And the world of comedy seemed sort of classless. So I set up this club, a comics’ alternative to the working men’s clubs. I printed leaflets, did the lot.”

He became a compere by default. “I compered only because I couldn’t afford the 100 quid they were asking for. And I managed to get Jo Brand [then new to the scene] and Jack Dee to play the first night.”

It was a struggle at first. “I had to serve up soup and a bun to get round the licensing laws. I had to pay Jack Dee out of my dole money. I was 30 quid short of his 100 quid fee.”

As a compere, Johns talked to the audiences, who realised he was funny. “I would take the piss out of them,” he says. “It was unusual at the time.” Gradually, he formed jokes. “What spurred me on was I couldn’t face building another manhole,” he says.

Did he stammer on stage? “No, and I’m stammering a bit right now because you reminding me of it has brought it back,” he laughs.

Did he have nights as a comedian when he died on stage? “Oh aye. But it’s not the abuse you get that’s so bad, it’s the indifference that gets you. And I’ve had that, then gone back after a gig to digs so bad they were advertised, ‘All rooms have colour TV.’ And I’ve cried.”

His comedy career progressed. However, his ego was always kept in check. “I did a gig with Kevin Bridges in Jongleurs in Glasgow when he was starting off. I was the headliner, but after three nights I had to switch the running order. He was that good. I knew I couldn’t follow him. After an interval you can follow anyone. But not before.

“Kevin was apologetic, but the club didn’t want him to headline, as he’d never done it. So there was me going on after him and the audience yelling, ‘We want Kevin!’ All I could do was make up stories, saying Kevin was an alcoholic and now lying drunk in the dressing room.

“But what I love about comedy is the unknown. And when you get that first laugh it’s like surfing, suddenly you’ve caught a wave and you're flying.”

Comedy morphed into acting when Johns teamed up with other comedians such as Bill Bailey to perform Twelve Angry Men – American accents and all – at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “It was a blast.

“Not many producers at the time would take a chance on stand-ups. We wanted to show our mettle.”

The mettle was there to be seen and the comics followed the success with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, with Johns spending six months on the West End stage, or rather “hanging on a wall, dribbling and shouting obscenities”, appearing alongside US actor Christian Slater. He then appeared in The Odd Couple and buoyed up, the Byker boy now reckoned he could re-write The Shawshank Redemption as a play. He was right.

“And I’ve only got CSE English,” he laughs. “But it proves you don’t have to be Oscar Wilde or Neil Simon to call yourself a writer. It’s about telling your own story. And so long as you have spellcheck you have nothing to fear.”

Never in a million years, however, did he imagine he could become a film actor. The chance came about when Guy Masterson, the producer of Twelve Angry Men, sent Johns a text saying Ken Loach was looking for a Geordie actor his age to appear in a new film.

“I never thought I should bother; I’d never get it anyway. But I sent a text to the casting director saying, ‘I’m a stand-up comedian. I’d be up for it.’"

The short and sweet style worked. Johns was asked to come to London to meet Loach.

“We got on well. He told me the Daniel Blake story, about a guy from Newcastle who’d had a heart attack and gone through the benefits system. I thought, ‘Well, this isn’t Spider-Man.’ But it sounded good. As I walked out, a Geordie actor walked in and said to me, ‘You’re perfect for this.’"

Johns went away and was called back to improvise with the lead actress, Hayley Squires. This process continued three times over the hot summer. “It was a laugh. I was improvising, making stuff up. Then Ken called me up and offered me the part. He said he’d been blown away by me. But all this time I had no idea I was being auditioned for the lead.”

He grins: “I went out for a curry that night to celebrate.”

When the producers called to ask for agent’s details, Johns had to admit he didn’t have one. “I said to this woman on the phone, ‘But don’t try and diddle us, mind.’ As if Ken Loach would diddle anyone.”

He still hadn’t seen a script. “Ken only gives it to you two or three pages at a time. The only preparation I had for the role was a short course in wood carving – and filling in the 52-page employment assessment form.”

On set, Johns had to get used to being The Star. “I kept asking writer Paul Laverty, ‘Am I doing this right?’ Paul reassured me, saying – ‘Ken wouldn’t move onto the next scene if you weren’t.’”

Before he knew it, the film was being played in Cannes in front of 2,000 people where it received a 40-minute standing ovation. It was all too surreal. “What shocked me was showing a film about a man on benefits, here in Cannes with all these flash hotels and yachts. It was such a juxtaposition.

“Later, I went to the Bahamas for a Q&A to promote the film and there I was in this luxury cinema with people watching a story about an unemployed bloke trying to get Jobseekers. When I was introduced after the film I got huge applause but I tested the comedy water when I said, ‘Good evening tax-dodgers.’”

Stardom wasn’t an easy suitcase to carry around Europe. Donald Sutherland told Johns the film broke his heart. What? Sutherland praising the manhole king?

“I took the summer off to attend premieres," says Johns. "I got nominated for Best European Actor. I became friends with Isabelle Hubert. I wondered, ‘How the hell did I get here?’ I had to catch myself. I once got a cuddle from Juliette Binoche.” He laughs out loud: “I think I held onto her a bit too long.”

But life hasn’t been perfect. When is it ever? Johns’s parents passed away before he picked up his many awards such as the Palm D’Or and his Bafta. His marriage had since broken up. Now he divides his life between his partner’s Hampshire home and Whitley Bay in the north-east.

“I have a teenage daughter, Macey, and I keep the home in the north-east for that reason," he explains. "I spend a lot of time with her.”

The Daniel Blake experience, far from detaching Dave Johns from working-class reality, has strengthened the connection.

“I was always a Labour supporter, I was a union rep for a little while. I was aware. But Ken has radicalised me. I spoke at last year’s Labour Party Conference, on stage with Len McCuskey and Andy Burnham.”

He takes part in Q&As at events around the country where organisers screen the film to raise money for foodbanks.

“I did one in Manchester recently and it was sold out. Before the chat in the cinema foyer I was given a mug of tea and helped myself to a biscuit. As I nibbled it I realised I’d taken it from the table for the foodbank donations.” He rolls his eyes: “I could see the headlines ...”

Dave Johns has all the loveable excitement of a man who’s won the lottery, yet you just know he won’t forget the manhole days and move into the world of flash cars or celebrity.

“Funny enough, that’s what my Edinburgh show is about,” he offers. “It’s about me being wide-eyed, meeting Spielberg and chatting to him about giants and Woody Allen. I, Fillum Star is about being plucked from almost nowhere to the red carpet world, to the Baftas.”

Johns, surely the first movie star to be called Dave, is all too aware of the irony in a film about the benefits system producing incredible personal success.

“I am, man,” he says, smiling and still bobbing gently on the chair. “I just can’t believe how my life has turned out. It’s like the TV series Life On Mars. I feel I’m going to wake up from a coma and say, ‘You, know, I’ve just had the strangest dream’.”

Dave Johns’s I, Fillum Star is at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Pleasance Dome (Venue 23), August 3-27 0131 556 6550, www.pleasance.co.uk