[The Observer, Life magazine, 1999]
LIKE so many memories, this one has the quality of a dream. As he scampers past the lido, his bright red jacket buttoned neatly across his chubby chest, the girls run out onto their balconies to greet him.
“Look, it's Johnny!”
“Johnny! Hello Johnny!”
“We love you, Johnny!”
He's the King of Butlins. The sovereign of Skegness. A full ton of pure fun. Happiness, that's his game. Bringing people together. You can see it in the joy that swells up behind him, the beaming smiles that light up in his wake. The laughter, the songs, the kisses blown on the bracing Skegness air. He doesn't do jokes. He doesn't do gags. He's not a comedian - he's an entertainer!
God, how he loves his job. This is what he was born to do. He throws his arms wide and calls back to the delighted girls.
“I love you too!” he bellows, and a grin the size of an edam cheese swallows half his face.
OF COURSE, that was before the scandal.
Up until now the scandal has only been hinted at, onstage. When Johnny Vegas takes the stage, he makes it his own. Hecklers are slapped down without hesitation or restraint. “You can't shit on me, mate,” he snarls in his rasping St Helens accent. “Life beat you to it.”
Today's comedy circuit has never seen anything quite like Johnny Vegas. After twenty years in the showbusiness wilderness, twenty drink sodden years since the papers and the TV ruined his life with those three in-a-bed allegations, Johnny spotted his opening. Alternative comedy. That's where he would display his talents. Not that he would ever stoop to their level. You won't find him doing routines which begin, “Have you ever noticed. . .” or “Don't you think it's funny that. . .” You'll not see Johnny Vegas talking about the Seventies. Or flares. And this despite the fact that Johnny Vegas was the Seventies. Despite the fact that, come showtime, he still walks on in his best brown Lionels. He comes from a generation that believes in making an effort. The audience appreciate it when they can see you've made an effort. Johnny wouldn't know kitsch if it smothered him with a feather boa. He dresses that way because he knows it's stylish. And because it's been a long time since he could afford any new clothes.
Johnny Vegas took a Perrier nomination at the Edinburgh festival in 1997. The critics said he “came from nowhere.” How quickly they forget. He was cruelly robbed of the prize, as he had been cruelly robbed so many times before. His show was extraordinary, uniting his two great passions - merriment, and pottery. He would prowl the stage like a rather tubby panther, pint in one hand, microphone in the other, feasting the audience upon the tragedy that was his life story, daring them to laugh. Which they did. Heartily. Dangerously. Toppling over sideways and gasping for breath. Then came the pottery segment. Turning to his potter's wheel, he would fashion, there and then - using his bare hands and clay moistened with ale and his own bitter tears - the perfect memento of a night of Vegas magic for some lucky girl in the crowd. Sometimes he would coax her up to sit with him at the wheel, his hands guiding hers across the sensuous, spinning clay, while Unchained Melody thundered in the background. It wasn't hard to see why Johnny was such a sensation with the ladies. As he never tired of telling the chosen beauty's hapless boyfriend: “She's only yours for as long as I don't want her.”
Finally, Johnny would do what he does best, leading the crowd in an on-yer-feet, swaying, hand-waving singalong to New York, New York. Giving the alternative comedy crowd the benefit of some old-fashioned showbiz values. “I'm not a comedian,” he would cry again and again throughout the evening. “I'm an entertainer!” And his was surely the most entertaining - not to say exhausting - act in the country.
The critics felt obliged to point out that Johnny Vegas is not, in fact, real. And in a boring, technical way, this is true. His birth certificate reads “Michael Pennington” and is dated 1970, at least two decades later than Johnny's own delivery into a lifetime of heartache. But Johnny Vegas is not a comedy creation in the way that Alan Partridge, say, is a comedy creation - although Pennington does have Steve Coogan's blessing as “maybe the finest comic of the next generation.”
Johnny Vegas wasn't conjured out of nowhere. As far as he can be defined, he is an unholy amalgam of Tom O'Connor and his creator, whose nickname was “Vegas” long before he started the act. His foibles, his weaknesses, much of his history, and above all the savage rage and antagonism and self-loathing which feed his hilarity; all belong to Pennington. It's surprising that Pennington - “Johnny” to almost anyone outside his native St Helens, between Manchester and Liverpool - is such a mild, good-natured man. But then, he's got an outlet now.
“I never saw Johnny as a character,” he says, as we order sandwiches in St Helens’ Stakis Hotel. It's a hospitable place, and considerate of out-of-town visitors. The menu, for instance, is dotted with little stamps thoughtfully marking out the “vegetarian options”: smoked salmon; prawn mayonnaise. Johnny chooses chicken breast.
“It was in a sense a defense mechanism,” he adds, “putting on a pair of flares and pretending to be someone else. But a lot of it came from me, and it's been strange lately to accept that it's character comedy and not Mike Pennington in flares calling himself Johnny Vegas for a laugh. It did develop out of a lot of bitterness towards the art establishment and some of the people I knew when I was at college. It was mainly from me genuinely being a very unwell person for a few years, spending too much time on me own with cheap red wine.”
Johnny was a cheerful lad until he got to college. It was there that the rotting foundations would be laid for the Johnny Vegas of stage and now screen.
“I found a lot of social indifference. And rejection from girls, a lot of that. I had a one or two who were like, ‘You disgust me.’ Wahay! So I won't phone you then. There was this French girl who said, we can never be lovers, ‘cos we're friends. Then the next day she got drunk and tried to take me mate to bed. And I was like, why did you do that? And she was like, ‘Because I would never have him as a friend.’ Oh, wait till I tell him, he'll be gutted.
“So it was this thing of having to look at yourself and wonder why people wouldn't get off with you - either because of how you looked, or because you did pottery. I prefer to blame pottery.”
Pottery was his downfall. That and Naomi Wolf. After failing at one subject after another, he found himself studying ceramics. He liked his teacher, Stephen Bonati, and he liked the subject. What's more, he seemed to be quite good at it. He signed up for a four-year course at Middlesex University. Without expending too much effort, he achieved creditable grades. And then. . .
“. . . And then in the last year, I bloody convinced myself I could be a sculptor. I read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf and started making female abstract forms. Really worked me arse off and ended up graduating with the lowest grade. Without trying, I was doing good. And when I really put me heart and soul into it, I was crap.
“I had a. . . fluctuation, at the Business Design Centre. I was in the New Designers Exhibition, showing my extruded forms. I was using an industrial process which represented the fashion industry's idea of manufactured beauty. And in my comments book, people would write, ‘I like your candlesticks.’ I started calling them ‘love aids.’ Never sold a one. This all built up to the bitterness of it. You get that grade, and you go, ‘I'll show ‘em; guess whose stuff is gonna sell.’ And then you don't sell owt. It kind of confirms what your tutor said, doesn't it?
“So in this really conservative atmosphere - everyone walking around going, ‘Yes, hmmmm’ - I went off on one: ‘SALE! SALE! FIVE FOR ONE! FIVE ABSTRACT FORMS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE!’ This American guy was going, ‘No thank you, buddy.’ And I was saying, through clenched teeth, ‘Just - come - in - and - sign - the - book.’ He was very polite: ‘Er, no, no, please, I've got to find my wife.’”
This humiliation was not to be the end of the matter. He called up his family to tell them about his results. “Sorry, dad,” he told his father. “I got the lowest grade on the whole course. I've really let you down.”
“You haven't let me down, son,” his dad replied. “I never thought you'd pass.”
JOHNNY was such a happy child. Before college. Before pottery. Before it all went wrong. He already knew how cruel the world could be. He just didn't know how cruel the world could be to him. Even coming home to find his dad had skinned his pet rabbit for dinner didn't drive the point home - although it did eventually make it into his act. Johnny's dad figures so much in the act that you start to wonder if the act would exist without him.
“That's a good question. The thing is, my dad's a very nice guy. What I've really done is took a situation and put a terrible slant on it. You've got to have those really good true stories to get the confidence to make up stuff later on. Luckily, up to now,” he says cheerfully, “I've had so much stuff happen to me that I've years more pain to talk about. But my dad, that's a scary one. Maybe it's true. . . I'm not giving him any money, though.”
Like any nipper, young Johnny was a bit of a scamp. Always up to something with his mates. Such as discovering a harpoon gun in an abandoned pump house and roping in a passing boy scout for a game of William Tell.
“It was horrible,” he now admits, his eyes widening at the thought of what they nearly did. “We got this lad on the way to cub scouts, and had him holding a frisbee over his head while we shot this harpoon at it. An old three-pronger like the kind you make toast with. And at the time it seems hilarious, but if it had missed, you know - ‘Well, what was you doing?’ ‘We was having a laugh.’ ‘You was having a laugh pointing a harpoon gun at another human being?’ The kid's probably scarred for life mentally now.
“We let off a rocket in the pensioners’ bingo, as well, just not thinking of the consequences of a lot of old people hearing this VWOOOOOSHHHH BOOOOOM! But we got caught for that one. There was this youth club at the top of where me mum's street is, it's just a massive slope. And one lad used to go out happy as Larry, just line up golf balls and hit ‘em down the road at front doors. Oh yes, we had a colourful upbringing, but compared to what other people got up to, we were actually like good Catholic lads.”
So good a Catholic lad was Johnny that at the age of eleven he went to a seminary to study for the priesthood. He didn't take to it, which is a pity, in a way. Mass with Father Vegas would be something to see.
“I think sermons would have been my forte,” agrees Johnny. “I would definitely have introduced a gospel element that would have ruffled feathers. C'mon! Swing your arms! Click your fingers!”
Religion, ceramics, branch manager at Argos - Johnny tried his hand at all of them, but couldn't stick at any. He needed a vocation. Something that would announce itself with the singing of angels and a shaft of light beamed down between two parting clouds. But if the Church couldn't do that, what would?
Johnny's calling, when it finally arrived, came shuffling through the door of a student bar and slumped down unnoticed at a table near the back. As he would later put it, “Fortunately, ceramics has a sister called showbiz.” But the night showbiz came to see Johnny, he was too drunk to care. It was an open mic comedy evening. A succession of drama students were having a fair old stab at proving that stand-up is much, much harder than it looks. As the audience were all fellow drama students, there was nobody to tell them just how bad they were. Nobody, that is, except for Johnny. He sat, and drank, and fumed, until finally he could take it no longer. He barrelled onto the podium, seized the microphone and unburdened himself of a lengthy rant whose intended targets jibed and heckled at him until finally he was lured away with promises of more beer.
And at the end of the evening, it was Johnny and no-one else who was offered a gig by a booker from London's Comedy Store. He was delighted. He put the card in his pocket and promptly forgot about it. But now he knew what he was going to do with his life. He was going to tell everybody he was a comedian so they'd shut up once and for all about Why Wasn't He Doing The Pottery?
Johnny went to live in London. “I didn't know about Time Out and the fact that all the clubs were listed, so I spent about eight months in London, wondering how to get a gig. As usual, it was everyone's fault but mine. I'd be on the phone to people going, ‘It's crap down here, not a club in sight.’ But the landlady had cable TV, so that took care of that. Then I moved up to Glasgow, doing the odd gig, but never enough and never often enough to learn from your last one.
“Finally I'd had enough of living like a starving artist, and I decided, I'm going back to the North-West, base myself there, give the comedy a go. If you've no money, and you're that depressed, sometimes you can write great stuff, but there's no impetus to go out and do anything with it. So there's that thing of being somewhere where you can go round and scrounge a meal off a mate, blag a pint off someone. Which I did for two years. That was the other side: why do I need to be a comedian? I've got friends who'll buy me ale, I'm living back at home - it's the life of Riley!”
Slowly, he developed his act. Unconsciously, perhaps, he stuck to the dictum of Write What You Know. It consisted mostly of drunken singing.
“Before I was considered a comedian, there was the thing where you'd be up on a chair, up on a table, leading a singalong. Which never seemed to me a viable way of becoming a comedian. To me it just seemed like somebody who couldn't be bothered to sit down and write proper material. It was my mate Phil who just said like, look, do what you do best. Which is weird like, because you do it, and people treat you like you've invented singing. Fantastic.”
Johnny took on an occasional compering gig at a local arts club, The Citadel. He swiftly gained a reputation as the only compere who habitually heckled the acts. Even when he learned that this was “not really the done thing ”, he was frequently too soused to remember their names. “HE'S HERE!” Johnny would roar. “HE'S VERY FUNNY, HE'S BRILLIANT, HE'S HERE FOR YOU TONIGHT AND HERE HE IS. . . anyone got a flier?”
“Then I read a thing by Arthur Smith about compering,” he remembers, “where he wrote, ‘Be as drunk as your crowd.’ About six months in, I stopped getting hammered, getting so drunk that it was hit and miss, and if you'd done something really good, you couldn't remember what it was. I'd come from one of my earliest gigs, in Liverpool, and somebody said to me, ‘When you spun on your head, it was fantastic, it was the highlight of the show.’ I'm thinking, I never did that, did I? God, I'm gonna wake up in hospital.”
A piece of wisdom that proved to be almost prophetic. After his Edinburgh triumph made him one of comedy's hottest properties, Johnny set off around Britain in February of this year, on his magnificent Balls Of Clay tour. In the opening show, he climbed up onto his potter's wheel, which toppled underneath him and dropped him heavily on the stage - “the first time it had ever done that,” he muses, sounding not a little let down. In Brighton, in what came painfully close to a Tommy Cooper moment, he fell off the stage altogether and tore a ligament in his knee, lying supine and groaning while the audience cheered him on. “I was going, ‘Please help me,’ and the front row, they're clapping away, going, ‘He's fantastic, you can see the pain in his eyes.’ I didn't want to look down ‘cause I thought my own foot would be bent up to my face. You could see some of them, five or ten minutes into me rolling around on the floor, going, ‘He's overdoing it, he's dragging this one out a bit.’ Then I just started singing bloody Love Boat, which is not a way of getting people to help you. It was like, fight the pain, sing your way through it - ‘The Looove Boat soon will beeee making another run.’ And there's me wondering, why didn't people take my injury seriously?”
Next, he spent the night drinking with Leo Sayer's crew in a Derby hotel while the singer waved his bare arse through the window at the club queue in the street below. In the morning, still half-cut, Johnny went out to get a paper, fell off the kerb and snapped his ankle. He finished the tour in a wheelchair, with a mic stand strapped to a zimmer frame and his beer in a cyclist's bottle, complete with straw.
“It's hard to be intimidating,” says Johnny ruefully, “when someone heckles you, and it takes you 20 minutes to get to the other end of the stage, shouting, ‘I'll have yer, son! When I get there, I'll have yer!”
YOU might almost think that Johnny is fated to repeat the mistakes of his stage persona, whose TV debut caught him in the terrible missing years between his disgrace and his comeback as an alternative icon. Filmed around St Helens, the Johnny Vegas Television Show was a brave, wayward, funny and brutally desolate piece of work. It would have been all too easy to cast Johnny Vegas as, for example, the fictional host of a real light entertainment revue, but that would have missed the point. Johnny Vegas is a terribly sad character, a semi-derelict alcoholic who lives on a caravan site and spends his days annoying the public in his local park. The horror of his life, only hinted at in the stage show, was unfolded here in painful detail, and you sense there is still a great deal more to be told.
“He is a kind of care-in-the-community case,” says Johnny. “It's like, why is somebody not looking after this bloke? Why is he allowed to wander around causing such a nuisance? This is how some people live. Albeit not in the flares.
“Johnny'll always ruin it for himself, he'll always spoil it, and he'll always have somebody else to blame. It's purely because he's an alcoholic, which he'll never truly accept. To him that's the problem with alternative comedy, is that everybody drinks water, which is why he's not doing better than he is. Nowt to do with the fact that he abuses the audience. He'd never get it right. If he'd come into any money, he'd open up a string of suntan salons and lose everything.
“Certainly, I've made enough mistakes in my personal life to be a candidate, to follow in his footsteps. It's been a good warning, filming this. My careers tutor always said, ‘Oh yes, you'll make money at a very young age. But you'll get done by the taxman.’ This was careers advice. Cheers, sir. ‘Oh, you might own a helicopter, but it'll all be repossessed.’ Well, I do like a drink and all that, but my lifestyle hasn't changed. I don't mind failing at something, I just don't want to turn into an arsehole. I don't want to be at the point where at the end of the day you've got to go, right, now where am I going to get something to eat from? Now that I've alienated everyone in town.”
Maybe, though, Johnny isn't doomed to fail this time. Maybe Johnny Vegas could be another Dame Edna or, at least, another Lily Savage. A nice little earner, if nothing else.
Johnny's having none of that. “You'll never see him doing adverts for Allied Carpets or whatever. He's got this thing of like, because TV's ruined him once, he'd only ever advertise his own stuff, his own suntan centre. Although he's pretty bitter about not getting the Daz doorstep challenge. Because there's a lot of ex-Butlins people come through and got that one. So morally that's okay. When Shane Richie got it, he didn't go outdoors for weeks. Just sat in his chair rocking, banging his head against empty bottles, waiting for them to knock on his caravan.
“With the kind of act it is,” insists Johnny, “you've got to really believe in what you're doing, get worked up before you come onstage. And if you're not believing in it, it looks like the worst act ever. To do something for the sake of milking the character, they'll suss it straight away. It would be better to have him just disappear again. It would be great to actually stop at the right point, to think, I've left the table with money.
“And then,” he cackles, as the past comes running back to him, “three years down the line, go, sod this, I'm going back on the bottle.”
All material on this site is copyrighted © to David Bennun and may not be reprinted or reused without permission, son.