IT’S been quite an ordeal, but Michael Pennington is happier now he’s exorcised his foul-mouthed alter ego Johnny Vegas, to whom he owes everything.
I WAS due to interview Johnny Vegas, but Michael Pennington showed up instead. The writer, actor and now director behind the foul-mouthed stand-up comedian – and potter – looks similar, but it’s a slimmed down, quieter version, minus the shouting and swagger, the I don’t give a s*** what you think of me attitude that made Vegas a household name.
He still calls himself Vegas, but in the process of writing his autobiography feels he has finally stepped out of his alter ego’s larger-than-life shadow. When he appears on our screens this Christmas it’s in a profanity, drink and drugs free vehicle you can watch with your mum and kids without having to reach for the remote.
“I’m in the Open All Hours Christmas Special on Boxing Day. It’s nice to have something respectable you can sit down and watch with the family,” he rasps quietly, his Lancashire accent intact. “My son Michael comes with us to St Helens so we’ll all be able to watch it. I never let him watch Benidorm because there was some choice language in that.”
Ten-year-old Michael has never had the experience of seeing his dad doing his Johnny Vegas stand-up routine, much to Michael Senior’s relief.
“There was so little of that on film. I was adamant at not putting Johnny on TV because it would never transfer. People wouldn’t have the fear. You had to be ten to 20 feet away and have all that shouting. With Johnny, people had to invest in it there and then,” he says, displaying his habit of talking about himself in the third person as “Johnny”, or more confusingly as “we”, ie Johnny and Michael. It’s hard to tell where Johnny ends and Michael begins, and as we talk it becomes clear that Johnny Vegas was much more than a creation for the purposes of stand-up. Rather he was a full-blown alter ego whose voice was loud and clear in Michael’s head.
‘No point in fighting the name’
For example, when I ask if he thinks he was ever an alcoholic when he was doing stand-up, given that Johnny liked a couple of bottles of wine before hitting the stage, he replies: “No, because Johnny didn’t worry about that kind of thing. He saw no difference between being drunk and sober, and the way Johnny saw it, if we were sober there’d be a chance I’d turn up to meetings and trade on his name.”
Because everyone calls him Johnny, he decided to keep using the stage name most of the time. “In credits I’m Michael sometimes now, but people know you as something so there’s no point fighting it. Squiggle, you’ll always be Prince, and The Rock, just accept it. I want to move on, but not that much. So I’m still known as Johnny Vegas.”
It was in writing his autobiography that the comedian got his head around the symbiotic relationship between Michael Pennington, born in St Helens, 1971, and Johnny Vegas, former redcoat and failed stand-up and potter. Called Becoming Johnny Vegas, it tracks the evolution of the character.
“I have been doing enough since stand-up, working and living as Michael for a long time, so I can look back with clarity. I have more of a viewpoint on Johnny than when I was in the eye of the storm. He was a big part of my life and there seemed a genuine journey there, so I wanted to investigate it properly and work out how he came about, not just do an expanded version of Wikipedia for the Christmas market,” he says.
It took Vegas four years to finish the book and it’s been far from a simple matter of trotting out a few anecdotes. When the process became too difficult, he called in ghostwriters, but found the results inauthentic and knuckled down himself once more.
“With a ghostwriter it didn’t read true. It read like me with a monocle. Even doing it yourself you have to be careful not to re-write history. The first draft was like Little House On The Prairie so you have to go over and over it. It was a cathartic experience.”
The result is a no-holds-barred memoir where Vegas doesn’t shy away from revealing his tics and insecurities, from his first fumblings with the “fair sex” to fighting his personal demons. It’s this honesty and willingness to wear his failure openly that has endeared him to the public, who have embraced everything from his PG Tips adverts with Monkey, to Benidorm and straight drama, such as Bleak House.
“There’s stuff in there you don’t want your mum and dad to have read,” he says.
Such as the particularly excruciating description of one of his first sexual encounters, which is hysterically funny, but defies re-telling. You’ll have to read it for yourselves.
“Yeah, that’s very Frank Skinner, but it was in there. I was trying to explain the series of events that led to my insecurity around women. It’s the stuff you dwell on. I thought I’d never be in a relationship. Johnny was the opposite. For him it was all about confidence and this fictitious life he’d had with groupies.”
The book is painfully honest, and funny, and gives a great insight into why Pennington needed Johnny Vegas in his life. Vegas was the negative, repressed part of Pennington’s character that he smothered and buried when he was growing up, that finally burst out in the foul-mouthed, self-loathing, angry comic when he began stand-up in his mid-twenties. He was also the confident, fearless character that Pennington longed to be when he was working in the Argos warehouse or behind a bar. It was Johnny’s disdain for the critics and audience, at whom he bellowed insults during his lager-fuelled rants, that were the key to his success and saw him win the Festival Critics Award in 1997 at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Vegas was there, a voice in his head, long before the attention-grabbing Edinburgh festival performances that made his name. He was there when young Michael left the seminary after a year, and there during the failed relationships and painful adolescence. He was there when Pennington succumbed to a hypochondria so extreme he was convinced every day for several years that he was going to die. It was Johnny who finally saw off the hypochondriac voice that lived inside Pennington’s head.
“I wasn’t going to go to Edinburgh in 1997 because of it. Johnny would arrive before a gig and do the gig, but before that it was every day with the taunting hypochondriac voice. I was terrified, but Johnny would turn up and say, ‘grow a pair’. Eventually there was a real showdown with Johnny and the hypochondriac voice where he stood up to it. It was getting crowded. He said to me, ‘You’ve been dying every day for years. If you are dying, let’s go out and have a f***ing big party with the time you’ve got left’. After that I have never had the hypochondria again,” he says.
Vegas thinks he has undiagnosed ADHD, and says he suffered from insomnia between the ages of 14 and 26. Drink was the only thing that helped him sleep and he self-medicated for years. Nowadays, things are very different.
“When Michael was born, there was a practical lifestyle change. I didn’t want him to have Johnny Vegas as his dad. Also, I’d had gout. Now I’m always eating what Michael eats – pesto, healthy stuff, although sometimes I find myself eating cheese at three in the morning.”
Pennington still talks about Vegas with admiration and huge affection, grateful to Johnny for pulling him out of his crippling shyness and low self-esteem.
“I liked him because it was somebody to confide in, and there were a lot of problems, especially with the fairer sex. He’s the opposite in personality to me. I was terrified, but Johnny was my wingman and he had complete confidence.
“Johnny came along and said, ‘We have tried to do things on behalf of other people and look where it’s gone’. He said, ‘let’s do things for ourselves’ and he had faith only in an audience. ‘We can only rely on ourselves’, he said.
“With Johnny I would write a lot of stuff for the act but he sort of took over and just before the gig he would know what would work and what wouldn’t. I might have worked on it all week and then he only used 20 minutes of it. He had an absolute conviction of what was funny and what wasn’t. He was fearless.” “It was me but it wasn’t. It was the me I wish I’d been and the way I wish I’d handled situations. Johnny says what a lot of people are thinking. He broke things down, helped me process things. I never wanted to demonise him in the book.”
Vegas felt he couldn’t do stand-up as himself because he didn’t have the chutzpah to get up there and ask people to pay.
“I didn’t have that confidence. It’s the arrogance, to say ‘I’m funny’. I wouldn’t dream of it. I never felt I belonged up there with him. Whereas Johnny had no doubts whatsoever. I’m really proud of what he was on stage. He would say, ‘Rock the boat and say it as you see it’. I was in awe of other comics, but Johnny said ‘I don’t care’.”
What the milder-mannered Michael did bring to the act, however, was his artistic ability. The pottery was real, and the result of Vegas’s art and ceramics degree from Middlesex University. He still loves art, sculpture and ceramics in particular and tells me how he cried when he saw the Joan Miró exhibition in Spain. The V&A has a teapot he made during a performance at the Ceramic Millennium conference in Amsterdam in 1999, thrown and assembled in under 60 seconds as part of a challenge.
“I brought the pottery to the stage as Michael, and OK it happened by accident, but it was mesmerising for an audience. Even the biggest, drunkest bloke would stop and the gig would have that moment of magic with people just watching and watching.”
Vegas left his “cosseted family background” and three siblings, and set off for a Catholic seminary, Upholland when he was 11, but became so homesick and troubled by his experiences there that after a year he begged his parents not to send him back.
He describes how an older pupil would stop by after lights out and invite him to “come and talk” in his room. Young Michael rebuffed him but it shook his faith in the regime of the school and further increased his realisation he had made a mistake in going there.
“My experiences there weren’t unique and were very mild compared to others’ but the faith in a higher being and a plan to everything was fundamentally damaged. It’s not that Catholicism is demonised but I saw the best and the worst in it. After leaving I couldn’t fit in with my old life. I felt I had scrapped a chunk of childhood and had a sense of displacement.”
Now, years later, he believes he understands how the experiences of childhood led him to create Vegas.
“Writing a book about yourself is like therapy and you go ‘Oh My God, that’s the reason that happened’. Writing about it, you’re forced to really examine things,” he says.
“For example, it was my decision to go to the seminary. I never felt pressure from my family. Later my mum had this guilt of ‘we never realised you were so unhappy’, but then I never showed it to them, which led to this coping mechanism of Johnny.
“I have a wonderful relationship with my dad, but Johnny had a terrible relationship with him. He had all these stories on stage that it was dad who messed him up. Writing the book, I looked back at my decision to go to the seminary. I was too young and it was my dad who had suggested it. Subconsciously, maybe I thought he should have gone into it more, and Johnny was definitely saying he should have thought about it more. I day-to-day love my dad, but Johnny didn’t.
“It was hard stuff to write about and I said to my dad, ‘I think there’s been some subconscious thing. I was very unhappy and I think I wanted you to come and get me.’ It was very hard for him to hear. It had worked its way out through Johnny on stage. It was a big penny that dropped when I realised that,” he says.
“But I now have the discussions as Michael. Now I can cope with life without Johnny. And I don’t need to get on stage and discuss these things.”
The 43-year-old actor got married again in 2011 to Maia Dunphy, an Irish journalist, and he spends a lot of time travelling between Dublin, London, where his son from his first marriage lives with his mother, and his own base in the north-west. “Maia presents documentaries and does opinion pieces. She’s funny. It’s lovely being a parent and being in a strong marriage with somebody who is your best friend.”
Vegas is keen to do more directing and on the acting front there are a “couple of things in development” he can’t talk about. He’s especially proud of championing a version of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists for BBC Radio Four in which he starred, and Ragged, which he wrote and directed about Ricky Tomlinson’s jail sentence when the actor was a striking builder.
So where is Johnny these days? Some might say he popped out at this month’s British Comedy Awards.
“He is locked away in a box. He was quite manipulative and didn’t want to go in, but he’s there. I drop into him a little bit and he’s still rattling around, that bit of me that doesn’t play by the rules, but I don’t immerse myself in him. The full Johnny hasn’t been out for a long time now. He’s used purely for work purposes now,” he says.
“I couldn’t be Johnny in front of a camera in acting jobs and behind the camera I like to be Michael. With directing, you can’t do it by halves. There’s a lot of reflection and I have found that I, as Michael, thrive on it. It’s lovely coming home and feeling that stuff from a day’s work as myself.
“But what I learned from writing the book is that Johnny was always me. When he says in the book, ‘You have never achieved anything without me. I was always there,’ it’s true. He always was, and I was the last person to realise that.”
• Still Open All Hours, Boxing Day, BBC1, 7.45pm; Becoming Johnny Vegas, by Johnny Vegas, Harper Collins, £20