Michael Pennington was born in St Helens, Lancashire, in 1971. He gave birth to Johnny Vegas sometime in the early 90’s, after a difficult pregnancy involving pottery, the priesthood and at least one severe beating. Pennington is one of our most misunderstood and maligned talents, and Johnny is one of the greatest comedy characters ever created. Johnny’s live performances, whether they succeed or fail, always do so spectacularly. Despite this, Johnny is best know to the public for his association with a woollen monkey in a series of TV commercials promoting a now bankrupt cable TV supplier. Almost hourly, people in the street shout at him, “Where’s your monkey?” Only once have I seen him crack and reply, “It fucking died!”
I never knew Michael Pennington as Michael Pennington, only as Johnny Vegas, and he’ll be the first to admit that the line between the two burly northern men is blurred. “When I tell people about terrible things that have happened to me, they just seem sad,” he explains, “But if I pretend they’ve happened to Johnny they become hilarious. But sometimes it’s complicated. On Shooting Stars I had to sit there and join in. But Johnny Vegas would have just lost interest, wandered off, come back with a dead rabbit and said, “Look what I’ve found.”” For the purposes of this piece, the Pennington-Vegas phenomenon will be referred to throughout as Johnny.
On location in the Peak District village of Castleton, where he is filming Dead Man Weds, a sit-com written by and staring Phoenix Nights’ Dave Spikey, it is Johnny, not Michael Pennington, whom every passer-by feels entitled to engage in conversation. Moving through any public space with Johnny is a problematic exercise. Everyone wants to shake hands, buy him a drink, or get scraps signed. I have never spent time with a celebrity so genuinely loved, and yet also so unselfconsciously accessible. Nobody leaves Johnny’s orbit without an anecdote or an authenticated fragment. Finally we wrangle him away, and Vegas drinks rum and coke in Castleton pub, turning butts of smoking paraphernalia over in his hands, which are surprisingly small and gentle, like those of a spider monkey, or a young Victorian servant girl.
Johnny’s ongoing presence in newspaper gossip columns, quiz shows and commercials means that although he himself is instantly recognisable, the talent that informs his incendiary live shows remains largely unrecognised. “It’s not my world but that doesn’t stop me passing through,” he protests, “I think anyone who is remotely normal would find it interesting to observe those kind of parties without considering yourself one of the people that ought to be there. The things is though, you go along and you imagine you’re just people watching, but before you realise it, people are watching you.” But to see Johnny live at the Edinburgh fringe in the late 90’s was an unforgettable experience. In some dark, dank room, this gargantuan figure would rage at the audience, often half naked, soaked with spilt pints, demanding their pity, or their respect, forcing them, often out of sheer terror, to enjoy themselves by joining in massed singalongs, whilst he displayed his genuine prowess on the potter’s wheel, creating, as best he could, beautiful clay objects, moulded from muck and beer, within the midst of this maelstrom. Where did this character come from?
“When I was young I did get badly beaten up once and hospitalised. I went through a year of being really timid and I think doing Johnny allowed me to be as confrontational on stage as I’d like to be in real life. I might have been scared in reality, but I’d stand my ground on stage. And a lot of him is like local lads in St Helens where I grew up. You go in their club and they’re dead happy to see you but you only want to have two pints with them, not six. You don’t want to get drawn into it, otherwise it’s, “Come on, sit with me, be my friend, and then watch me reach the point of exploding.”” When Johnny embarks upon free-associating tirades, that often last literally hours, he conjures the same feeling of excitement, fear and hilarity experienced during the desperate revels of just such despairing drinkers. “That’s another drunk-style thing about Johnny,” he explains, “nothing ever gets to a finished point. Drunks think there’s always got to be somewhere else open. Otherwise it’s the horror of going home and living with themselves. Johnny wouldn’t care how much he bored other people. He’d satisfy his own need to be distracted first.”
Was using the potter’s wheel on stage in the early days of the act and attempt to find something delicate in amongst all the violence, despair and anger? “No,” says Johnny, “the pottery was a kind of accident. When I was starting out doing stand-up I accepted a residency somewhere in Manchester and in my blissful ignorance I hadn’t realised people spent years putting their first hour show together. I didn’t have enough material so I just thought of anything I could do to fill the time. I remembered I’d done an arts foundation course and I’d really loved ceramics because I’d had a brilliant teacher. So I brought the Potter’s Wheel on stage. The first time I did it I realised it had a mesmerising, magnetic effect on people. They were amazed I could do it. And the fact that I could actually make pots like I said I could, made them wonder how much else of the act was true. God! He weren’t lying? Maybe he was a Butlin’s redcoat in the 60’s like he says?” The problem with people that come and see my now is they’re not a live comedy crowd. They’re people who want to see someone off the telly. I do what I do and they say, “That’s not what I paid to see. I was expecting stand-up. Not a frightening monster.” I don’t think you can defeat it. You just have to not water down what you do, and not start gearing it towards that kind of audience.”
The Johnny Vegas character has been thoughtfully and carefully drawn to embody blackly hilarious notions of desperation, loneliness and bewilderment. But it’s so convincingly portrayed that, when it encounters an increasingly superficial media, Johnny’s behaviour is portrayed as synonymous with Michael Pennington’s. “What you say on stage becomes a perception of your real life,” Vegas explains, “they won’t draw that line.” Last year some lads shouted out at Johnny on stage, “Why did your wife leave you?” Confronted with such a personal question any stand-up who chose to answer it seriously, or else get angry, would have thrown the gig. Johnny replied, “She didn’t share my belief in sea monsters. I’d be swimming around in the sea looking for them, and she’d get bored.”, brilliantly defusing the whole situation. The next day in the Daily Mirror, this comment was reported as evidence of Michael Pennington’s deteriorating mental state, as had been a previous gig where he had invited men in the audience to lick his nipples, and old Johnny Vegas trick for breaking the ice that fans will have seen him use on stage many times. In the Incredible Hulk film, Eric Bana rampages through the Mojave desert destroying thousands of US army tanks, but he has so far escaped personal censure for this in the pages of the Daily Mirror. That said, I once criticised some friends for saying they had seen Johnny do a shit on stage. I said this was ridiculous and that whilst he may have pretended to do a shit on stage, he wouldn’t actually do a shit on stage. He was a character comedian, an actor playing a role, not a psychopath. I subsequently related this story to Johnny as an example of people’s failure to view Johnny Vegas as a character, but he made a kind of doubtful face, and I decided not to pursue the issue.
The irony is, such stories, whether true or not, add to the myth of Johnny Vegas. Johnny has never been honoured with his own TV vehicle. “TV producers and commissioners come and see the show and love it but when you give them any more in that vein they don’t seem to latch onto it and think you’ve gone too far.”, he concedes. Ben Thompson’s study of British TV comedy in the 90’s, Sunshine on Putty, singles out Channel 4’s failure to commission Johnny’s 1998 pilot as a major downward turning point in British comedy. But, denied of its own TV format, the Johnny Vegas character seems instead to be creating its own narrative in the real world, funnier and more comically tragic than anything a team of writers could contrive.
Earlier this year, Vegas appeared in Sex Lives Of The Potato Men, a film subsequently described as ‘the worst British film ever made’ though presumably, not by people who had seen Love Actually, Shooting Fish or that one with Lee Majors and Bradley Walsh riding around in golf carts. But though being in ‘the worst British film ever made’ might have been a blow for Michael Pennington, there’s something perfect about it for Johnny Vegas. When I went to see Sex Lives Of The Potato Men in Leicester Square the Warner West End ticket machine was broken, and the cashier had give me a handwritten note allowing me access to the film. The very act of going to see Vegas’ film became inherently absurd and this is a typical by-product, somehow, of any of Johnny’s interactions with popular culture. I couldn’t resist ringing him from the largely empty cinema. “It’s the critics,” he said, “they’ve taken to sabotaging the ticket machines now.” But whilst the film’s other stars saw off the flack with various degrees of plausible denial, Vegas, honourably alone, embraced it. “Even when one critic described me as ‘the ugliest man in British cinema’ I still stood by what I’ve done,” he says. “Everyone that read that script wanted to be in it. I don’t moan about it. There are actors in it who’ve tried to distance themselves from it but it’s like stand-up. When they go badly they blame the crowd, and when they go well it’s because they themselves were amazing.”
Vegas may yet become a superstar by doing what he’s actually good at. If not then there remains the consolation that his career will look like some kind of strange art project. Standing alongside soap opera celeb’s in TV listings magazines Johnny, like the skeleton at the feast, renders them all ridiculous, whilst he remains idiotically removed, so low in status that he cannot be harmed, a genius fool. “You can’t touch Johnny because he’s never going to see the sense in taking the blame for anything anyway. That’s another idea drawn from alcoholism too. Everything’s always someone else’s fault. ‘If that butterfly had flapped its wing in Tokyo I’d have got the part in Lord Of The Rings. It’s not my fault.’
The Johnny Vegas character seems entangled in notions of guilt and blame. It’s no surprise that the young Johnny considered training for the Catholic priesthood. “I thought of going into it until the age of ten,” he remembers, “then at 11 I went to seminary, a private school funded and run by the church. The church work out what you can afford and your parents pay it out of shame. The idea was you’ll be a priest, get a taste for the monastic lifestyle of the priesthood – it’s indoctrination really. I don’t want faith through fear. I think it’s about the individual’s acceptance. I thought it was quite good that at the age of 11 I wanted to read George Orwell in bed but they wouldn’t even let me have a reading light because of rules and regulations and I found myself rallying against it. I was the great white hope of the parish and when I said I wasn’t up for it everyone was very disappointed. I was made to feel very special when I wanted to be a priest and everyone was disappointed when I became ordinary again. But I craved the ordinary. I suppose Johnny Vegas is like that. He doesn’t give people what they want. He’s a revolutionary, like Martin Luther, but he doesn’t have anything worked out that he can nail to the church door. Johnny Vegas believes he has something to share but he is constantly humiliated. God is trying to teach Johnny Vegas a lesson, but even the violence doesn’t work on him. You could knock his head in and then he’d just put on baby’s clothes. God is doing it to him. God is saying to Johnny Vegas ‘you are one of the men who deserve to be beaten’. But he’d just tells God he was out of order.”
Does Johnny think God would like the Johnny Vegas act? “God would see that by accident one man has got as much as he can out of misery.”, is all he will say. And what if Johnny Vegas were to do a shit on stage, would God approve of that, would he see it an expression of his love? “Whatever happens,” Johnny Vegas concludes, “I am God’s instrument. Maybe I should have used me own name for some things, and kept Johnny as a character. But I didn’t. And it’s too late now.”