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Johnny Vegas: I lost myself in ‘Johnny Vegas’


Comic tells Paddy Shennan how he came through an identity crisis

THOUGHTFUL and a little reserved, Johnny Vegas is no longer 18 Stone of Idiot – in fact, the unofficial Champion Slimmer of St Helens isn’t even 12 Stone of Idiot.

Few people can have embraced their public personas more enthusiastically than Michael Pennington, aka Johnny Vegas.

Some might say Johnny – it’s such a powerful character, it HAS to be “Johnny” – created a monster with his ranting, Guinness-guzzling performer who caused chaos wherever he went.

But, despite revelling in the launch of a new monthly comedy night in his beloved home town, there are signs that the pride of St Helens is shrinking the previously larger-than-life Vegas brand – spiritually, as well as physically.

It’s well-documented that this supremely self-deprecating showman has cut down on the pies and pints – but now, the star of hit ITV1 sitcom Benidorm says he’d be happy to cut down on the time he spends in front of the camera.

He explains: “I think the big challenge for me now is writing more of my own things. I find I’m getting to enjoy it more and more and I wouldn’t be that fussed about being in front of a camera.”

But even when he is in front of the camera, we’ll be seeing less of him. But how much is it he’s lost – six stone?

“I’m not sure because I didn’t weigh myself when I started – although it wasn’t me saying ‘I’m going on a diet’. I’ve just cut down on things and have been generally eating better.”

And what about the drinking and burning the candle at both ends? Johnny, now 39 (“Wikipedia is wrong, I wasn’t born on September 11, 1971, but September 5, 1970 – although it’s nice to get two lots of cards!”) explains: “It’s the recovery time. It’s important for me, especially now when I’m so lucky to be busy working on lots of things.

“If you are that busy you can’t afford to lose days – like I used to.”

But the man who once trained to be a priest stresses: “I still have me mates, I’ve not joined a religious order! It’s just now, I have so much to do and it isn’t as easy to be quite as maverick.”

As he was in one of the funniest things he’s done – the “Pub Lock-In” sequences on 18 Stone of Idiot on Channel 4 (Johnny’s successful attempt at making a series that wouldn’t be recommissioned!), when he and a group of fellow drinkers allowed the cameras to roll as they got rolling drunk.

“I’m very disappointed that bit didn’t get made into its own series!” he jokes, adding: “I’ve realised I can’t be around drunk people without having a drink. It makes my skin crawl to think of the times I thought I was fascinating company – suddenly your opinion becomes the most important opinion in the world!”

Johnny, whose 2002 marriage to Kitty Donnelly ended in divorce last year, adds: “I obviously wasn’t mentally in the best place I could have been! Because of the idea behind it – shamelessly getting drunk very quickly – it was bound to be messy.”

But that, to be clear, was Johnny Vegas, not Michael Pennington – though proof that his persona is all-powerful came recently when one national newspaper journalist described the actor/writer/stand-up as being “more intellectual than you expect.” So, is Johnny just TOO convincing?

Johnny (Michael!) says: “The whole point was to make him convincing, but then you get to a point where you say ‘Are you now allowing yourself to be like that to get away with things in the guise of this character when you are not on stage?’ You’ve got to be careful with that.

“I took it as a huge compliment whenever people couldn’t separate fact from fiction – then, later on, I lost myself in this character.”

Have you got through that now and found yourself again? “I hope so,” says the father of six-year-old Michael junior. “There’s something to be said for going back to do stand up because I know where the line is drawn now.”

Although Johnny can see the delights, as well as drawbacks, of stand-up, he is also looking to forge ahead in a different direction.

He reveals: “As a writer, I’d like to push myself to do more. It’s the thing I find the hardest to apply myself to. But when I did a lot of stand up I always felt like . . . not that I got away with it, but I went from one gig to dreading the next. It used to be ‘That went well, so it’s sod’s law that the next one won’t go well.’ ”

It sounds like the late Ian Dury’s hit single, What A Waste, in which he wrote about all the things he could have done if he hadn’t “chose to play the fool in a six-piece band/First night nerves every one night stand.”

“Yes, it’s like that,” says Johnny – although, happily, there is a contradiction, because he still appreciates its positive aspects. If he didn’t he wouldn’t have helped to launch the new, monthly, Animal House comedy nights at the Zoo Cafe Bar in Westfield Street, St Helens, last Thursday! (Johnny will also host the next night on Thursday, December 10).

He says: “I’m always happy gigging in my home town and there is something uniquely satisfying about doing live stand up. I do so much work on developing stuff for TV and radio, which takes so long and may never see the light of day – but with stand up you get an immediate reaction from the audience.”

Johnny has been promoting his new DVD, Live At The Benidorm Palace, and he’s also keen to promote the personality of his Benidorm “mum”, Elsie Kelly, the veteran Merseyside actress and theatre director who trained at and went on to train others at Liverpool’s renowned Elliott-Clarke School of Dance and Drama.

“She’s been a wonderful friend to me while working on Benidorm,” says Johnny. “When we first started working on it, I was, emotionally, more than a little bit fragile, but she was so good to me – she’s got a wonderful soul.”

Among the projects Johnny – whose St Helens-based company is called Woolyback Productions – is currently working on is Dead Puppets Society, which should be seen on BBC children’s TV in 2011. He’s making it with Dublin-based Double Z Enterprises – creators of the brilliant Zig and Zag puppets from The Big Breakfast.

“I’m really excited about it,” says Johnny, who will be seen on the show juggling his career with his secret life as a zombie puppet hunter (!).

And, regarding Zig and Zag, he reveals: “I was a big fan when I was on The Big Breakfast – I’m not the type to get starstruck but I was genuinely excited around Zig and Zag . . . and they are PUPPETS! I suppose it’s my childlike mind!”

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