Leaving (Johnny) Vegas
His boozing, ranting alter ego may have earned him his fame and fortune, but Johnny Vegas was also a curse. Michael Pennington, the man behind the stage name, tells Hannah Stephenson about the monster he created – and how he finally learnt to control it
Michael Pennington was in a desperate situation.
At a major gig at the Edinburgh Festival, he needed alcohol, lots of it, to ease him into the persona of Johnny Vegas, the drunken, ranting, sharp-as-a-knife comedian who the audience had paid to see.
But short of money and low on booze, Pennington found himself uncharacteristically sober. “I had to drink to get Johnny up to ranting pace,” he explains.
As Eddie Izzard welcomed him on stage, his fate was sealed. Without alcohol, he was simply Michael Pennington, a quiet, gently witty guy with none of the unrelenting bravado of his acerbic alter ego.
Several minutes of excruciating silence followed as he willed Johnny Vegas to emerge but he was a no-show and the act fell horrendously flat.
It’s just one of the anecdotes penned by Pennington in his autobiography, Becoming Johnny Vegas, in which he tries to analyse how and why Vegas came to be, and how he obliterated Michael Pennington completely.
It’s a worrying tale written by someone who was apparently living a schizophrenic existence - he writes about Johnny in the third person, as though it was ‘he’ who was taking over and becoming the monster who ensured that Pennington ceased to exist.
Today, appearing much more sober and having lost a few stone in weight since his stand-up days, he explains: “I wanted to try and trace the genuine origins of Johnny and how he so successfully staged this takeover of Michael Pennington.”
The 42-year-old comedian, actor and director, who originally trained as a potter, continues: “Johnny is a contradiction to who I am as a person. I’m not very good at confrontation, I have a tendency to internalise and to carry things around.
“Johnny was a coping mechanism who could take those things which could have ordinarily destroyed me, by tweaking my past and throwing it back out there, getting laughs from things that would have otherwise upset me.”
Brought up in a strict Roman Catholic household, some of the blame for Johnny’s emergence may be laid at the door of the cold, unloving seminary in Lancashire which the young Michael attended as a trainee Catholic priest when he was aged just 11.
During his time there, he was interfered with by a sixth-former and, though not actually physically sexually abused, was left feeling completely ashamed.
“I came from a very loving home, had a happy life, with no great aspirations, but going to the seminary changed me. There was a chunk of my childhood missing,” he says.
“Once I’d realised I’d made a mistake and it wasn’t for me, I still felt this tremendous pressure to continue with it, for fear of letting everybody down.”
He lasted 18 months, but when he returned home to St Helens to attend regular secondary school, he didn’t fit in.
“I felt like a 30-year-old trapped in the body of a 13-year-old because I’d been away and done so much. And there was this stigma of having been away to train for the priesthood.”
When bullies threatened him, he retorted by saying he’d pray for them and it was then that the first signs of Johnny appeared, giving him the back-up he needed to survive. His alter ego wasn’t a team player and didn’t care what other people thought.
“Johnny made my dad this really nasty figure, which he isn’t at all, and I think subconsciously that was him taking revenge on my parents for allowing me to go there. He made my dad the villain of the piece in the stand-up routine.”
He says he still has faith and admires the strength that his parents gained from theirs, but he struggles to come to terms with it.
“I do have faith, but in practising it there are a lot of things for me to wrestle with. But it’s not something I’ve given up on. I have my own internal monologue with God.”
Pennington also suffered from hypochondria, thinking he had every ailment from lockjaw to cancer, but brave Johnny Vegas killed those fears. “What would stop it was alcohol and that would encourage Johnny out, but you can’t stay drunk the whole time to stop yourself from worrying.”
He still doesn’t know how much Guinness and vodka he drank during his stand-up days in pubs and clubs, or when he was nominated for the Edinburgh Festival’s Perrier Award in 1997, or on sell-out tours.
“Johnny had a theory that if you ever counted how much you were drinking, you weren’t enjoying it. He fortunately never kept track but he did have this ridiculous constitution. He could go on drinking for hours.
“I was ill a lot with nerves before going on. As Michael Pennington, I’d build up during the day, hoping I could coax Johnny out of his box.”
It was the birth of his son, Michael Jr (who is now 10), from his first marriage to Kitty Donnelly, which made Michael Pennington take control again.
“It took me back to a time when I was really happy and I thought, ‘My son doesn’t deserve Johnny Vegas as a dad’. I didn’t want him thinking that was the norm. It was the start of a hard battle.”
Public expectations made ridding himself of the demon of Johnny Vegas harder, he reflects, as he tried to build a career which didn’t involve getting drunk.
He was lucky that other things came into place, including winning acting roles in the BBC series Bleak House and the sitcoms Benidorm and Ideal, as well as drinking tea with a knitted monkey for a certain TV advertisement. “I’d love to play a really good baddie,” he adds. “I’ve been offered all the reality TV shows but have turned them down. If I did it as Johnny, there’d be no jungle left!”
He has directed various one-off TV and radio dramas, has just completed series three of Moone Boy and recently directed and co-wrote Ragged, a one-off drama starring Ricky Tomlinson for Sky Arts. He’s also hoping to produce six 15-minute adaptations of Beatrix Potter for Radio 4 next year.
He feels happy behind the camera, saying: “It’s more of a job for Michael Pennington.”
Remarried in 2011 to Irish TV producer Maia Dunphy, Pennington credits her with helping him keep the lid on Johnny Vegas.
“My wife has made a huge difference. I don’t feel like I’m searching for things any more. She’s managed to identify areas where Johnny was still lurking and I wasn’t quite aware.
“Johnny would get easily distracted by friends who’d say, ‘We’ll just go for one drink’, and it would turn into five.
“Now that doesn’t happen. I have a good social life with friends, but most weekends I’ve got my son, and my socialising’s limited to myself and my wife or family parties.”
These days, his time is divided between London, where his son lives; his home town of St Helens, and Dublin, where Maia lives. “I commute to Dublin and Maia commutes to St Helens. Half my life is spent running for a flight or a train.”
So will Johnny Vegas ever emerge again?
“There are certain panel shows where I need to borrow a watered-down version of Johnny from time to time, so I can let him out of the bottle and get him back in straight away. He’s not allowed to bleed out into my lifestyle.”
It’s a ‘semi-skimmed’ version, and he admits he may still have a little drink beforehand, but that doesn’t take priority now.
“I’m loving being on the other side of the camera, as Michael. Just being involved in the creative process of making film and TV fascinates me,” he says.
“This is something I can take credit for now. I can do something that Johnny couldn’t.”
Becoming Johnny Vegas by Johnny Vegas is published by HarperCollins, priced £20. Available now