The king of St Helens

The Johnny Vegas Television Show is about to arrive in your living room. It's the most instantly legendary comedy moment since Father Ted. By Ben Thompson
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The Independent Culture
If you've never seen Johnny Vegas live, you will need to be convinced that a 28-year-old failed potter can mould an audience in his hands with the suppleness and application of a master craftsman. By sheer force of personality, this emotional volcano from St Helens - his fleshy slopes tattooed with rivulets of beer, sweat and clay - persuades women to let him kiss them and men to give him their designer shirts to clothe his nakedness. He reflects people's anxiety back at them through the distorting mirror of his own desperation, and they watch spellbound as he overcomes the class divide with an uplifting chorus of the "Hokey Cokey".

Even those who have seen Johnny Vegas bend a crowd to his will might still be wondering how he can successfully transfer to TV, where the key element of the Vegas live experience - the fact that the audience are shut in a room with him and can't escape because they've paid - is no longer a factor. Furthermore, in small screen terms, several aspects of the Vegas persona look naggingly familiar.

The travails of bottom flight show-business have already been explored by such able prospectors as Tommy Cockles, John Shuttleworth and Alan Partridge. The thin line between acting drunk and actually being drunk is hardly new ground either. But the rich ore Vegas extracts is all the more valuable for coming from such a well-mined seam. And the one- off debut of The Johnny Vegas Television Show (with a series to follow some time next year) is the most instantly legendary TV comedy moment since the first episode of Father Ted. Think Les Dawson at his best, think John Kennedy Toole's literary masterpiece Confederacy of Dunces translated to a small northern boating lake, think a blow-up model of Jonathan Creek's Alan Davies being inflated by an automatic balloon pump. The Johnny Vegas Television Show suggests all these things.

Resplendently out of place in a bustling west London champagne bar, Johnny Vegas's representative on earth - 28-year-old failed potter Michael Pennington - reflects on all the different ways it could have gone wrong. More sober in dress and demeanour than his flamboyantly flared and car-coated creation, Pennington shares Vegas's gift for rhetoric, and his Lancashire accent is as rich as a well-made Eccles cake.

"The question was, how did we get Johnny on TV without making him a TV person?" Pennington says. "We didn't want to make a mock documentary. This is how he lives. We didn't want to do a stand-up show, because Johnny Vegas is not a presenter: he's a very sad bloke who lives on his own who's an alcoholic. Every now and then he ventures into the world and he's very, very bitter."

The reason The Johnny Vegas Television Show succeeds where so many other attempts to translate Edinburgh Festival hits to TV have failed, is that it manages to establish its own integrity rather than shoehorning a well- honed club act into an inappropriate new format.

"This is the dark years," Pennington explains, "the bit that never gets explained."

The cameras follow Vegas around his hometown of St Helens with occasional flashbacks to his glory days at Butlin's in Skegness.

"I never wanted personally to laugh at St Helens," Pennington insists, "because I live there, but this is the only place on earth where Johnny can exist: when we were filming, nobody said: `What are you doing stood there looking like that?' All we'd get was: `I haven't got time,' or: `Sorry son, I think you're drunk.'"

We see Johnny hassling a hapless entertainments secretary at his local labour club, Johnny hassling an ice cream man, Johnny chased by a kite.

"There's something of a care-in-the-community element to it," Pennington explains. "You look at Johnny and think: `Why is somebody not looking after him during the day?'" The feeling we wanted to get was: `You shouldn't be laughing at this, but... Some people think it's too dark, but it couldn't be too dark."

Almost as compelling as Vegas's whirlpool of misplaced moral energy ("I deserve to be loved!") is the unforced naturalism of the people he comes up against. The secret of The Johnny Vegas Show's imposingly realistic collection of ice cream men and park keepers is that they are ice cream men and park keepers.

"People have said: `What's he been in before? I know I've seen him in something,' And we're like: `You haven't, he's an ice cream man from St Helens.'"

If Pennington's primary motivation was not so obviously compassion, there might be a hint of Jeremy Beadle in all this. As it is, The Johnny Vegas Television Show offers us not just a welcome riposte to the endless search for "characters" in documentary series whose intermingling of show-business and reality is demeaning to both, but also a revolution in TV's approach to the ordinary. "There's somebody like Johnny in everybody's community," Pennington insists. "This person talking to you who you think is a nutter quite possibly was Butlins boy number one at some point - all he wanted to do was make people happy and he's been denied that."

Would it be fair to suggest there might be a political element to all of this? "I'd like to think it's a commentary, without being a lecture."

Perhaps this is why, where other comedians talk in terms of being true to comic traditions - Peter Sellers or Monty Python or whoever - Pennington talks about his work in terms of being true to the spirit of people in pubs. He stopped watching other people's comedy when he started to do his own.

"I'm always wary of aspiring to be like someone else. It's like you're in a shop and you can't afford the stuff, so you look at a teapot and think: `I'll go home and make my own,' and you do it and it looks nothing like the one you wanted, so why waste your time? Why not put your energy into making a teapot of your own?"

That teapot is on display now, and it's a lovely piece of work.

`The Johnny Vegas Television Show' is on Channel 4 this Sunday, 27 December, at 10.30pm

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