Johnny Vaughan: Rise and shine time revisited

Johnny Vaughan tells Ian Burrell why he is unfazed at taking over from the nation's favourite, Chris Tarrant, on Capital Radio's Breakfast Show next week
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The Independent Online

Step into the lifts at Capital Radio's headquarters in Leicester Square and you hear the recorded but unmistakable tones of Chris Tarrant, the signature voice of the station for the past 17 years and still the sound of the company elevator.

"Going down!" booms Tarrant - as Johnny Vaughan descends from the Capital canteen to his offices on the third floor - in what sounds almost like a prophecy of doom for the network's future fortunes.

Tarrant quit at this month. But Vaughan appears in no way perturbed at the prospect of inheriting the presenter's job for the Capital Breakfast Show from the most successful entertainer in British broadcasting.

The 37-year-old former Big Breakfast presenter may have suffered a series of career setbacks since his £2m deal with the BBC in 2001 but his star is once again in the ascendancy.

Not only has he landed one of the most coveted positions in radio, but he has been hired to present a Saturday night prime-time show on BBC1 with his old Big Breakfast partner Denise Van Outen.

The BBC might be surprised to learn that he is looking forward "much more" to the Capital project. "It is unknown and I always love new challenges. BBC1 prime-time, that's exciting, don't get me wrong. But I kind of know what it's going to be like. I've done a pilot, I've worked with Denise before. It's not as exciting as going into something new."

The success or failure of these two projects will determine whether Vaughan becomes set for life as one of Britain's best- loved entertainment figures or whether he is left to fade into relative obscurity as the fast-talking presenter of a show that used to start the day on Channel 4.

He is unconcerned at rivals who have questioned his radio experience, pointing out that he has presented Fighting Talk, his Saturday show on Radio Five Live, for 30 weeks. Besides, he says: "If you can communicate on telly I don't think there's one case of someone not then being able to communicate on radio." He says he can "name you millions" that have not been able to make the transition the other way round.

He is also apparently relaxed about the consequences of his appointment for Capital Radio, which gets 50 per cent of its audience reach from a breakfast show listenership that has become accustomed to waking up to Tarrant.

Vaughan, who bounces with positive energy around the Capital building, already seems to know every member of staff. His target is merely to keep people "amused and engaged" between the music and the information segments of news, travel and weather. "I don't feel any pressure when I go into face the microphone. I have no sense of audience out there."

The only pressure, he says, "comes from the press", who are already squaring him off against breakfast rivals such as Jono from Heart FM, Bam Bam from Kiss and Chris Moyles of BBC Radio 1.

"Everywhere I seem to go, a couple of days later it will be a declared war in that area. When I was at The Big Breakfast it was the 'TV Breakfast Wars'. Then I did late nights, and suddenly it was the 'Late Night Chat Show Wars'. Now it's 'Breakfast Wars' again. Wherever I go I seem to drop into a war zone."

One reviewer rattled Vaughan with a comment that he was "mildly irritating". The presenter was more than mildly irritated by the suggestion that he was not just annoying but also insipid. He sought advice from his mother Fay, a psychotherapist. She reminded him that his grandfather (the owner of an engineering company) had always driven Rolls-Royces but was never able to enjoy them. "We would all have to be quiet while Grandad listened for the rattle," remembers Vaughan of family excursions in the Roller. "He always heard a rattle. My dad was the same. 'Sssh John, what's that rattle?'"

The presenter's mother advised him to "enjoy the Roller, don't listen for the rattle". It is a philosophy he keeps coming back to. "Our media is almost entirely rattle driven," he complains. "They've found a rattle in the Posh and Becks car. Forget the happiness, the bigger picture and all they did to reinvigorate the British image abroad. He sent texts to a Spanish girl. That's the rattle."

Suddenly he drags up memories of a childhood spent away from his suburban north London home at public schools in the Midlands, where a "culture of cynicism" reigned among his fellow pupils, robbing him of the chance to develop his artistic talents. Anyone who liked music at his prep school was deemed a "poof", he says.

"I loved music. I used to play the violin and sing. I gave both up and really wish I hadn't. That man (he names the chief cynic) ruined a part of my life through peer pressure and bullying. I was a really good violinist - I got full marks and distinctions. I could have really done something there."

When Vaughan moved to Uppingham public school in Rutland, more bullying cynics denounced those who were enthusiastic about activities such as the school play by chanting a chorus of the Depeche Mode song, "Just Can't Get Enough".

Vaughan has soaked up all these memories, just as he does an extraordinary range of historical facts, quotations, song lyrics, popular cultural references and items of sheer trivia. Combine that with his exceptional energy, his sense of humour and his joie de vivre and it is not hard to see why Capital Radio's managing director Keith Pringle is convinced he has made the right appointment.

But the angry school stories also reveal a resentment that he was not able to put his undoubted talents to use at an earlier age. Instead, he ended up working in a video shop before turning to drug dealing and spent 25 months in prison after trying to sell a quarter kilo of cocaine to detectives at a motel on the M1.

While inside the 21-year-old former public schoolboy at least developed his "love of radio". He recalls that, when locked up, "the only station that doesn't drive you mad is Radio 4... All the others have got such a joy of life it gets you sobbing into your cell."

Vaughan comes across as much more of a Londoner than Tarrant and he will pepper his show with little-known facts about the capital. Asked for an example, he chooses one about crime and punishment. The last hanging outside Newgate prison, he notes, was witnessed by both Thackeray and Dickens.

"When the crowds had cleared, 28 people were dead. They had been trampled. And that's why they started having them indoors, in prisons," says Vaughan, acknowledging that he has been reading Peter Ackroyd's bestselling history of London and quoting, as an aside, Norman Mailer's views on capital punishment. Then he adds: "I've got the Thackeray version too, it's in his complete works, which I inherited off my Grandad."

When Vaughan came out of prison he was met by a group of mates in a big American 1972 Sedan de Ville car. One of them was his future wife, clothes designer Antonia Davis, whom he had met, aged 19, while working in the video shop.

When they married, Elvis Costello sang "She" for their first dance and Johnny recited the words to Gladys Knight's "You're The Best Thing". They now have two children, three-year-old Tabitha and Rafferty, aged one.

There is a lot about Vaughan's motormouth monologues, his fast wit and deep well of knowledge of popular culture that recalls one of his breakfast-show rivals, BBC London's Danny Baker (who also struggled to be successful as a TV chat-show host but who Vaughan regards as "a hero of mine... the ultimate post-modern poly-mathematician").

And then there is something of the fellow Uppingham old boy-turned-jailbird, Stephen Fry, another trivia addict who Vaughan admires. "He always leaves you feeling both charmed and charming, which is a really nice way to leave someone."

Vaughan does that too. An hour in his company leaves you invigorated and thinking that London is not such a bad old town after all. He just needs to get another 1.5m people feeling the same way.