Johnny Vaughan: Top of the morning

From Five Live's Fighting Talk to the Capital Radio Morning Show, the former jailbird and Big Breakfast presenter is back on form. James Brown tunes in to real life tales of cornflakes and Porridge
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The Independent Online

So what are we doing here, Johnny? Sitting in this huge, empty meeting room on the top floor of the Capital/Xfm building in London's Leicester Square? A building with a lift that pipes out your voice on each floor as if recounting your life: "Going up", "going down", "going up"?

So what are we doing here, Johnny? Sitting in this huge, empty meeting room on the top floor of the Capital/Xfm building in London's Leicester Square? A building with a lift that pipes out your voice on each floor as if recounting your life: "Going up", "going down", "going up"?

"Well that's the perk," he says. "When you do the Breakfast Show at Capital you get to do the voice in the lift. I inherited it from Tarrant."

When I arrive I find Vaughan shuttling between the last 20 minutes of his high-energy breakfast show, which is in essence a talkathon with a few records thrown in, and an obligatory photo shoot with some advertising clients. He smiles for the shots, shake everyone's hand and makes the moment seem great - but he clearly doesn't want to be too schmaltzy. He seems to have a flustered understanding that he should do the right thing by his corporate guests and his employers, but not for too long.

He looks slimmer than his expense account probably should allow, has a slight bald patch and dresses as you might expect of a 40-year-old who still hovers somewhere between the terraces at Stamford Bridge and the chauffeured Merc. His appearance is sort of Executive Casual - he has navy, straight jeans, a cashmere jumper and suede JP Todds on his feet. "I've given up trainers - they're for kids. I realised that they know their way around the shops, while I don't any more."

Imagine Tony the Frosties tiger with a dark side, a past that included a spell inside for drugs offences and experience of things that you can't discuss in polite company. And I guess you have Johnny Vaughan.

Like fellow DJs and talk-show hosts Danny Baker and Jonathan Ross, Vaughany has an insatiable thirst for unpolished opinion, philosophy and bizarre information. Like many who have made an excellent living out of talking and making people laugh with it, his career has had both its ups and downs. He's only as good as his vehicle, and time it's on, allows him to be. I've always considered him a morning man - too obvious for late night but excitable enough to give the world a kick-start before work.

"The last time we met you came down to The [Big] Breakfast and gave me a piece of advice. You said I should always do it, make it my show and do it for 40 years like Johnny Carson. And you were right. I should have listened. The reason I left was that I had my daughter and I just couldn't handle the hours and the family."

Although I have a habit of offering uninvited career advice to the great and good, I never expect them to take any notice. But in this case I felt it needed saying. Johnny Vaughan's time on The Big Breakfast was one of the golden treats of British television. A man constantly in search of the sack, he went through a period of about a year when you could tune in without a clue of where his comments, links and general bluster might take you. Before you knew it you'd be laughing your head off and late for work, and the first thing you'd ask people when you got in was whether they'd seen Vaughan's latest performance.

"As a programme it suffered from 'nobody's baby syndrome'," he says, as if he has to explain the demise of the programme after he left. "No one at Channel 4 was gaining any glory from it. People always need to be sold an idea in TV, and that's why so many ground-breaking ideas fall away - because the people who champion them move on and there's not always someone to pass the mantle to. In the end The Big Breakfast came under sport! The guy who looked after American football also looked after us. I think [former Channel 4 boss] Michael Jackson came in and was ready to shelve it, and then we showed that there was life in the old girl yet. And it was like: 'Whoah, hold on there'. In America they would have celebrated it being 10 years old, not closed it down because of it."

After a few years under the lock and key of a well-publicised BBC golden handcuffs deal, during which his earnings were more frequently discussed than his output, he was chosen to replace Chris Tarrant as the morning voice of Capital FM.

Those of you reading this in John o'Groats or Land's End would be forgiven for thinking: 'So what?', but in the land of jellied eels, English-language schools and postcard punks, Capital towers over Radio 1 in the ratings. The appointment was a bold and potentially risky one.

"The thing with breakfast broadcasting, on radio and television," he says, "is that it's still one area where there are parameters of taste, so you can sail close to the wind. Late at night you can swear, but so what? Mid-morning, This Morning time, you can talk about genital warts but at breakfast time you can't. At breakfast you're only allowed to be a bit naughty, so that gives you room to manoeuvre."

When I ask him to explain his show for those who might not listen, he looks with slight disbelief that he's got to do the sales pitch. He goes into that voice, the sound of a talking billboard. This is despite the fact that off-air he is exactly the same as he is on-air. Generally his words are as loud as the Hollywood sign is big. "It's the highest-rated show in the most competitive area of radio on earth. And that's despite Tarrant going. It's a radio breakfast show that wakes up London, it has a gang feel."

So why does he do it? For the only time in the interview he pauses for a moment. "Well... I'm challenged by the mechanics of it, I think we've been put on God's earth to learn. Also I love doing live and I love doing daily. You just crack on. There's no make-up, and no wardrobe."

Was it he or Richard Bacon that used to have a car boot full of Ralph Lauren shirts? "Yes - I had 308 Ralph Laurens and hundreds of Etro shirts. All you end up with after doing these programmes is shirts. In fact, all your mates end up with the shirts. A mate comes in and I say: 'I interviewed Madonna in that shirt.' And charity auctions, they go to charity auctions. It's weird because after I'd worn them for work I didn't want to wear them out. They'd become work clothes."

Doesn't he have anything other than shirts about the place to remind him of what he's achieved? "I have nothing at my house like awards or prizes or anything like that. I wouldn't know where those are. Likewise, I'm not that bothered about nominations and ratings. I would be if I understood them but I don't. How do they work out how many people are in the van, the mini-cab office or on the building site when the radio's playing? I'd care if I could understand..."

Despite the nonchalance, or perhaps because of it, various publicists around the place each remind me that he's just been nominated for a Sony Award for the Breakfast Show. So does he have a hunger for his craft...? "I've never been hungry or ambitious. I simply have a lot of energy and I like a challenge," he replies.

Is there a sense, I wonder, that because he's spent four years in prison, simply not being locked up any more is reward enough. Or is that too simple? "Well, no. Just because you're locked up inside, your life's not locked up. You carry on doing things."

Like what?

"Do I have to talk about this?"

I just wonder if there's a connection between the two, the incarceration and the subsequent career success. Most celebrities haven't spent their early years banged up for dealing coke. They're normally the customers. What did he do in there?

"Learning, learning computers, cooking, panel-beating. I can do a mean potato dish for 300 people."

Oh, so he was like Godber?

"Yes I suppose I could see myself as Godber. In fact I made my name inside on the Gobbler. When I was the first veg man, the outgoing first veg man, Bob from Barnsley, said to me: 'If there's anything you can't be arsed doing, just shove it down the Gobbler.' The Gobbler was the big food-mixer that turned everything into juice. For instance, he couldn't be bothered dealing with these big sacks of carrots so he just chucked them in the Gobbler. I said: 'You're just going to chuck those bags of carrots in there? Won't anyone notice?' He said: 'Fuck off Vaughany, it's a big firm.' That's what I think about business now. In the end, all the big companies are going to crumble. The employees just don't care - because 'it's a big firm'.

"Anyway, I was the best I've ever been at anything in that first two weeks of being first veg man. The first two days the lads had celery and I spent all this time cutting it up and cooking it and it all came back untouched. So the next week when the celery crates came through, straight off the lorry, I just opened them up and chucked them all in the Gobbler. Bob came in to sort the crates out and said: 'Where's all that celery?' 'In the Gobbler, Bob.' 'What Vaughany? We've had a line of blokes passing crates from the veg lorry to the kitchen and you've been putting 20 of the bastards straight into the Gobbler? Fucking hell Vaughany that's amazing.' Word went round and suddenly I was a hero because I'd got rid of the celery everyone hated.

"Another case of the 'big firm' outlook was when I was doing the laundry. We had to clean all the pants, vests and socks for the whole prison. Once a week! Imagine how disgusting that is. Then they started numbering them so we knew who every pair belonged to. This became the way all the bets were paid. People would leave their half a packet of Old Holborn in the pocket of their trousers. One day Charlie, who was the prison bookie, said to me: 'Vaughany, I need every hand I can get to do the bets. It's the FA Cup next weekend and I've got 300 bets to sort.'"

"I go: 'I can't. I'm doing the underwear.' This is the Grouty character, a big gangster from Manchester. He runs the prison and is making £70K a year in bets and he's serious. But I've got to do my underwear duty. So in the end he goes: 'Right. I'll see to this,' and calls the civilian warder. 'Dougie, those pants, crabs!' So because he says he's seen crabs in the pants, Dougie orders us to take them out and burn 700 full sets of underwear. Chas just looks at me and goes: 'It's a big firm Vaughany and no-one gives a fuck. Now lets get on with these bets.'"

He's yet to succumb to the big firm outlook in his own career. He does do a lot of his own projects with his production company, World's End, including sitcoms, chat shows and hit radio and TV programme Fighting Talk.

" Fighting Talk is the only thing I've done on the BBC that people like and we're waiting to see if it's coming back. It falls somewhere between sport and entertainment, but that seems to be where the audience's brains are. With the TV show we managed to make the front pages of the papers when Kate Hoey came on. Not bad for something that ran for just three weeks."

If Fighting Talk slipped away because it fell between two BBC departments it would be a tragedy. The radio show is already a hit. It is one of those programmes that when you appear on it, people who don't work in the media tell you they enjoyed your performance. The show's popularity has grown hugely through word-of-mouth recommendations - it's something people actually listen to and like. The transfer to television for a short Sunday-night burst managed to successfully accommodate high-profile sporting guests (such as the former England football manager Graham Taylor and the athlete Steve Cram) with the regular sports writers who anchor the radio panel. Above all else, it appears fresh and innovative on both mediums. Isn't that something the BBC should be encouraging? Naturally, the Americans are all over it and want to buy the rights.

Coming back to Capital, how does he feel working with the very straight commercial playlist? "Well, it's not that different to what I'd play myself," he says. "If I get a few little victories like playing AC/DC in return for 500 texts, with the money going to charity, then it's worth it. And I like the 'Winders Daahhn' concept a lot. A radio plugger said to me: 'Vaughany, this track is the business, it's "winders daahhn".' And I thought: 'That's it!'. So 'Winders Daahhn' is there every morning, it's big fat Steve Walsh-style soul. D Train's 'You're The One For Me', 'And The Beat Goes On' - they're all in there. Stick 'em on and everyone in London rolls their windows down."

Who does he admire? Without missing a beat he says: "Wogan, not just for the music or the blarney but the theatre of the mind. THEATRE OF THE MIND!" Imagine a market trader giving you a psychotherapy session. "Danny Baker! I'd like to think I fall between those two. Not physically." And then he can't resist a wind up. "Christian O'Connell - he's not as good as me and what I love about him is that he knows it. That's why it's so easy to direct him on Fighting Talk." (Xfm's award-winning DJ O'Connell took over as host of Five Live's Fighting Talk when Vaughan went to the TV version.)

People often talk about the pain of waking up early, but does he ever just walk around the garden when he gets up at 4am, smelling the air?

"Well it's 5.30 and yes, the morning air is fantastic in the summer. Winter is shit but in the summer you feel like you're getting the best of the world. You know, doing the Breakfast Show makes me feel like I'm allowed to be a citizen again. I've got a job, and people know that my work is hard. You get up every day at a ridiculous hour. I get skip workers and scaffolders coming up to me and going: 'You must be knackered.' Them to me, them doing a proper job, giving me the time of day because of the time of day I get up and go to work."

But what about those adverts, the ones where Johnny goes a bit Bruce Forsyth and a bit Dick Emery? In them he plays a whole family listening to Capital - the mum, the dad, the teenage kids. It's very pantomime.

"Well I've thrown a few Northern Soul moves in there," he says. "What I've realised is that if you dress up like a woman and make a fool of yourself, the British public love you for it. There's just something about dressing up as women that people love.

"On a submarine, the crew are only allowed to bring their kit on board in a bag the size of a cereal box, and yet on the last night of the tour they all manage to produce all this women's clothing and dress up. It's unbelievable. 'I've got a Dolly Parton wig, sir!' 'Good man, get it on.'"

He then diverts into a highly plausible but physically dangerous theory about how the tougher men are, the more homosexual they can act without actually being considered gay. This starts with rugby players bathing together and ends with an ex-Paratrooper discussing ladyboys in the Far East. Believe me, there are enough such anecdotes and claims to see both of us in hospital and libel court simultaneously. It's a surprise Vaughan keeps a lid on it on air.

What, I wonder, would he think if he ever had to actually meet himself? "Well this is a fatuous question, a nothing question," he replies. "When you've spent a year in a locked room sized six by eight you know yourself pretty well. I wouldn't be surprised by myself and I'd be vaguely annoyed that I wouldn't get a word in."

The admission that he may be considered annoying leads to a brief and considered discussion about the stick he's received from people who are in the same line of work.

"I can't believe people slagging each other off. Dave Allen [the recently deceased comedian who is the father of Vaughan's World's End partner, Ed] said to me once: 'You never bad-mouth a fellow pro. You might be taking bread off his table.' So I never do it. You might be slagging someone off just at the moment when a commissioning editor is wondering whether or not to commit to something. They might read what you've said, and maybe it'll tip the balance against someone getting the work." And then he's off into another great story about the prison butcher secretly selling beef sandwiches to gangsters.

CHANNEL 4: Vaughan breaks into television in 1993, presenting Channel 4's movie review show Moviewatch. His irreverent humour quickly impresses and he moves on to front The Big Breakfast in 1997, where his co-presenters include Denise Van Outen and Liza Tarbuck. He is nominated for a National Television Award for Most Popular Entertainment Presenter in 1998.

BBC TV: In 2001 Vaughan is lured to the BBC in a reported £3m golden handcuffs deal. Vaughan vehicles include BBC2 sitcom 'Orrible, which he wrote and starred in, Johnny Vaughan Tonight, Live at Johnny's and Passport to Paradise, a Saturday evening show with former sidekick Denise Van Outen. He hosts two series of Superstars, the revived 1970s sports show, with Suzi Perry. All these shows are Christmas birds. Superstars was axed last month.

RADIO: In autumn 2003 Vaughan begins presenting Fighting Talk, BBC Radio Five Live's sports debate show. In April 2004 he signs to London station Capital 95.8 FM in a £1.5m, three-year deal presenting the breakfast show, following the end of Chris Tarrant's 17-year reign. The ad campaign to launch the show sees Vaughan dancing around a series of London's tourist hotspots to "Maybe It's Because I'm A Londoner" before donning pearls and a twinset and mounting a bicycle, accompanied by the soul classic "Dancing in the Streets".

TURN FOR THE BETTER: As Vaughan claws back 100,000 listeners, he learns that he is nominated for a Sony Radio Academy Award for Breakfast DJ of the Year. He'll find out if he's won at the ceremony on 9 May.

FAMILY MAN: Despite his extrovert personality, Vaughan, 38, is not one to hang out on the London party circuit. He began dating his wife Antonia 19 years ago and they have two young children, Tabitha and Rafferty. Shortly after the couple met, Vaughan began his much-publicised 25-month sentence for dealing cocaine - but the relationship survived and they married in 1999.