Johnny Vegas: Comedy's big hitter

Recently voted Britain's funniest man, Johnny Vegas has come a long way since working at Argos. He talks to James Rampton about his new role as a drug dealer - and getting a certain monkey off his back
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The Independent Online

Moz, a small-time Mancunian marijuana dealer and his supplier are lying prone on the sofa in his front room, stoned out of their minds after several bongs' worth of dope. Moz, who is clearly fond of his food, suddenly has a bad attack of the munchies and announces that he's going to phone for a curry. He asks his mate if he fancies one. "Best not," he replies. "Back on duty in 10 minutes." Yes, Moz's supplier is a police officer.

Moz, a small-time Mancunian marijuana dealer and his supplier are lying prone on the sofa in his front room, stoned out of their minds after several bongs' worth of dope. Moz, who is clearly fond of his food, suddenly has a bad attack of the munchies and announces that he's going to phone for a curry. He asks his mate if he fancies one. "Best not," he replies. "Back on duty in 10 minutes." Yes, Moz's supplier is a police officer.

This is one of many scenes from Ideal, a new BBC 3 sitcom that may provoke the ire of the red-tops. They probably won't be too keen on the sequence in which Moz doles out dope to a childminder dangling a baby on her knee, either. A comedy about a sympathetic drug dealer - played by the lovable Johnny Vegas - may be too much for many newspapers to tolerate.

The larger-than-life comedian, who gives an immensely credible performance as Moz, vigorously defends the series against any charge that it glamorises drug dealing. "I know certain papers will have a field day with Ideal," Vegas says with a resigned shake of the head. "We'd almost be doing something wrong if they didn't react, but it's never struck me as overtly shocking.

"If you actually watch the series, there's no glamorous element to it. It's not about drugs, and it's not using drugs to be humorous. Nor is it going to make someone want to go out and spend time with a drug dealer. You wouldn't watch Steptoe and Son and think 'I want to be a rag-and-bone man'.'' Indeed, to call Moz's acquaintances dysfunctional is an understatement; one silent character, known as "Cartoon Head'', is wont to turn up at Moz's health hazard of a flat carrying a variety of deadly weapons and wearing a variety of children's masks.

Graham Duff, who wrote Ideal, says that people should not get hung up on the drugs aspect of the plot. Moz is merely the latest in a long line of sitcom rogues. "The drug dealing really is just a backdrop to the main story,'' Duff contends. "In some episodes, you don't actually see much dealing going on. I think there's always been a history of comedy characters who work on the margins of society, people like Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses, with his dodgy stolen gear, or Fletch in Porridge.''

Still, Vegas realises this setting may be used as a stick with which to beat the series. "If Ideal proves awful, it'll be seen as a dreadful show promoting drugs. But if it's great, that won't even get mentioned!" Ideal does nothing to idealise Moz's lifestyle, he says. "He is not a bad bloke at heart, but you certainly don't envy his life."

Sitting in an impossibly trendy London club, Vegas is wearing trainers, many days' stubble, a baggy black T-shirt and a baseball cap with the badge of his beloved St Helen's rugby league club. It's all part of the Vegas charm. Free from the airs and graces of so many in his industry, he is like your mate from the pub - only a thousand times funnier. A recent poll in Esquire magazine voted him Britain's funniest man, ahead of Peter Kay, Chris Morris, Simon Pegg, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ricky Gervais, Matt Lucas, David Walliams, and, er, Jeremy Clarkson. Steve Coogan, no less, has called Vegas "the outstanding talent of the new generation".

Vegas manifests the trait Brits prize above all others: self-deprecation. Audiences are drawn to a comedian who is willing to make himself the butt of his best jokes. He recalls, for instance, his father's reaction when he messed up his degree in ceramics at Middlesex poly. "I remember ringing my dad to tell him I'd failed, and he said, 'You haven't let me down, son. I never thought you'd pass anyway'.''

Vegas recollects a number of embarrassing moments. "I brought a girlfriend home to see my parents, and I was telling her how it all started going wrong when I was 11. Then my mum said, 'You mustn't say things like that. You were eight when things started to go wrong'."

He is also self-effacing about his success. "With something like Shooting Stars, there's a lot of guilt. You just sit there saying a few things and you get paid. How do you explain that? What I do is shrouded in mystery for my mum and dad. When it goes out, I'm like, 'Um, that's me, and that's Debbie McGee sliding down a wire with pointy shoes on. Father, I want to make you proud.'''

Vegas made his big breakthrough on the stand-up circuit when he won the Festival Critics' Award and was voted the sexiest man on the fringe at the 1997 Edinburgh Festival. He is now in great demand as a screen performer.

As well as Ideal, he also stars in Dead Man Weds, a new ITV 1 sitcom set in a newspaper office. In this series, written by Dave Spikey (who was Jerry St Clair, the hopeless compère, in Phoenix Nights), Vegas plays Lewis, an eye-wateringly indolent journalist, who since the unexpected death of the previous editor has been deputising at the local newspaper in Fogburrow. This is a town so sleepy the pub runs "make your own fun" nights, which include such delights as a competition to see which customer can attach the greatest number of clothes pegs to their face.

Always keen to get home as early as possible to catch Trisha on the TV, Lewis palms off his readers with front-page headlines such as "Some Trains May Be Late", "Pensioners Make Lovely Rugs", "Local Slag a Disgrace", "Pregnancy in Women Mushrooms", and, of course, "Dead Man Weds". Lewis is shaken out of his lethargy only by the arrival of Gordon Garden (played by Spikey), a former Fleet Street hot-shot determined to inject some journalistic rigour into the sleepy publication.

According to the comedian, "if you were a go-getter, the boredom of that job on the Fogburrow Advertiser would kill you. But Lewis is delighted because the paper runs itself and he doesn't have to lift a finger.'''

Born Michael Pennington and the father of another Michael, his 18-month-old son, Vegas has come a long way since the mid-1990s, when he was eking out a living as a porter at his local branch of Argos. He says he was not really cut out for the job; his nose bled regularly over the stock and he struggled when it came to lugging customers' shopping to their cars. "Argos didn't have a uniform that fitted me,'' Vegas recollects. "So I had to wear my own clothes. When I'd say, 'Can I help with your stuff?', people thought I was a weirdo.''

Now 33, he attributes much of his success to his sidekick - the toy monkey he sat next to during a much-loved ad campaign for the ill-fated ITV Digital. "I do stand-up for years, and now I'm known for a monkey,'' he says. "Everybody loved the monkey, and he became a star. They made dolls of the monkey, but not of me. I've had to come to terms with the fact that I am second fiddle to a puppet." But he accepts that the monkey helped launch his career. "I want to be buried with the monkey," he laughs. "The thought of anybody else working with him would be too much."

Vegas is starring opposite Johnny Depp and John Malkovich in an eagerly-awaited big-screen version of The Libertine. Vegas plays Sackville, "the third-richest man in the country", Vegas says in his trademark rasping voice, "and a complete upper-class fop". He is also developing a chat show for C4 with Chris Evans' company UTV. He is the first to admit that this risky project could go either way. "It'll either make a fantastic bit of TV, or it'll lead to our deportation. That's the shadow I live under every day: success or learning Spanish!'' Vegas acknowledges that TV trends can be fickle. "It's inevitable that you go out of fashion,'' he says. "I'd understand that. What would be awful would be to be a 50-year-old trying to rage against the machine in an attempt to stay relevant. Nobody gives the public credit, but they can see through that sort of thing from a mile off.

"You're only here for as long as people want you here. It's madness to think you can dictate that. All I dread is my son being appallingly embarrassed when I pick him up from school. If your son starts leaving out the 'situations vacant' section of the paper with various jobs underlined, or greets you with a pleading look in his eyes, or gets a tattoo reading 'no more monkey', that's when you should get worried."

This is Vegas in a nutshell. Happy to enjoy his success, but never likely to be spoilt by it. "I can't see me joining the jet-set,'' he says. "I'm brought into the jet-set just so they can have a laugh at me. I serve the drinks - and then I'm sent home.''

'Dead Man Weds' starts on ITV1 tomorrow at 10pm; 'Ideal' starts on BBC3 next Tuesday at 10.30pm