Playing with fire: Johnny Vegas takes on Anton Chekhov

We've had the knitted monkey, the epic benders and the wedding pictures sold to 'Viz', but life's not always been a laugh for Johnny Vegas. He opens up to Brian Viner about the abuse at his seminary, the assault that changed his life – and his fears at taking on Anton Chekhov
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Chekhov playing Vegas – a production of The Cherry Orchard at Caesar's Palace, perhaps – is an improbable image. Scarcely more probable is Vegas playing Chekhov, yet it is about to come to pass. This evening, as part of a Sky Arts season of Anton Chekhov's one-act comedies, Johnny Vegas stars in A Reluctant Tragic Hero as Tolkachov, a world-weary man who visits his good friend Murashkin (Mackenzie Crook) to get various grievances off his chest, but ends up leaving with even more troubles.

It is to publicise this intriguing venture that Vegas has agreed to meet for lunch in a private members' club on London's Shaftesbury Avenue, a world away from downtown St Helens, Lancashire, where he grew up as plain Michael Pennington before going to Middlesex University to study ceramic design and later adopting the ironically glitzy stage name for his comic alter ego, a belligerent drunk.

When he arrives, looking far from svelte but still substantially slimmer than he has for some years, I remind him of our first encounter, a decade or so ago at a comedy club in Nottingham. I was there to write a feature about Peter Kay, who wasn't yet the comedy superstar he would become, and was headlining that night as Vegas had the night before. Vegas stayed on for 24 hours, less to watch his chum Kay than to pursue a relationship with a girl to whom he'd taken a fancy. I tell him now that I didn't rate his chances, partly on account of him being almost paralytic with drink, and partly due to a vast, unruly beard that might have had sparrows nesting in it. His brown eyes crinkle with mirth at the recollection. "That wasn't a good look for me, was it? I remember being in America with that beard and a cast on my leg, doing publicity shots. People must have thought I was publicising a veterans' hospital."

When Vegas says something that amuses him, that high, rasping voice rises a notch and starts to crack slightly, which is unfailingly infectious, and worked a treat on Kirsty Young during a recent Desert Island Discs. From time to time, there are editions of the venerable Radio 4 programme that get everyone talking, and Young's Vegas interview last month was one such, largely because he recalled that during his childhood, his father, a joiner, having just been made redundant, killed, skinned and cooked one of the family's pet rabbits.

Vegas was mystified by the response because he has referred to that episode many times in interviews – indeed, his dad cheerfully owned up to it on a celebrity version of the TV show Family Fortunes four years ago. But at least it diverted attention from a genuinely unprecedented ' admission regarding an issue he hadn't expected Young to raise. "I came out a bit shell-shocked," he tells me. "There was one question in particular that nobody had ever asked before." When he was just 11 he spent a year away from home training to be a Catholic priest, and Young asked him whether he was aware of sexual abuse at the seminary. He replied that he was, although he wasn't a victim himself.

"I've never wanted to discuss it," he says. "People who've gone on and made a life for themselves might have been listening, might have said, 'Hey, he was at seminary with me,' and the next thing is, their partner's looking at them wondering if they were abused. There's a domino effect with certain things you say. Early on, I almost got off on how open and honest I was in interviews, but waves go out and then come back, absorbed by those close to you. When the red-tops ran the 'We Ate Our Rabbit' story, my mum said, 'You make us sound like the Clampetts [from the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies].' But I'm glad they focused on that."

The domino effect he refers to hasn't stopped Vegas being candid in interviews, which is good news for me. "I don't know if there's something in my psychological make-up that makes me want to please," he ponders. "Giving someone an answer to something that isn't their business."

This raises the pertinent question: what is our business? He is divorced, with a seven-year-old son, Michael, and his ex-wife Kitty has told the press in some detail what in her opinion made him a lovely bloke but a rubbish husband. As he tells it, she wasn't much of a wife, either. Whatever, he is now engaged to Maia Dunphy, an Irishwoman who works in TV production. "Sometimes famous people talk about sexual abuse during their childhoods," he says, not quite able to let the issue drop, "and it looks as if they're clamouring for attention. You know, those people who only feel they exist if they're in print. I'm loath to use my personal life to promote what I do, but at the same time, I don't like a journalist going away with no more than you could get off Wikipedia, where most of it's invented anyway."

On which subject, Wikipedia informs us that in 2002 Vegas sold his wedding photos to Viz magazine for £1, and I'm hoping that's true, because you've got to love a bloke who sells his wedding pictures to Viz. "Yeah, I did." The voice rises with mirth. "And I still haven't been paid." He orders a second pint of Guinness – the accompanying Caesar salad is the concession to his health kick – and becomes serious again. "But it still looks like a clever piece of self-promotion. People go, 'That was a stroke of genius.' It wasn't. It was just a reaction [to the Hello! and OK! merry-go-round]."

He hasn't yet listened to his turn on Desert Island Discs, he says. "I'm not ready to, and in any case I'm really self-conscious about hearing my own voice. I've been on the [BBC] comments page, though. I never normally do that, because there are so many bitter people out there, but someone told me that it was all lovely, which it was, only suddenly there was someone saying, 'How tiresome, the hard upbringing...' You can't win. You sit down and give an earnest interview, and you still get stick. It's a bit like me doing Chekhov. People will make of it whatever they want."

The Chekhov project arose from a conversation with Henry Normal, who, in partnership with Steve Coogan, runs Baby Cow Productions. "You can have 100 conversations about projects, but Baby Cow has this annoying knack of making them happen, so a low-level commitment becomes 'Right, where's the space in your diary?'" As with the £1 sale of the wedding photos, and for that matter the recollections of abuse, Vegas is neurotically but endearingly concerned with how his taking on of Chekhov appears.

"I'm so wary of it looking like a bold move into drama. I don't know whether it's noble or an affront to thespians everywhere." It is by no means the first time he has taken on a classic text – he was terrific as the rag-and-bone dealer Krook in the BBC's 2005 serialisation of Bleak House – but he has aways used Chekhov as a synonym for thespy self-regard. "It's a bit like Morrissey. I didn't get into him at the time because all the people I couldn't stand were into him. But now I can see why Chekhov's so good. We think we've come so far forward since then, then you read it and think, 'No, we haven't.'"

As Tolkachov, he rants and rants for ages, and I'd hate to embarrass him by throwing around theatrical clichés, but it is a genuine tour de force, and recalls his early years as a stand-up, around the time that he took his act, which revolved literally and metaphorically around the potter's wheel, to the 1997 Edinburgh Fringe. That's where the influential TV producer Andy Harries first saw him, later describing the act as "truly, truly extraordinary, one of the finest comedy shows I had ever seen", and Vegas concedes not just that he gets to detonate the same explosion of frustration playing Tolkachov, but that the vocabulary feels right.

"There's nothing worse than someone who writes scripts based in the North but lives in the Cotswolds. It's hard to get those kind of scripts into your head, but there's something about Chekhov's language that lends itself to learning." Not a little money changed hands on set, he adds, as people took bets on how many takes he would need. In the event he surprised everyone, including himself, by needing no recourse to the giant Autocue. "I actually think Mackenzie had the harder job, doing 12 pages of reaction. But he's got a great face." The voice rises a quaver. "In the nicest possible way, it's a face that makes you want to shout at it."

An earlier project with Crook, 2004's Sex Lives of the Potato Men, got some of the most damning reviews ever received by a British film. "But to this day I don't have the inherent shame that people feel I should have," he says. "To me it perfectly captured pub bullshitters, always talking up their sexual conquests. It wasn't worthy but it wasn't shameful, either."

I never saw it, so can't comment, but I can see why Vegas and Crook might be cast as pub bullshitters. And why Vegas was cast as a drug dealer in the comedy drama Ideal. And as the petulant Geoff in the ITV drama Benidorm. And, for that matter, why he has played opposite a knitted monkey in a string of commercials for ITV Digital and later PG Tips. But doesn't he yearn, deep down, to play a romantic lead?

"No, because in acting I always feel like I'm an interloper. In stand-up I always knew how it should be done. I used to go on stage as Johnny and think, 'There's nobody better ' suited to be here at this moment in time.' But on a drama set I think, 'God, there are 10 people I could have put you on to who'd be better than me.'"

Maybe that's because on a drama set he's Michael Pennington, a milder, less self-assured character than Johnny Vegas. For all his serious acting ventures he is not the clown who yearns to play Hamlet, even if the Johnny Vegas Hamlet possibly awaits us. More fittingly, his own production company, Woolyback, has just finished making a radio play about one of his comic heroes, the late Les Dawson. "It's a farce, and we take complete artistic licence with Les's career. I don't think enough credit is given to what he did, a host walking out on a game show [Blankety Blank], criticising the channel, the prizes, the guests, everything."

Only once in his career, he says, has he felt genuine pride at being compared with another performer, and that was when someone remarked that his way of messing about with words reminded them of Dawson. Unlike Dawson, however, and by his own admission, he has never been entirely successful in transferring his stand-up act to telly. "I still give myself the right to be highly critical of others, though. I'm not naming the show, because I'm not a bitchy person, but last Christmas the family were watching a Christmas special and they were in fits of laughter while I was at the back of the room despairing. And I hated myself for it. I thought, 'Have you become this elitist snob?'"

He forks in a mouthful of lettuce, takes a gulp of Guinness, and lights up. "This is awful, I'm having a cigarette mid-salad; my version of surf and turf," he wheezes, and it occurs to me that the day that Johnny Vegas, or Michael Pennington, truly represents the snobby elite will be a happy day for Britain.

Nonetheless, he inhabits a world that must seem alien to his mum and dad back in St Helens? "Yeah, but they're savvier to it now. And with the break-up of the marriage [to Kitty], they knew the massive difference between what they knew to be going on personally and what was printed. Nothing good came from that, but it did open their eyes to the fact that a very small percentage of what's written in the papers is true." A chuckle. "I've abused that, though, when the stuff in the papers is true. I say, 'You know they make these things up.'"

One accusation that wasn't true was levelled at him in 2008 by a reviewer for The Guardian, suggesting that he had groped a female member of the audience during a show at London's Bloomsbury Theatre. He vigorously denied it, as, he says, did the woman in question, but the damage was done. "It was awful, a broadsheet acting like a tabloid. I don't mind challenging reviews. Comedy's so subjective, and if someone comes to watch, doesn't get it, doesn't find it funny, then fine. But this was different. This felt like criticism of me as Michael Pennington."

That said, and as he has acknowledged, he's had plenty of bad press that was fully deserved, not least in the wake of an epic, destructive bender while filming Benidorm. He has subsequently curbed his drinking binges, and made a pledge to himself, with his 40th birthday approaching next year, that he will be a proper parent to young Michael. "I've watched the Biography Channel, seen the interviews with children of big stars, and they all felt their parent belonged to the public, not to them. I never want Michael to think he's an afterthought. Any good qualities I might have are the result of my mum being my mum and my dad being my dad, and I want the same for him."

It's a fine, wholesome, rather moving ambition, but Michael junior is the son of a famous father, and the child of a well-publicised divorce. Inevitably, he's having a different upbringing to his old man's. "He can still have the same morals, though. But I do worry about him. He's not a tantrum-thrower. I look at him and think, 'God, he internalises.' Because if you internalise, it will find a way out. As an internaliser myself I think, 'Go on, have a rant.'"

His own way of ranting was to invent Johnny, whose anger stemmed in part from the wrongs done to Pennington, and one wrong in particular. "When I was 19 I was beaten up by two lads outside a pub in St Helens, and spent three days in hospital. If they hadn't been stopped they could have killed me. I didn't go out for a while after that. I was petrified. And the thing was that they probably went out and did it to someone else the next week. They'd fundamentally changed my life and they couldn't give two shits. That's where the anger came from, and that's what went into Johnny, and why he laid into boorish hecklers."

After 10 minutes or more of haranguing from an incensed Johnny Vegas bent on kicking back, even the most resolute heckler has been reduced to ashen embarrassment. "If there was anything I had a gift for, acquired from years working behind a bar, it was reading people. I'd say, 'You're probably a self-made bloke with a scaffolding firm, and everyone tips their cap to you, but I don't have to. Your mates find you a bore, your wife doesn't particularly like you, and I know I should stop, but I can't because you started it, you opened your mouth as you always do, you've ruined weddings...'" He drains his pint of Guinness, and smiles. "As wanky as it sounds, I was striving for righteousness. Johnny has the bollocks I lack. These people are never taken to task."

All those years ago, he adds, his cousins were all for hunting down his attackers, but he knew there would be repercussions. Instead, he applied for criminal injuries. "I took a loan out on a suit, but the only suit I could get from Burton that fit me was this double-breasted thing that made me look like Al Capone. So I was stood there, the victim, and the judge was looking at me thinking, 'He looks like he runs a speakeasy.' I didn't get a penny. I had a £120 suit I couldn't pay for, and I'd had my eye on a little Fiesta; I was going to get driving lessons. This near-death experience was meant to turn my life around. Fucking legal system."

By now, his eyes are squeezing out tears, and I am hugging myself with laughter. "I was at college doing a pottery course. When was I ever going to wear that suit? I should have got single-breasted." He wipes a big fat tear from his cheek. "That was the start of my body issues," he cries.

Chekhov Comedy Shorts begins with 'A Reluctant Tragic Hero' on Sky Arts 2 tonight at 9pm. 'Chequebook and Pen', a play about Les Dawson, airs on Radio 4 on 16 December