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Interview: Johnny Vegas

17 March 04 words: Jared Wilson

Johnny Vegas played at Just The Tonic this weekend. Last time he was in Nottingham we interviewed him...

"I went into my local takeaway a few weeks back. There were loads of kids piled up outside, 15 or 20 of them just staring."

"They were chanting some kind of mantra at me. 'Monkey! Monkey!' Bloke next to me asked me if I could get rid of them. I said "What can I do mate? We're all victims."

To anyone else a situation like this would be at best bizarre, at worst horrific. For Johnny Vegas it is to be expected. A regular face for years around the comedy circuit for years, he became famous for his drunken performances and Butlins-style singalongs. He is probably the only performer in history to mix live pottery with heart wrenching pathos. Then he started working alongside a monkey (albeit a woollen one) in a series of commercials for ITV digital.

"It's funny when you go out and see him everywhere. I was in Comet the other day and there was a massive cardboard cut out of him. You can see people watching you, just waiting to see what you're going to do. I just gave him a slap for a laugh. He seems to have reached quite a grand stage of social adoration."

If Vegas is best known for the monkey it is not for his lack of other projects. Following a semi-serious acting role alongside Paul Whitehouse in Happiness, he has become a regular guest on TV quiz shows has contributed as much as anyone to the BBC 'I love the?' series on the 70's and 80's. He recently pulled off probably his biggest coup to date landing a role alongside Vic, Bob and Ulrika as a full-time panellist on Shooting Stars. How did that happen then?

"I had done a really off the wall chat show with Vic that only got shown on cable. He had pet rabbits wandering around set and the camera would occasionally cut to them. Things like that become normal when you work with him! I'd also toured with Matt Lucas (George Dawes) a few times out in Montreal. It was worth the travel purely for the pleasure of watching the Canadians try and get their head around his act."

For those who have yet to have the pleasure of seeing Johnny in Shooting Stars, he plays a warm-hearted, cloudy-headed alcoholic. An enjoyable facet of the show is that all the regulars really do seem to be enjoying themselves. With his pint of Guinness ever present on the table, was there ever a time when he was drunk for real on stage?

"Quite a few actually! They didn't seem to mind much with Shooting Stars, in fact they seemed to encourage it. I was absolutely hammered on Never Mind The Buzzcocks when I ripped off my shirt. There were a lot of bits cut out of that which the public did not get to see."

"I get a lot of those moments, when you look around the panel and everybody's looking at you as if to say 'You're actually slashed aren't you?"

It wasn't always like this though. Hailing from a devout Roman Catholic family in the rugby mad town of St Helens, he thrilled his parents in 1981 by declaring his intention to train for the priesthood. He spent 18 months at Upholland School, Skelmersdale, Lancashire living what he describes as a "Victorian way of life".

"You were up at seven for a communal wash, which was freezing in the winter. Then there was mass, breakfast, lessons, lunch, more lessons, evening prayer, tea and prep. You sat in a room in a room in silence for three hours getting on with your studies, even if you didn't have any. I got really bored."

He eventually became "Incredibly homesick" and hit puberty enjoying "a lot of lustful thoughts".

From here Johnny left and turned to pot? of the clay variety. Although he describes himself as never being very academic, he returned to St Helens and eventually found his way to university on a pottery course. Despite leaving with the lowest grade in the class, Johnny took elements from what he had learned and incorporated them into his stage act. These days his work is exhibited in the highly regarded V&A contemporary collection:

"Yeah I've got a teapot in there. It's the forgotten art form. Everyone's into graphics and designing websites, but who makes the cup that you drink your tea from when you're designing that website? Long live the potters! We're the service industry."

So what next for Mr Vegas? As he points out "London has recently taken an interest. These days I'm actually getting work south of the Watford gap." There is also a second series of Happiness in the pipeline and, if all else fails he can always fall back on the stand up he does best.

A trailer park King Lear? The offspring of Roseanne Barr and Jack Duckworth? Johnny Vegas has been called many things in his time, but he's getting paid to do two of the things he loves: Drinking and Comedy. Viva Johnny Vegas!