What happens in Vegas

Just short of his fiftieth birthday, Michael Pennington is contemplating a return to stand-up comedy after 10 years. But even he doesn’t know if his unpredictable alter ego Johnny Vegas will take over

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Meeting Michael Pennington, the man better known as Johnny Vegas, is a confusing business.

No sooner do I agree with his assistant, Bev (“she runs my life”), that for Big Issue North purposes he’ll be referred to by his real name, than Pennington turns up, suggests I call him “Johnny”, then proceeds to talk about “Johnny” like he’s not even there. See what I mean?

“What we’re learning is that we have to look after ourselves, because they’re not looking out for us.”

If you missed the vodka-powered, clay-moulding, self-loathing comedic alter ego who blew away Edinburgh Festival audiences in the 1990s, chances are you’ve encountered Johnny Vegas somewhere in his ensuing television career: as a knitted monkey’s sidekick in the ITV Digital adverts, in two stints on award-laden comedy Benidorm, numerous other sitcoms, chat shows, goodness knows how many game shows, and, as we speak, with Bev in the latest Celebrity Gogglebox.

Throw in a dozen or so feature films, directing credits on TV dramas and music videos, a role in a Dickens adaptation and an autobiography he “poured my heart and soul into”, and no wonder he’s keen to spend more time at the potter’s wheel after two-plus decades “chasing my tail”.

That said, a first serious stab at stand-up in 10 years is planned for when coronavirus finally permits, a prospect that worries Pennington as much as it excites him. The stand-up version of Johnny is a different prospect to the one who swaps anecdotes on Loose Women. “Dare I,” Pennington asks, more of himself than me, “let him out of the bag?”

Today Pennington is running late for our socially-distanced appointment, green-side at his local bowling club in St Helens, while he drops groceries to residents forced into isolation by Covid-19.

He is grateful to have spent lockdown with his eldest son, Michael junior, in the place of his birth. And as much as he’s been an enthusiastic participant in the community’s response to the pandemic – “I wanted to be more than a retweet” –
he has also been handed the luxury of time to reflect.

There has been much, of late, for Pennington to process. About to turn 50 and separated from second wife Maia Dunphy, he has been grieving the loss of both parents within a couple of years, a blow that left him “staring into the abyss”.

These past months, he’s confronted a breadth of emotions, from gratitude for the solace he’s found from being among his own to torment and guilt over the death of mum Patricia in November and anger as he’s been very personally exposed to the consequences of failures to provide for frontline workers.

As deaths rose, Pennington was first asked to help highlight the help available to those affected by the coronavirus. But he says: “I don’t want to be the guy you go to to say ‘push this’, encourage everybody else and not be doing something yourself.”

The Steve Prescott Foundation, a charity set up by the St Helens rugby league star before his death from cancer, had joined forces with Blackbrook Rugby League Club, the local Eccleston Arms, and others to set up a shop and delivery service operating from the pub, efforts that would earn a national community hero award. “I rang, said what can I do, and 10am the following day I was out in the car delivering.”

He enlisted the help of his friend, Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe, who posted a video on social media with a helpline number and a warning to those receiving groceries from Pennington to “check the biscuits”.

Pennington worried that his involvement would look like self-promotion as film crews arrived in search of good news stories. “You want to highlight the charity but I’d rather just get on with the job.”

He speaks of the relief on people’s faces when food arrived, but adds: “It was more the engaging with them in conversations. You can’t know the value of a 10-minute chat. It’s the isolation – there’s going to be a massive psychological fallout from all this.”

While delivering to local organisations, including a food bank and homeless charity, Pennington discovered the hospice that cared for his father was a day away from closing through lack of PPE.

He is clear where he believes the responsibility lies. “It’s come close to breaking my heart, and I don’t say that for effect. The indifference and the lack of preparation, and what we knew was coming, and we did everything we were asked. We did protect our NHS, we did stay at home – and you couldn’t be arsed buying them basic masks, visors and protective gear. It’s beyond an insult.”

Community donations kept the hospice open, with Pennington personally providing PPE, fresh food and raising £2,000 selling prints of his art school sketches. He says: “My whole thing now is, let’s get through as best we can because I think what we’re learning over this is that we’re going to have to look after ourselves, because they’re not looking out for us.”

A mile and a half from where we talk is the junior school he attended in early childhood, a time he calls “idyllic”. What came next changed all that, and it’s here that Johnny Vegas took shape in the young Pennington’s mind, the imaginary friend helping him deal with the aftermath of an unhappy year at Catholic training college (“The priesthood,” he has said, “stole my childhood”), the struggle to fit back into school, and the financial facts of life in the 1980s (he saw father Laurence “drag scrap metal three miles to try and flog it”).

By the late 1990s, Pennington had channelled the misery of his teenage years into a raging, anarchic comedy act, part plea for sympathy, part pottery display (on stage he shaped a teapot on a pottery wheel, substituting Guinness for water), while becoming the youngest ever nominee for the coveted Perrier award at Edinburgh.

There were downsides to this effective, if messy form of therapy, not least for his major organs. Pennington needed drink, lots of it, to summon the spirit of Vegas or risk a failure of nerve. No surprise this affected his health (he ballooned to 18 stone), his first marriage, which ended in divorce, and his reputation – infamously defecating on stage (“the tiniest amount”), and accused of manhandling a female audience member. The last incident, alongside a determination to be the best father he could, helped bring an end to the live performing.

Pennington insists now: “Johnny always came from a good place. It wasn’t about aggressive comedy – it was a thing of: ‘Here’s a guy ranting because he’s been shat on by life, but he just wants to be loved.’’’

As he moved into the nation’s living rooms, he altered the tone – more family friendly – but not the name, initially because it was the one everybody knew. But in the years since, it has not always been easy to know where Pennington ends and Vegas begins, partly because he doesn’t seem entirely sure himself.

On which version will take the stage for the new gigs, now more likely next year, he says: “I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out what it is. If it’s a return to what I used to do, I write a show and then Johnny rips it apart.

Serving the St Helens community during lockdown. Main image: Andy Hollingworth

“As Michael, I know I’m capable of writing a well-constructed show that’s funny, but that minute’s walk to the mic, when your name’s announced, is a very different thing. As well as I’ve written it there’s every temptation to go: ‘I don’t think it’s funny. Johnny, do summat.’”

Loss of nerve is clearly a worry and the knowledge that the only time the old Johnny went on sober, at a comedy contest in 1995, he bombed.

“The thing is now, as Michael, drink is Dutch courage. Alcohol’s amazing if you can control it and you’re not suddenly stood on a table ruining somebody’s 21st.”

Stand-up was also a way of life. “Other comics can turn up, do the piece and go home. For me, it’s like the eye of a storm – it becomes all-encompassing.”

Crucially, Pennington has always maintained Johnny was an alter ego, “a very different thing to coming up with a comic character”. The danger is Johnny assuming control.

“I describe it as the Anthony Hopkins film, Magic [Hopkins plays a ventriloquist at the mercy of his dummy]. Can you get him back in the bag? Have you got any more control, once you let him out?”

On the other hand, “it’s tempting to be somebody who doesn’t apologise for anything. I can see,” he adds wryly, “why people are drawn to politics”.

Does it worry him? “Yes, it does worry me, because I’ve got another son now, who’s younger.”

That younger son, Tom, four, is based in Dublin with Dunphy. Pre-coronavirus, the comic divided much of his time between London, sharing parental responsibilities for A-level student Michael, and St Helens, but says: “With losing my parents, I’ve found London a very lonely place.

“There’s emotional things you don’t want to put on your children, but you need support. Coming back here I felt I had it.”

Lockdown has been “a very healing period”, a fact he finds himself apologising for. “It feels selfish to say this. I don’t think I could have this conversation with someone who’d lost somebody at this time, who hadn’t been able to see them off.”

Nevertheless, as much as he’s contributed to his hometown, he’s also gained.

“Normally I’d never have the opportunity to have the conversations I’ve had. I’ve delivered to people who knew my parents. There’s been something very therapeutic every day about going out and sharing with folk.”

Pennington was close to both parents and found life without either of them difficult to bear. “With my mum, it was hard because I thought I was just coming to terms with my dad. With both of them gone, you feel naked in the world.

“It sounds very dismissive to the rest of your family and everybody else; you don’t want your kids thinking they don’t count, and you don’t want your partner thinking they don’t, but it’s a completely unique relationship, isn’t it?

“If you’ve been fortunate enough to have that, of going ‘I’ll never be loved like that again’, it leaves this vacuum. You can fill it with duty, but it’s the sadness. I wasn’t expecting the denial, being angry with them for being gone, couldn’t look at photos.

“Then beating yourself up over stuff, but eventually you have to cut loose and go ‘you did what you thought was best at the time’. It keeps me awake at night but it’s part of the process.”

Slowly, he is finding a way through the grief. “It’s there putting that picture up in the house during lockdown, and smiling when I go past it. You do start to claw back the good stuff.”

That approaching 50th birthday, in September, has focused his mind on mortality, on being “a step closer, and you’ve witnessed death, and you have children. So I’ve started to think about death, not in a destructive way, more practically: is it time to take more care of yourself?”

Meanwhile, his family is clubbing together to buy him a kiln, enabling a return to his first love of pottery. He’s never quite got over being awarded a third in his ceramics degree, the sense of injustice when told his work “was only just good enough”.

“What I’d love after turning 50 is to have a studio and start making again. If I’m no better than when I got my degree I’m not bothered.

“I want a bit of quality of life. I feel I’ve been chasing my tail for 20-odd years between work and family spread out everywhere, trying to make relationships work, and everything else.”

London still provides most of the work. He is set to resume filming a series for Channel 4, following him and Bev as they collect a vintage bus he bought off eBay from Malta and turn it into a glamping vehicle. But he is increasingly convinced his days will end on Merseyside. “Yeah, if anything’s cemented that I think it’s this time up here now.

“I’ve always been lucky with St Helens. I remember somebody years ago going ‘you’re liked now but wait till you get big and resentment creeps in’ and I’ve never felt it. I’ve always been able to come home and feel like they’ve had my back, and in a business like this, it’s a lovely feeing.”

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