I first spoke to Mike Pennington over the phone on my first day as comedy editor at Manchester’s late, lamented what’s on guide, CityLife. I was getting to grips with the comedy listings and in those days, in among the four computers set aside for freelancers, was the phone that rang if you called the general CityLife number. Mike – by those days better known as Johnny – was calling pretending to be his own nephew to complain about an interview from the previous issue written by my comedy editor predecessor, the talented scriptwriter Danny Brocklehurst, who had been a little creative when he’d failed to track Vegas down for an interview.
On the third call Pennington/Vegas came clean and I was able to introduce myself as the new comedy editor and tell him that he needn’t worry, we’d do something again soon. He was pleased and to confirm the clean slate told me we should hook up and he’d buy me a drink. It wasn’t too long before he fulfilled that promise. At the time he was a big comedy name in Manchester, having performed solo shows for a couple of years, but it was just before he became a household name. Back in those days as he gigged about on the Manchester circuit and beyond it was to be the first of many shared pints.
Reading his autobiography I can see now that it was mainly Johnny Vegas rather than Mike Pennington whom I was talking to on that phone. Mike probably wouldn’t have dared call.
Becoming Johnny Vegas is no ordinary autobiography. In it, Pennington makes a strong distinction between himself and his wild alter ego and stage persona Vegas, from the outset using a different typeface to express the two different voices. Also lurking in a separate typeface is ‘Doctor Death’, Pennington’s paranoid hypochondriac side which rears up in the early hours and is obsessed with terminal illness, a voice that was drowned out when he drank. With the alcohol came the Vegas persona but what was to truly fuel Vegas was the reaction of a live audience; whether that audience was fellow students in his student union bar, the punters in the Brown Edge pub in St Helens where he worked or the comedy club crowd where Vegas became fully realised.
The book begins with Pennington aged ten and moves through the events and experiences that he believes eventually gave birth to his own Frankenstein’s monster, Vegas: his days at the seminary after an early decision to become a Catholic priest, his school days, college where he discovered his love of art and his ceramics degree at Middlesex University where Vegas first took hold.
One of the most poignant aspects to this book is Pennington’s depiction of the loving and constant relationship with his family and, in particular, the dynamic between him and his father, a wise, gentle soul whom I had the pleasure of meeting when CityLife (in the form of me and a photographer) commandeered the Penningtons’ front room for a photo shoot.
In the final third of the book, Vegas is unleashed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1997 where his show was nominated for the Perrier newcomer award and where Pennington confesses Vegas ‘took over.’
Witnessing Vegas live was an incredible experience; he’d fly by the seat of his flares with little in the way of back up material. Not that he appeared to need it, he was a spectacle of fearless daring, visceral, uninhibited and unhinged yet ultimately full of pathos, always managing to be poignant and unbelievably funny at the same time. Over the years I’ve seen him try to rob the theatre bar mid-gig, lead numerous sing-a-longs, attempt to seduce many a female audience member and of course get covered in clay from his on stage potter’s wheel demo. He’d frequently push the boundary of audience banter to the point of tense discomfort, one time probing a guy in the audience to reveal who his wank bank fantasy was while the poor fella was sat next to his girlfriend. Nevertheless, it was utterly compelling to watch. Reading the book you realise, particularly in the early days, how easily it could go wrong but certainly by the point in his career I saw him gig on a regular basis it did so very rarely did – and not one gig went by without at least one moment of sheer genius in there. Vegas is/was undoubtedly one of the best there has ever been and I’ve seen plenty.
Becoming Johnny Vegas reads like Vegas’ swansong, indeed there have been only a handful of live gigs in the last few years. I find myself torn by that prospect; glad that a friend is content, more settled in his own skin and much happier spending his career acting and writing but also, selfishly, sad that we may not see the like of Vegas in full throttle again.
Becoming Johnny Vegas is available to buy now