I remember the buzz around Johnny Vegas at the Edinburgh fringe in 1997. Everyone knew a star was being born – but a star of what, exactly? No one had ever seen anything quite like this overweight northerner, screaming and sobbing at his audience, raging at life’s injustices – then breaking off for another bout at his potter’s wheel. Was this comedy, ceramics or a Lancastrian on the verge of a breakdown?
But the oddity – that defiance of categories – couldn’t sustain a career. A handful of years after becoming the first newcomer to be nominated for the Edinburgh comedy award, Vegas went mainstream as a man with a monkey sidekick in an ad campaign for the pay-TV service ITV Digital. People shouted “moonkeh” (St Helens accent not optional) at him in the street. He became – and remains – a well-loved household name, albeit for a brand of (hoarse, boozy) comedy that part-obscures what made him extraordinary in the first place.
You wouldn’t have guessed that Vegas was once an art student and keen ceramicist, from his TV career, at least until recent guest slots on The Great Pottery Throwdown and Grayson Perry’s Art Club. But that’s about to change with his new Channel 4 documentary, his most personal, intimate – and aesthetically minded – work in a quarter of a century of telly. Carry On Glamping recounts the star’s experience of setting up his own luxury campsite, from the drunken purchase of a knackered Maltese bus, via the renovation of half a dozen vintage vehicles, to the commissioning of a sculpture. “The journey [the show] traces is a genuine one,” says Vegas, Zooming from St Helens. “It’s been a proper three-year journey. It wasn’t just an opportunity to make telly.”
It does, however, make wonderful telly: funny, packed with surprisingly dramatic incident, and openly sentimental. Chaperoned throughout by his assistant and best friend, Bev, Vegas oversees every element.
“I’d always loved design,” he says now. “It never, never leaves you. I know I went off in a different direction – maybe I was bitter at how I was graded.” (Vegas – then still plain old Michael Pennington – got a third class art and ceramics degree at Middlesex University.) It’s not as if he expected his man-with-a-stuffed-monkey act to catch on. “It made me famous,” he recalls. “Everything changed. I went to the supermarket and everyone was looking at me. For the bizarrest reason. Who’d have known this daft lad with a puppet would become public property?”
But if Vegas’s aesthetic sensibility got buried under fame, sitcoms and tabloid tales of booze and breakups, the glamping project – and his experience of lockdown – has brought it all back to the surface. “I’ve started going into my [pottery] studio again and just enjoying my time there. Just for me. It’s not for exhibition. I’ve just made Britain’s ugliest breadbin. Genuinely.”
His artistic rebirth might not have made such touching viewing, though, if the series were not also a chronicle of his professional ennui. “My career’s all about ranting,” he complains to Bev in one scene. “And I don’t want to rant any more. I want to embrace.” That’s where the vintage buses come in. “They have got me back in touch with appreciating gentler things,” says Vegas now. “Things that bring me joy.” Being working class, he says, he has always been grateful for his career. “It’s a great gift to be able to bring joy to others. But as you get older, you do go: but am I happy?”
Today he is, chatting cheerfully, while Bev heckles off-camera. But he wasn’t when the documentary was being filmed. This is the other secret to Carry On Glamping’s striking intimacy: Vegas lost his mum during the filming, a year after his dad died. She appears in episode one, when Johnny tells her he’s named his Maltese bus, the jewel in the campsite crown, Patricia, after her. But by episode two, she has gone – from this point, the series isn’t just about Vegas’s glampsite, it traces his grief, too.
“Doing anything factual on telly is very different because there’s a lot more of Michael [as opposed to Johnny] in it,” says Vegas. One scene finds him fishing alone, processing his loss, despairing of his life. “I don’t like having a camera on me at those moments. But I’m glad they captured that, and it’s not just, ‘Hey, it’s me from the TV doing up a bus!’” Other scenes show him welling up with regret (he wells up a lot in Carry On Glamping) because his dad, a camper van enthusiast, didn’t live to see his campsite. “I wish to God I could have taken him to the field and gone: ‘Do you know why this is here? Because of the way you raised me. Because you raised me to believe in myself.’”
Self-belief and a newfound carpe-diem spirit are Vegas’s real prizes at the end of the series. He has done more than open a campsite: he has proved a point to himself (and to all his pals, who gather in the first episode to pour cold water on his plans). In the televised dialogue with his mum, mother and son lament that the Pennington family “have always worked for other people – not one of us has ever run a business”. With the glampsite, Vegas says, “I wanted to break the chain. I want to have a business outside show business. Not to make money, to prove a point. Don’t sit on these ideas for years. Because somebody else does it, and you can end up quite bitter. Do it now. If not now, when?”
We circle back to Vegas’s professional regrets. “I’ve had years of frustration,” he says, “where I’ve felt that I’m taking good ideas to commissioning editors, and they’re afraid to take a chance on anything original. It’s like they want something based on a previous success. But if you’ve been to art school, you don’t want to copy anyone else.” Even over Zoom, his disgruntlement can be keenly felt. “Don’t bring me in, pay me lip service, tell me how much you love me,” says Vegas, “and that you don’t want me to work with anyone else. Because I can’t take that to the bank.”
The flipside to these frustrations is the double act he’s forging with the actor Sian Gibson (best known for Car Share). “There are some people,” says Vegas, “who reinvigorate you.” Their amateur PI duo, Terry and Gemma in the Dial M for Middlesbrough murder-mystery spoofs, return this month with the three-part Murder, They Hope. But even with Gibson, Vegas was vexed recently when an idea they had cultivated for a new show was gazumped by another series “with pretty much the same title. And you go: well, I had the idea and I sat on it! So what’s nice with the glampsite is, is ‘look what you can achieve when you get off your arse and don’t just talk about it’.”
Whether Vegas will apply this new philosophy to his showbiz career remains to be seen. For now – still in lockdown, still grieving – his focus is elsewhere. “I’ve reconnected with my community,” he says. “I’ve never had this amount of time in my own town.” In the first lockdown, Vegas delivered food parcels to St Helens’ elderly and vulnerable people. “And I’d never in such a long time felt that I valued myself, that I was doing something practical to help. That I wasn’t just being …” He pauses, “I hate the word celebrity – it just defines you as one thing: this selfish person who wants to be on telly.”
Vegas has stayed in St Helens ever since. “I love being back here,” he says. “It’s restored something. It’s been a big part of the healing process of grief.” There’s a pragmatic dimension: lockdown “has had a massive impact on me financially,” he says, “which is why I’ve had to talk to my son about letting our place go in London.” Vegas has two sons: Michael, 18, with his first wife, Kitty Donnelly, and Tom, five, with his second, Maia Dunphy, from whom he separated last year for the second time. He is trying to coax Michael up to St Helens because, “I feel like here, I’m accepted as Mike Pennington. When I leave St Helens, it’s like, you just want to see Johnny.”
The split between Vegas’s dual personalities was memorably depicted in his 2013 autobiography, Becoming Johnny Vegas, and still runs deep. Michael is the sensitive son of St Helens from a loving family, scarred by an adolescent wrong turn when he briefly began, then dropped out of, training for the priesthood. Johnny is the splenetic, tanked-up showbiz monster who channelled Michael’s quiet disappointments into anti-comedy gold.
So does this homecoming mean Michael has turned his back on Johnny for good? “It’s a good question,” he tells me. On the one hand, “with every passing year, I feel more distant from him. I need him less and less”. On the other, “I did [ITV2’s] Celebrity Juice on Friday and went straight back into Johnny mode. Too eager to please, and mad.”
“I don’t want to lay him off because I’m grateful for what he did for me. But it’s that thing of opening Pandora’s box. Can you put the genie back in the bottle? Or: would I be brave enough to do standup as Michael? I don’t think I would be.”
He has a chance to find out this autumn because Johnny is off on a live tour. He feels some trepidation – comedy has changed since Johnny’s wild days, and there is perhaps less tolerance now for the insensitivities that characterise his act. (In 2008, Vegas was accused, in this newspaper, of “gratuitously groping” a female audience member onstage. The woman later told Vegas’s lawyers that she went along with the joke willingly and did not feel intimidated or abused.)
“Do you rein it in? Do you cut your cloth to fit expectations? With social media, anything you say can be taken out of context, isolated and posted. You’d be an idiot not to be mindful. But then, how do you push the boundaries if you’re fearful of knocking something over?”
The last time he considered touring as Johnny, it was to dramatise his autobiography; to enact the love-hate relationship between Michael and his alter ego. It never happened, but maybe audiences in the autumn will see something similar? “I don’t know whether people will come along and go, ‘That’s not the Johnny I remember.’ But I can’t be the Johnny they remember.” Vegas recently turned 50. “Time’s moved on,” he says. “We all move on and mature. I want to show what and who I am right now.”
First, however, there is real life to attend to. Emerging from the Covid era won’t be plain sailing, he says. Yes, this enthusiastic boozer is cautiously returning to the pub. But it feels awkward. “There was one night after the first lockdown where I really fancied a pint in a beer garden. I went in, and this lass ran up, grabbed me round the neck and took a selfie. I’m like: ‘What are you doing?!’ One: social distancing. And two: please don’t post that picture because it looks like I’m taking the mickey.”
Then there’s the mental health fallout. “I had my moments of agoraphobia, when even going to the shop became a massive thing.” Our collective recovery “will be like decompressing as a deep-sea diver,” he says. “We can’t just say: ‘Now your health isn’t at risk, everyone’s fine.’ Cos they won’t be.” Happy to report, Vegas’s physical health is, well, Covid-proof, he claims. “I have a lot of things to get sorted,” he tells me, puffing on a ciggie. “I’m waiting to get a sinus lift done. I’ve got to get my teeth done. But mainly, on the physical side, I think Covid looked at me and thought: ‘He’s doing a good enough job himself. Let’s not waste our time on ’im!’”
Then there’s his glampsite which will open for bookings when the series is launched – on his mum’s birthday, by a poignant coincidence. “When we went to see the first edit, I’m so glad Bev said to me, ‘You do remember that your mum’s in this first episode?’ Because it was quite a big thing to watch back.
“I never watch myself back,” he says. “I don’t like to. But this is one of the first things I’ve liked myself in – maybe cos Bev’s there to stop me being a complete idiot. But I’m proud of it. I don’t think it’s being on TV for the sake of being on TV. It follows a genuine story, a genuine moment in my life, and I’m really proud of it.”
Johnny Vegas: Carry On Glamping is on Channel 4, Wednesdays from 5 May. Murder, They Hope starts on Saturday 8 May on Gold.