“Don’t lock me up after this!” came an impassioned request, delivered in that distinctive St Helens tone familiar to many who’ve turned on a TV these past dozen years or so.
Besides, from Benidorm, Happiness and Ideal to Dead Man Weds, Shooting Stars and QI, there have been a fair few appearances on the small screen.
But he need not have worried about the reaction to his recent public show of self-analysis, for on the whole there’s been a positive response to various outings by this celebrated comic (or entertainer, as he prefers) in support of his autobiography.
That said, those who have got to know him over the years (including Chris Evans on The One Show) tend to say the book’s author is not the man they thought they know.
That’s chiefly because that public persona is a character called Johnny Vegas, while the one chatting on stage at Chorley Little Theatre with locally-based comedian and celebrated juggler Steve Royle was actually Michael Pennington.
Michael was the main man too, even if his name doesn’t grace the front of the autobiography. Johnny’s just his better-known alter-ego. And while there was a lot of talk of split personalities, it all made perfect sense when he explained it.
“It’s really weird being on stage and not being ‘ammered as well,” he confided, after Steve introduced him to a near sell-out audience at this wonderfully-intimate venue, as Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life faded out in the background.
The general rule for me is to beware gigs with an ‘in conversation with’ handle, for fear of something that might leave you squirming in your seat.
Add the premise that this was likely to involve a showbusiness regular baring his soul, and it all suggested something a tad too personal.
Yet somehow we avoided that, despite the subject matter, his co-host proving to be a perfect psychiatrist as well as a potential future chat-show host.
Steve carried on where Frank Cottrell Boyce, the celebrated Liverpudlian children’s author and screenwriter, left off the previous night in Michael’s hometown, St Helens, during another ‘in conversation’ and signing event.
And while it was a cosy set, complete with matching armchairs for Michael and Steve, this was no clichéd tears-of-a-clown type confessional, although I’m sure we all learned a lot more about what drives someone to make a living at stand-up.
As he put it himself, explaining the relationship between Michael and Johnny: “It’s always felt like I was his writer and his PR person. I did the cleaning up at gigs and apologising at venues.”
One of the areas where the story of Michael (I’ll try and call him that from here on in) differs from that you might expect for someone so acerbic on stage was the fact that he painted such a happy picture of his Thatto Heath childhood.
And yet – while it would wind up Johnny, who would much prefer the grim memories – somehow Michael avoided an over-sentimental ‘we were poor, but happy’ stand.
That’s something you might not have expected, having seen his Mad Johnny persona over the years, and his co-host, a regular on the same circuit over the years, seemed genuinely surprised too.
But while Johnny is, for want of better words, somewhat brash, vulgar and rude, Michael proved to be every bit the genuine nice bloke next door.
After a quick introduction and friendly banter, he was invited to read a few passages from his book, offering snapshots of that childhood, from not being able to sleep for weeks after watching Salem’s Lot to concerns about his mum being part-vampire because of her allergy to sunlight, and believing one of his friends really was half-werewolf, having explained: “I don’t turn into a full wolf, I just get a craving for sausages and chops or owt else meaty when it’s a full moon’.
There’s plenty more of that in the book, and while queuing to have ours signed after this show, a few of us were delving into the hardback version of Being Johnny, courtesy of the promoter, Chorley independent book store Ebb and Flo, included as part of the ticket price.
It’s a cracking read too, and although time was against our hosts, Michael and Steve at least gave us a taste of many of the themes covered within, including those halcyon days in St Helens and his seminary boarding-school stay in Upholland, Wigan.
If you don’t know the story, Michael was training to be a priest, having decided at a tender age that his future was in the Catholic church, and sent away to take that further. And perhaps that’s where you grew to understand more about how Johnny evolved, his alter-ego created out of a coping mechanism.
In short, Michael didn’t want to let his family and neighbours down when it slowly dawned on him that this wasn’t the life he hoped it would be. Yet by the time he’d switched to a state school, the constant ribbings had made their mark, inspiring his inner rebellion to give rise to a more outspoken version of himself, in turn becoming the public figure we got to know so well.
And yet despite all of that, Michael stressed a genuine love and respect for his Dad, who assisted his move to the seminary and later his state school. While Johnny gave his Dad a hard time in his anecdotes, Michael’s quick to pay his respects.
He found ‘no joy’ in the faith and in practising it, comparing it to a spell in borstal. Yet there were some tragic-comic moments during that spell, not least the tale of the celebration meal when the priests (mistakenly) left out a decanter of sherry and he got drunk for the first time. Later that day, he played his part in a nine-hole golf tournament while under the influence, having ‘turned into an 11-year-old pub bull-shitter’ as he put it.
It’s pointless going into too deep an explanation here, but it’s all in the book. And while Michael and Steve’s 75-minute laid-back chat was a pleasure to witness, it only really scratched the surface.
Despite that earlier plea not to be locked up, Michael was happy to talk about the voices he heard over the years – not just Johnny, but also those asking where his keys were or if he needed any Gaviscon, an illuminating insight into the life of a self-confessed hypochondriac.
Then he delved into his disastrous track record with women, and included a brilliant story involving his Dad, a porn mag and the bathroom radiator. Buy the book and read the rest yourself.
We got through a lot too, including his Middlesex University art and ceramics studies (‘You wouldn’t believe it, but before Strongbow my brain worked at a normal capacity’) and first days as a stand-up, under the handle Mad Dog Mike Pennington.
One great anecdote involves the night he risked a public hanging on Merseyside with a false bingo game, luring an until-then disinterested crowd by reading out random numbers until he had their attention. Again, his story illustrates just where Michael left off and Johnny took over in a live situation.
He said: “They all went berserk when they realised they’d been had. It’s like coming out of a fever when Johnny’s finished. He’s put the mic down. He’s been dancing around with his kecks rounds his ankles, singing Love on the Rocks by Neil Diamond, denying them bingo, then just left the room, saying you’ve been a wonderful audience.”
There were lots of fresh laughs on the night of his talk too, not least when one bounder somehow legged his way up on to the stage to get his book signed at the end, to avoid the queues.
For sheer cheek, he got away with it, Michael – after a couple of outbursts from Johnny – taking an age to sign his book from both himself and JV, as he did with everyone else.
As it turned out, that proved a shrewd move, for the book-signing pace didn’t increase from there, each punter sent home happy after a golden chance of not just two signatures but also a memory to treasure.
He finally left the venue at 3am, five and a half hours after he started signing, even then taking home a few of those left by punters who had to catch their last train or bus. To his credit, they were returned – beautifully signed – to Diane Gunning, the owner of Ebb & Flo the following day. And I can vouch for that, having picked up one myself.
So what did we learn from the experience? That intimate gigs can actually work, that Johnny Vegas was so much more than just a run-of-the-mill comic character, and that Michael Pennington is a downright good bloke.
* Thanks to Diane Gunning at Ebb & Flo, Gillibrand Street, Chorley, and Ian Robinson at Chorley Little Theatre for their help with this feature