You've got to feel the fear

Johnny Vegas on Dickens, stand-up... and the cello

Not many stand-ups get to tackle both Dickens and Shakespeare in a year. And being overweight, lairy and seen as a perpetual drunk makes Johnny Vegas’s flirtation with the classics seem even more unlikely.

But following his roles as rag-and-bottle man Krook in Bleak House and Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Vegas is now returning to comedy – with a second series of BBC Three dope-dealing comedy Ideal, and a planned return to stand-up.

‘Doing Bleak House was terrifying,’ he said. ‘On my first day on set I mistakenly tried to do a cockney accent and even the people who love me no matter what, told me they hated it so I had to bin it quickly. Not a great start.’

But although Dickens might seem like a stretch for the 34-year-old comic, playing a shabby alcoholic didn’t prove all that difficult…

‘My forte is playing drunks down the ages,’ he says. ‘When my agent rings me about a role, I don't ask what the part is, but what century it's in. Now they're making a second series of Rome, I'll probably get a call asking if I can fiddle and drink at the same time.

‘I actually had gout when I went for the part of Krook. I limped into the audition with a bottle of cooking sherry – a Method approach that obviously worked.

‘It's very different to doing stand-up. My problem is I always feel like an interloper when I do serious drama. No one ever makes me feel that way, but it's my own paranoia coming out.

‘But when I'm a comic, I'm in charge. I know what works because it comes from the confidence of having been self-taught. But I don't have that same self belief when it comes to classical drama.’

However, he says he feels more at home acting in Ideal.

‘Ideal is a really intense shoot and I can be on set for hours at a time. With the dramas, I only had six-minute scenes in ten hour shoots, so I spent the other nine hours hanging around texting people who have real jobs and checking the door to see if anyone was walking past - but no one ever was because they had proper parts!

‘I'm in 95 per cent of the scenes in Ideal so the experience is very different. It's a relentless schedule. Three months of shooting, with 5.30am starts.

‘We had a week off in the middle of shooting this time, but as soon as everyone stopped, we all went down with six different types of flu and other unmentionable diseases.

‘Working on Ideal is a big laugh and nothing is sacred. Everyone takes the mickey. There's nothing vicious about it but no one escapes either.

‘It was brilliant to work with writer Graham Duff again, who is very open to ideas. What this actually means is he hasn't finished the scripts and is taking the organic approach - getting other people to finish it off for you.

‘Moz [the useless dope dealer] is a very comfortable character to play. I've got to know him really well now and I can predict how he might react in certain situations.

‘I feel sorry for him. He's trapped in his own little world which doesn't expand beyond the four walls of his flat - yet he can't leave the flat because he would lose business. It's a very sad situation."

‘This series, we have Jo Neary [playing Moz's new neighbour Judith] who is a brilliant addition to the cast. There are a lot of stand-ups in Ideal which I think shows in how the gags are timed and delivered. Someone like Seymour Mace [who plays both Craig and his twin brother Steve] is a huge stand-up presence.

‘All the cast are a lot of fun to work with but this could be down to their individual drink problems. I'm the smokescreen and, because I'm easily led, people think I'm the one with the problem and it's simply not true.’

‘I still get Elle Decoration every month and I started learning the cello just before Christmas. In fact, my tutor thinks I've absconded with his antique cello because I haven't been able to get to the last couple of lessons.

‘It's a very hard instrument to learn. I use very few muscles at the best of times and this uses muscles I didn't know I had. I think it's symptomatic of my midlife crisis. I can't afford a Porsche so the cello is the next best thing.

‘I've already suggested to Damon Albarn that there might be a role in Gorillaz for me when I get a bit better. I was a bit upset that he didn't immediately take me up on this.

‘Also I'm driving now. I passed my driving test at the second time of trying so I'm exploring “man” stuff like car navigation systems to help me see the world – and get out of St Helens.

‘My first driving test was a nightmare. It was going fine until the examiner decided to make small talk. Suddenly she was asking me what films I'd been in and I panicked and said,”Gladiator!”. I think she failed me for impersonating Russell Crowe.’

Rumour had it that Johnny was to be in the recent Celebrity Big Brother, but he said: ‘It was all lies – I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole. Unless my career goes on the skids that is. In which case I might be combining it with bad pantomimes in Widnes.

‘The main thing is I'm getting positive feedback for my acting so we'll see if any other interesting parts come up. But I also want to return to doing stand-up.

‘It's got to the point where I've become frightened of live audiences. This is a really telling sign that I need to go back and earn my place on the comedy circuit again.

‘You can't be a proper comic unless you've been out on stage and felt the fear.’

Ideal returns to BBC Three on March 14, and will be broadcast online a week before it is aired on TV

First published: February 24, 2006

Published: 22 Mar 2009

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.