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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 13:47 GMT
Johnny Vegas: Veteran newcomer
The cast of Happiness
Vegas (second left) has won an award for Happiness
BBC News Online looks at the rise to fame of comedian Johnny Vegas - who won the Royal Television Society's best newcomer award on Tuesday night.

At first sight, best newcomer seems an odd award for the Royal Television Society to have bestowed upon Johnny Vegas for his role in BBC Two's Happiness.

Vegas seems to be everywhere these days.

The past few years have seen him nominated for Golden Rose of Montreux television awards for Happiness and for edgy comedy Attention Scum, with fellow comedian Simon Munnery.

He has also starred in the BBC drama Staying Up, and starred in Radio 4's adaptation of Marcel Pagnol's The Flump.

Johnny Vegas
Switched on: Vegas with the ITV Digital monkey

Vegas is a pundit on BBC Two's I Love The... nostalgia-fests and appears on panel games including Never Mind the Buzzcocks and They Think It's All Over.

Currently, he is fronting ITV Digital's advertising campaign, where he stars with a knitted monkey.

The impression of Vegas as something of an old-stager is reinforced by his endurance as one of the country's top stand-up comedians.

He burst on to the comedy scene in 1997, winning the critics' award at the Edinburgh Festival and being nominated for the Perrier prize.

Johnny Vegas
Acting is just one string to Vegas's bow
But there's no doubt that, in a world whose biggest names often have careers of mayfly-like brevity, the self-described "fat bloke" has shown remarkable staying power.

'From the heart'

Rob Newman has described Vegas as "the greatest live stand-up I have ever seen".

His act, Newman, says, is "like a cry from the heart".

Johnny Vegas, 31, began life as Michael Pennington, in the Lancashire town of St Helens, where he still lives.

Born into a strongly Catholic family, he went through an extremely religious phase during his early adolescence that culminated in a period training for the priesthood at seminary school.

His vocation wavered after around 18 months, and Pennington returned to St Helens.

Paul Merton and Johnny Vegas
Vegas has appeared on the BBC's Room 101
After school, he studied ceramics at Middlesex University. Later he would go on to become probably the first stand-up comedian to take to the stage armed with a potter's wheel.

After university, he did bar work as he tried to establish himself on the comedy circuit.

In 1996, Pennington was heckling an act at the Citadel arts centre in St Helens in 1996 when he was invited to see if he could do any better.

He picked up the comedic gauntlet - and the seed that would become Johnny Vegas was sown.

Characters

Vegas's rise to prominence has happened in parallel with the ascent of character-based comedy.

But there is an important difference between Vegas and the likes of Steve Coogan, whose Alan Partridge character was one of the comic icons of the 1990s.

With Coogan/Partridge, the division between the comedian and the character is absolute.

ITV Digital test card
Vegas even appears on ITV Digital's test card
In Vegas's case, the relationship is a lot more blurred - the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, self-deprecating figure you see on the stage or screen is partly artificial, partly real.

The mix makes for a comedy that is braver than that of the out-and-out character comedians, who are, in the end, hiding behind their masks.

Johnny Vegas's mask has slipped, and we glimpse the man beneath.

See also:

20 Mar 02 | TV and Radio
BBC Two dominates TV awards
20 Mar 02 | TV and Radio
RTS 2002: The winners
19 Mar 02 | TV and Radio
Bafta TV Awards 2002: The Nominees
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