Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Johnny Vegas Television Show

Don't know how long it'll be there, but someone has recently uploaded The Johnny Vegas Television Show to youtube.

Originally broadcast on Channel 4 in 1998, it's a more satisfying and successful attempt to put the character into a dramatic situation than Who's Ready For Ice Cream? (2003).

Who's Ready ... is initially enjoyable but wears out its welcome. The premise for the later show is that Johnny is sort-of-kidnapped and forced back to his comedic roots at Edinburgh, his management fearing he has become complacent with telly fame and money.

Trouble is, the bullying of the "Celebrity Fixer" (above) and the psycho comic flatmate engaged to re-rootsify him becomes rather samey and predictable over the length of the film. And the idea that Johnny is a wholly passive victim of his management's whims (hasn't TV given him some sense of his own power?) doesn't quite convince.

It's a frustrating watch at times because Vegas's character can fit into a convincing storyline, as the earlier Johnny Vegas Television Show demonstrates. I initially wrote here that this show was intended as a prequel to his success, but in fact it's explicitly set at the time of its broadcast (1998), so for the purposes of the film his triumph in Edinburgh the year before never happened: this has him as a pathetic, alcoholic loser in thrall to the memory of his shining hour at Skegness Butlins, boring anyone within earshot about the purity of his work as an entertainer.

The show has several "real" people improvising with Johnny, including Adrian Manfredi, a genuine ice cream man continually pestered in the local park by a penniless Vegas. He reappears in Who's Ready For Ice Cream? as his sponsor for Edinburgh (hence the title of the feature and the supposed stage show), though there is no reference to this earlier acquaintance.

Unlike The Johnny Vegas Television Show, Who's Ready ... is available on DVD. The excerpts from actual standup performances, both as part of the film and as extras, are the most impressive thing: that knife edge between the shambolic and the inspired, familiar to anyone who has seen him in the flesh.

And if we're getting to be in the company of Johnny Vegas for ninety minutes (or whatever) does a storyline matter all that much? Well, yes: once we're aware that this is a situation contrived to make us laugh then that undoes the illusion, central to his live performance, that this comedian is pulling out his entrails - and that Channel Four show is funny because you never stop believing you are watching a truly desperate but driven man.

It also has to be said that the limits of Manfredi's improv skills are more noticeable in Who's Ready For Ice Cream? In the earlier programme he simply has to react to Johnny winding him up most of the time. And there is a more complex and profound conclusion in the Television Show: Johnny remains an alcoholic loser with dreams of returning to his Butlins glory days but is at least the recipient of kindness from others (a benign park keeper) and remains safely cushioned in his own drunkeness and dreams.

I have read that The Johnny Vegas Television Show was a pilot for an intended series which didn't get made. I don't know the reason, although I'm inclined to think that that one-off show is quite satisfying on its own. What else would subsequent episodes have involved? Would we see him inching forward to a revival of his fortunes and a success greater even than those golden days at Skegness? Or would the series have been essentially cyclical, in best sitcom tradition: variations on what we saw in that pilot programme, perhaps with a different group of people to annoy every week?

The fact that his bubble isn't burst at the end does suggest potential for more, in best sitcom-dreamer fashion, and even if the essence of Vegas has already been displayed in the pilot - well, you could say the same of that Comedy Playhouse episode of what became the long-running Steptoe and Son. But how exactly would subsequent episodes of that hoped-for Vegas series have played out and how would the Channel 4 audience have reacted?

Watching it again after some time, I'm aware of a few more things. One is how sharp the editing is: I wonder how much raw footage there was of the improv material? But I also feel that Manfredi's limitations do show towards the end, even in this first appearance.

 When (as above) he is tolerating Johnny out of boredom earlier on - "It's a slow day," as Johnny's character has enough self-knowledge to observe - that seems subtler and funnier than the repetitive dialogue towards the end when Johnny is pleading with him to form a partnership only marginally less fantastic than Blanche Dubois' plans to run a shop with her sister Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire.

There seems more potential for future storylines in the relationship with the park keeper (below), who seems to take a paternal interest in Johnny, observing that he is  "a crackin' lad" - when he hasn't had a drink.I wonder just how far that parkie's tolerance could have been stretched over six (or whatever) episodes? We'll never know - but at least Johnny is there to be enjoyed, if that's the word, in all his glorious delusion in this one-off attempt to capture the essence of Vegas.

A few days before its first broadcast Ben Thompson wrote a very good article in The Independent about The Johnny Vegas Television Show here, hailing it as "the most instantly legendary TV comedy moment since the first episode of Father Ted."In the article Michael Pennington makes clear the compassion implied in his portrayal of the character:
"There's somebody like Johnny in everybody's community," Pennington insists. "This person talking to you who you think is a nutter quite possibly was Butlins boy number one at some point - all he wanted to do was make people happy and he's been denied that."

Would it be fair to suggest there might be a political element to all of this? "I'd like to think it's a commentary, without being a lecture."

Perhaps this is why, where other comedians talk in terms of being true to comic traditions ... Pennington talks about his work in terms of being true to the spirit of people in pubs. He stopped watching other people's comedy when he started to do his own.
And what Thompson writes earlier in the piece about Vegas's stage act - "He reflects people's anxiety back at them through the distorting mirror of his own desperation" - could equally apply to the persona on display in the programme. There's a suggestion that the show could be a kind of prequel to Vegas's theatre success: 
"This is the dark years," Pennington explains, "the bit that never gets explained."
So I suppose Who's Ready For Ice Cream?, whatever its faults, could be seen as the matching bookend: portraits of Johnny before success and after. Could it simply be that any experience following success is necessarily less universal?

 Stewart Lee talks about making Who's Ready for Ice Cream? here.

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