Homecoming for St Helens’ favourite son

Johnny Vegas, also known by his real name Michael Pennington, pictured with fans at a book reading session promoting his autobiography, Becoming Johnny Vegas.
Johnny Vegas, also known by his real name Michael Pennington, pictured with fans at a book reading session promoting his autobiography, Becoming Johnny Vegas.

Thoughtful, softly spoken and self-deprecating are not terms you would typically associate with larger-than-life comedian Johnny Vegas.

But that’s exactly what his creator, Michael Pennington, was as he chatted with fellow “local legend” Frank Cottrell Boyce in front of a captivated audience at St Helens Town Hall on Monday evening.

As well as reading extracts from his new book, Becoming Johnny Vegas, Michael spoke with touching honesty about his “blissful” childhood growing up in Thatto Heath, his favourite teacher at West Park and the origins of Johnny Vegas.

But why choose now to put pen to paper?

“In the last few years I’ve been doing different work and, after becoming a dad and life settling down a bit, I felt I had enough perspective and confidence to sit down and write this book,” said the 42-year-old.

“I had gone from being Michael to Johnny Vegas for so long that in a lot of people’s eyes he had control over me. So I decided to go right to the roots of Johnny’s takeover bid after Edinburgh 1997 and it’s quite an emotional journey.

“It’s a good job I wrote the book and not Johnny though. Can you imagine him writing a book? It would be all crayons and threads... in fact that would probably be the title!”

Watched by, among others, Mayor of St Helens Andy Bowden, former teachers, schoolmates and Coronation Street stars Chris Gascoyne and Charlie Condou - aka Peter Barlow and Marcus Dent - it was already standing room only by the time Michael and screenwriter Frank took to the stage.

Speaking next to a screen showing images from his childhood, Michael also told of his time at priest school.

He said: “I grew up in a parish which felt wonderful to belong to. But I didn’t quite know what I was letting myself in for at priest school and it was a real wrench for me to go away from my home.

“I struggled with the regime and was desperately homesick.”

He also joked how after his first kiss with a girl “the Vatican didn’t stand a chance!”

And he saved a special mention for one of his former teachers at West Park, Rowena Rowlands.

He said: “She was incredibly beautiful and incredibly bohemian - she was the thinking man’s crumpet! She was also the first teacher who had a real impact on me.

“Despite me desperately wanting to just blend into the background she simply wouldn’t let me.”