Known for his many comedy roles including the brilliant BBC sitcom Ideal, Benidorm and more recently Mr Stink, Johnny Vegas can now be found more behind the camera than in front of it, and has shown a real passion for directing. Some of you may already be familiar with some of the work he’s directed, such as his Little Cracker for Sky 1, Moving On, or the Billy Bragg video that’s all over the internet this week.
Johnny is back in the director’s chair for a one-off drama as part of Sky Arts HD’s Playhouse Presents season called Ragged. Based on the life of Ricky Tomlinson (The Royle Family) and in particular the two years he spent in prison for his involvement in the first-ever national workers’ strike, which took place in Shrewsbury in 1972.
Just before I got the chance to speak to him, Johnny was on This Morning talking to Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby and described the day as “like being on day release”. Why? Because he’s been busy writing his autobiography which he tells me will be out towards the end of the year in September.
Luckily for me, this ‘day release’ involved some time with me to talk about Ragged, which is a really great one-off drama for Sky Arts HD. We also discussed what else is happening in the world of Johnny Vegas, which yes, does involve his book. Here’s what he had to say…
Q First of all, congratulations on Ragged, I thought it was a great piece. How did the idea come about? Did Ricky (Tomlinson) approach you first? Tell us more…
Oh good. And no actually, I was in the pub with Andrew Lynch, who is a friend of Ricky’s and he did the original adaption of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists for Radio 4. Ever since we’ve been knocking on TV’s doors, different channels, trying to get an adaption of it made, obviously on TV, and getting no joy. Funnily enough, it was Ricky’s love of the book that originally drew us to do the original adaption, and Ricky (Tomlinson) was going to be in that, but then other work commitments meant he couldn’t do it. And after reading Ricky’s autobiography, I remember thinking – “there’s a real story here,” – I think for anybody who’s read the book (The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists), it does dictate your morals and give you a code for life.
We knew that Ricky had this ongoing struggle to get the paperwork released, and get to the bottom of why he was imprisoned. And more and more of that evidence is coming to light now. I was just saying earlier to somebody, Ricky’s campaign is ongoing, and he’s looking for closure. But for me, without hijacking Ricky’s story, my thinking was that it was about salvation and how the book gave him a focus for all this justifiable anger he had, at the system, how he’d been treated, life in general. So I wanted to use Ricky’s story but highlight how powerful the book can be. Especially for somebody in Ricky’s position.
So it was that. And it’s amazing that we were sat in the pub, having this notion of telling this story from Ricky’s point-of-view, and we rang Sky Arts and we had an answer within 35 minutes and they loved the idea! Which when you think how normally, it’s months and months knocking ideas backwards and forwards. It’s awful really, because when you get to the end of it you just go – “I’ve moved on now.”
Q Do you owe a lot of that to the Playhouse Presents series and Sky Arts as a channel?
Yeah, well this is Woolyback’s first TV production, and I was desperate to continue directing off the back of the Little Cracker and the Moving On episode. I wanted to do more of that, and as I’d already directed things for Sky I was hoping they would trust me to sort of, take the helm. So yeah, we just thought there was less chance of interference and I think Sky seem to be the channel at the minute that will take a punt on things.
Q Do you think Sky offer more creative freedom for an artist?
Yeah definitely, and just to go – “D’ya know what? It might work, it might not. But, heads out when they roll.” I think that within a series like that (Playhouse Presents), it’s something for years that myself and a friend Tony, have been moaning about the fact that that kind of ‘Playhouse Presents’ of one-off dramas don’t exist. I think there’s this kind of idea that – “It’s got to be a returning series. It’s got to be a returning series.”
It’s all about international sales, we can’t sell it to America if there’s not this amount of episodes, Or if you can’t guarantee that it’s going to run and run. Say something like The Office, Ricky knew when it was time to wrap it up, but then people are going – “But it’s a hit! It’s a hit!” I think there’s that notion that there’s no advantage to be had from a one-off. Yet creatively you’re going – “No. This is a story. It’s self-contained. There’s nowhere to go from here.”
So it’s great to have somebody go – “Yeah actually, we can afford to take the risk, and we want to, and you go out and tell that story.” And especially with the style in which we told it, it was quite stylised, with everything being shot within the cell. It was great, so them going – “This could work, it could be a dogs dinner, but go out and try it!” – Which is what anybody creative wants to hear. It’s really interesting actually, I was reading this piece in Time Out that said the stuff that the BBC would have been making, or should be making, is now being made on Sky.
Q So back to Ragged then, how was Ricky on set? Did he have any input at all in the final product?
He did. Do you know what? What was really good, and really nice, was that as soon as he read the script he was behind it 100%. He didn’t interfere, and I think it was really important for Stephen Walters to be able to talk to him. Ricky was brilliant with Stephen because I would hate to play a version of somebody else, with them then being on the same set as me.
Q Stephen Walters plays a younger Ricky Tomlinson in Ragged, how did his casting come about?
It was Beverley Dixon, the producer. She’s got a really really good eye for casting. It’s a bit weird for me because it’s a bit like going – “What’s your 10 favourite albums?” – and you go “Oh now you’ve asked me, I can’t think of a single one.” Whereas Bev, comes up with these brilliant suggestions, and we hadn’t really thought about anybody else, and Bev just went – “Well, what about Stephen?” And he had the beard at the time, so already I thought – “Oh this could be great.” – and then when I saw the image I thought – “Oh this could work.” What was really nice was that I sat down and had a chat with Stephen, and straight away you know that you’re both aiming to the same thing, and it’s somebody you can work with.
And I think for me, I’m really aware of the fact that I’ve no sort of traditional drama background, no RADA training or anything like that. So I’m always wary of somebody coming in and going – “Well what do you know? You’re not even a trained actor so what are you doing instructing other actors how to go about their craft?” – and it wasn’t like that with Stephen. He’s such an astute guy and I’m very into getting this right, but for all the right reasons. So we knew we were onto a winner. But yeah, I think for him it was brilliant to have Ricky on set to go – “What was going through your mind here?” – and he made that very sensible decision of not doing an impression of Ricky.
Q Let’s talk about Chris Fulford too, explain to us a bit about his characters?
Well, it’s the same with Chris Fulford as well. In the end we thought if we start putting him in moustaches, wigs and everything else it’s going to look a bit funny. Chris had this subtlety with all the characters, because we tried to shoot it all in sequence, which meant he could be playing two or three different characters in a day.
The notion being, that all of Chris’ characters represent the system, the justice system, or life – everything Ricky is battling against. And we wanted one person to represent the face of that and the fact that being in solitary, Ricky would have been very limited as to the number of people he saw.
Q So we must talk about Billy Bragg. The music video you directed is brilliant and he provides the music for Ragged too right?
Oh thanks mate, I’m chuffed with that, and how it turned out. That was the thing with Ragged that straight away I could hear Billy’s music in my head. We said to him – “We haven’t got a lot of money, but… would you?” – and he was so generous how he just gave us access to the catalogue and he came in and played some instrumentals of the tracks. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a few things we messed about with in there, when he’s in the cell, and the two tracks that are playing on the radio, they were two tracks written by Stephen Walters. So what we had was this little thing going on of – “Is the radio on? Or is Ricky just listening to himself singing through the radio? Is it in his head?”.
Then at the end of that, after what he did for us, he got back to us and said – “Is there any chance you might be able to come up with an idea for this video?” It’s a big thing to shoot this video for a guy who is a working class hero, well, a hero in general.
But it came together really well, and for something we shot in a day it cut together nice, it felt really nice, but I won’t lie on that one, it was nice to get the sort of thumbs up yesterday when it went viral.
The nice thing is hearing people say – “It’s nice to see a video that matches the song.” – so Juliette, Billy’s partner said she knew a couple of people who could be in it, but I thought we could do more with it, then this idea of the self-help group that I had just worked out really nice. It’s one of those things isn’t it? You can plan stuff for months and months, and then something like that with no budget, we just turned up and did it and you go – “God that’s one of the best things I’ve done!” (Laughs).
Q What’s next for you then?
Well, like I say, I want to get the book out of the way – get my life back! I want to direct, that is my thing now. Off the back of the book I may well be going up to Edinburgh to do the old Johnny’s 97 show, the original stand-up show.
Because the book finishes in that period. Basically, the premise of the book is that it starts off as me, Michael Pennington, and Johnny, who I sort of thought was a character that I created for stand-up, and all the shit that you bury across the years. So it’s a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde thing, because there’s two different texts in the book, there’s Johnny and myself (Michael), and then by the end of the book Johnny has taken over and fundamentally, Michael Pennington ceases to exist, in most people’s eyes, and to myself.
And there’s loads more things in the pipeline but I can’t think, because you know what, I’ve got tunnel vision on the book and I definitely want to find projects for myself, I just love directing, it feels like I’ve been trying bits and bobs for years, and since stand-up I feel like I’ve got my confidence back in what I do.
Well thanks very much Johnny, it’s been a pleasure talking to you and best of luck with Ragged, the book and whatever else you’ve got coming up.
In fact, that’ how busy I’ve been, I’ve been trying for like four or five months to sit down with Graham (Duff) and find out what’s happening on that, but he’s locked away, I’m locked away but it’ll be nice for us all to get ‘closure’ (laughs).
And then we chatted for a while about how good Ideal was, which if you’ve not watched it, then you really should catch up, it’s one of the best things BBC Three have ever done.
Ragged is on Thursday 6th June at 9:30pm on Sky Arts HD and if you haven’t seen that Billy Bragg video yet, then you should watch it… NOW.