Johnny Vegas is showing me what remains of his cooker’s extractor hood. Even over Zoom, I can see it is kaput, with one of its edges scorched and folded out like paper. The cause? An explosion in his kitchen – which he now hails as a mark of his dedication to Macmillan Cancer Support, one of the charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas appeal.
The comedian had been making a cheesecake for the charity’s bake sale when it went very wrong: a boiling tin of caramel exploded, ripping through the cooker hood. “There was this hot gooey mess all over the ceiling, which I’ve only just managed to get repainted,” he says, with a chuckle.
For more than two decades, the portly, husky-voiced Lancastrian has been a staple of TV comedy panel shows such as QI and 8 out of 10 Cats, delighting audiences with his surreal comedic rants in his strained, raspy voice.
Now 50 and far slimmer than he was in his 30s, Vegas (real name Michael Pennington) had been taking on comic acting roles, featuring in Still Open All Hours and Benidorm. But then Covid-19 hit, and his TV work dried up in lockdown. So he retreated home, to St Helens, Merseyside, with his eldest son, 17-year-old Michael, whom he shares with ex-wife, Catherine Donnelly. It was almost as great a disaster as his cack-handed attempt at baking.
“It was two alpha males stuck in a house together,” says Vegas. “Suddenly, I’m thinking: ‘He’s big enough to take me...’”
The pair tried to keep the cabin fever at bay with outdoorsy activities, which worked to a point. “We just didn’t talk to each other while we went fishing,” he says. “I think we needed a break from each other.” Vegas describes it as a “relief” when Michael offered to go back to his mum’s house.
If lockdown meant too much time with one son, it led to too little time with his youngest, Tom, 5, who is spending the pandemic in Dublin with his mother, Irish broadcaster and writer Maia Dunphy; Vegas hasn’t seen him since March, and missed his first day of school. This separation has been “especially tough”, says Vegas. He doesn’t go into detail about relations between him and Dunphy – whom he describes as having been “incredible” with their son – but things now seem more cordial since the pair split last year following seven years of marriage.
When Vegas turned 50 in September, instead of the big family party that he had planned, things were much more low-key: he took himself to a ceramics fair, following a decades-long love of pottery, which he studied at Middlesex University. Friends and family clubbed together to buy him a kiln, which is being installed in his garden in St Helens.
“It was one of them birthdays more for contemplation than for having a knees-up,” he says. “Fifty felt a big thing.” But, as his midlife crisis came in his 30s, he says, “everything else has been a bonus”.
A quiet lockdown has been important for him emotionally, following the loss in recent years of both his parents. “It gave me some proper time to grieve,” he says. He admits he hadn’t previously thought too much about his loss, as he was always busy and “expected to be Johnny”. “I can’t say it’s all been good, but it did give me that opportunity to really think about what I was going through with grieving,” he says.
His mother, Patricia, died last year, but it was his father Laurence’s death in 2017 that first introduced him to the work of cancer-care charity Macmillan. Laurence had been diagnosed with terminal bladder cancer, and was looked after at home by family and Macmillan nurses.
Vegas says the charity not only gave his father incredible medical support, they were also a critical emotional crutch for the entire family. “Macmillan, in the most gentle and compassionate way, came in and refereed us as a family,” he says.
The nurses helped to keep the family focused on the wellbeing of Laurence, and smooth over any disagreements about the right course of action. “They gave us dignity,” says Vegas. “I don’t know what we would have done without them.”
He describes one confusing night when he sat up with his gravely ill father. “He kept wanting to go to the toilet, and I was like: ‘You’ve just been, you don’t need to go, you’re fine.’ I almost wanted to restrain him for his own sake.” After chatting to a Macmillan nurse the next day, Vegas realised his mistake – the cancer in his father’s bladder meant he could no longer accurately judge his need to go to the loo. “Without them informing me that that’s why it’s happening, I could have ended up being more bombastic,” he says.
Vegas says that, without the charity, he would have far more regrets about how the family dealt with his father’s death. There are still things he wishes he could take back. “I wonder: ‘Does my dad think that we accepted his diagnosis quite easily?’ It wasn’t that – you’re just trying to tell yourself not to fall apart in front of him.”
In lockdown, Vegas has clearly made progress: a once-empty wall in his home has now been turned into a family picture gallery, crammed with black-and-white photos of his parents. This is a big step for Vegas, who said he couldn’t look at a picture of his dad “for a long time” after his death. “I was mad at him for going, [even though] obviously it’s not his fault and it wasn’t his choice.”
Vegas makes clear that his grieving is far from over. His parents still feel very close by, especially his mother, whose ashes are in his kitchen. “She’s here, nagging me, telling me to get stuff done,” he laughs.
It was his love for his family – particularly his sons – that encouraged Vegas to take his health more seriously. He was diagnosed with gout a decade ago, and told by doctors that he would need to take medication every day for life. “I wasn’t a fan of the idea of that,” he says, so instead decided to take better care of himself and lose weight. “I have children, and you start thinking you’d like to be around a bit longer for them.”
Over the past couple of years, Vegas has shed a reported five stone, thanks to what he calls a “lifestyle change”, rather than a diet. His number one strategy? “To eat less cheese.”
The bigger struggle was giving up smoking, which he had hoped to have quit by his 50th birthday. This hasn’t quite happened, what with all the “sitting around in lockdown – but I’ve been cutting back severely”. He says that he “genuinely regrets” ever starting smoking, and pleads with his eldest son not to “be stupid” and start.
Vegas hopes that the whole family will be back together for Christmas, although he understands this will be trickier than ever this year. He says he’s “sort of nervous to make plans” until the last-minute, in case new travel restrictions prevent him from seeing his youngest son in Dublin.
“I could be having Christmas on my own,” he laughs. “It will just be me, eating a turkey leg on Zoom.”
Macmillan Cancer Support is one of four charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Refuge, Carers UK and Cruse Bereavement Care. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/appeal or call 0151 284 1927