'My little girl was in tears when she read on Wikipedia that I'd been in prison': In a candid and moving interview, Johnny Vaughan reveals the heartache of his drugs conviction
21:38 GMT, 26 July 2012
Motormouth: Johnny Vaughan now has a daily two-hour drivetime radio show throughout the Olympics on Absolute Radio
He was one of Britain’s most popular radio personalities right up until the moment he abruptly left his 1 million job on his high-profile breakfast show.
But motormouth Johnny Vaughan is back, to host a daily two-hour drivetime show from Hyde Park in London during the Olympics. ‘I’ve got the right sort of face for radio,’ he says cheerfully.
Johnny quit London’s Capital FM in November after eight years at the helm. One minute he was holding forth at the microphone as usual, the next, he was gone. He didn’t even work out his notice.
There were all sorts of rumours and theories about why he left. He had heard his contract wasn’t being renewed, so he went before he was pushed, was one. At 45, he could no longer handle the energy-sapping early starts, was another.
So why did he leave ‘During the station’s last Summertime Ball at Wembley, I really did feel my age,’ he says.
‘Capital is a national, not just a London, brand and the breakfast show is their flagship programme, so after a while it became a bit like watching your dad dancing.
‘The timing was impeccable. I was reading about [rap artist] Tinchy Stryder being in hot water as he started a gig late and his fans were very tired, so they were late for school next day. Now I love Tinchy, but that says a lot about the age of people who listen to hit music.
‘We had the best ratings, and beat Radio 1 and Radio 2 in 2005. [Capital’s London audience was 1.33 million, Radio 2 was 1.23 million and Radio 1 had 784,000.]
‘It’s nice because it’s like an aristocrat handing on a title. You want to pass on more money and a stronger dynasty than you inherited.
‘That’s all you can do to show you’ve been a success, so it’s nice that Capital let me do that because there were times on the way when they could have got rid of me. But we parted on a high note.
‘Then look at Dave Berry, the DJ who took over from me — he’s good-looking and wears sharp suits. You can see the next generation come through and there’s nothing you can do to fight it.
‘But the nice thing about being a presenter is that it’s not like football where you hit 35 and you’re out — you just move sideways.’
Behind all the non-stop babble is a quiet, thoughtful man. He is searingly honest about the mistakes of his past — he has a conviction for drug dealing — and the long-term effect it has had on him and especially his wife, Antonia, and their children, Tabitha, 11, and eight-year-old Rafferty.
‘We flew into Miami for a family holiday in 2005. I’d recently filmed a show for the American Broadcasting Company there, so even though I had properly declared my drug conviction from 20 years earlier, I thought the working visa they had given me would be valid. But it had been a one-off for the show.
Family man: Johnny Vaughan on his wedding day to Antonia Davies in 1999
Happily married: Johnny Vaughan and his wife Antonia, left, and the couple arriving for The Prince's Trust reception in 2004
‘For the holiday trip, I was just an ordinary visitor, and because of my record, they wouldn’t let me in. My children were too young to understand and were crying by the luggage carousel as I was being escorted by armed guards back to the holding tank.
‘Later on, Tabitha read about me on Wikipedia and she was in tears again because she’d found out that I’d been to prison for drug dealing.
‘I couldn’t explain to her the ins and outs of it because she’s too young, but, rightly so, she’s warned all the time about the evil menace of drugs.
‘So my daughter was crying because suddenly it was the first card to fall in the adulation of her perfect Dad. It’s a big one and it’s awful and heart-breaking.’
Johnny takes full responsibility for landing himself in trouble with the law. A school friend had asked him if he had any drug connections and though Johnny, who was 22 at the time, said he didn’t, the next day he bumped into someone who said he could help.
He arranged a meeting at a service station on the M1. But it was a trap. Johnny was slammed against a wall by a policeman who told him: ‘You won’t be seeing sunshine again until you’re 36.’
The Big Breakfast: Johnny Vaughan's on-screen chemistry with Denise Van Outen saw the show's ratings soar from 300,000 to more than 500,000
He was given a four-year jail sentence for dealing cocaine, and served 25 months at Stocken Prison in Rutland.
‘That was a really bad thing, being jailed at 22,’ says Johnny. ‘Being released was the happiest moment of my life.
‘People don’t realise how bad prison is — they think it’s a holiday camp. In fact, it’s a paranoid, nasty, intimidating world with really bad people. It’s a world without intimacy or love.
‘To live apart from everyone you love, have them heart-broken around you and to get a tantalising glimpse of that world once a month during their visit is torturous. It felt like losing the right to live, and when you come out, my God, you don’t know you’re born.’
Johnny and Denise's Passport to Paradise: The pair went on to host other shows together
Johnny has since accepted his punishment. ‘At the time I thought it was unfair because, by comparison, I was this plastic gangster who didn’t know what he was doing,’ he says.
‘But I still made a choice instead of being brave and saying no, I couldn’t help get anyone any drugs. At the time I genuinely didn’t know what the drug involved, I really didn’t. What I got mixed up in was something illegal that destroys lives, and I was naive.
‘But I still had the choice, so the buck stops with me and I take responsibility. I basically knew it was against the law and no one is above the law. It’s as simple as that.
‘I used to have nightmares, but I don’t so much any more. But I worry about my children growing up trusting people too much, because they see strangers come up to me and are funny and sociable because of who I am. My wife says: “You’re so paranoid.” But my biggest worry is for my children, because I know there are terrifying creatures out there — that’s the worst thing.
‘There really are people who walk past houses, looking for an opening, those who watch a woman, assessing her regular route and those who look at children, thinking: “Can I take them away in the van” ’
After this rare moment of public reflection, Johnny is back to being flippant.
‘I’ve noticed that all the children at my school who behaved badly were vicars’ sons. I’m the son of an engineer and a psychotherapist, so you couldn’t have had a more square pair.
‘My sister and I were a shocking duo and must have caused them nightmares. So I set a bad example. My wife can say “Don’t end up like him,” as I lie in bed and snore.
‘My daughter says: “Please don’t go out to the pub again tonight, Dad.” And I say: “I’ve got to as I’m walking the dog.”
‘It’s what we men do — I have to pretend to walk the dog around the block, so I can go into the pub and attempt the quick crossword!’
Career aside, Johnny confesses that his life has moved up and down most scales. His education was divided between the exclusive Uppingham boarding school in Rutland and a North London state school.
His father, Randall, was comfortably off, running a Nottingham engineering firm that made machine tools until it went bankrupt when Johnny was 16.
‘My life has been horribly eclectic. Whenever I get down, I remember I’ve been through worse,’ he says.
‘My Dad is my hero. We lost everything and my parents split up at the same time. Dad could no longer afford the school fees, but I was allowed to stay on and he was still paying them ten years later. It was as if I had a scholarship, even though I wasn’t particularly bright!’
Johnny Vaughan later presented The Big Breakfast with Kelly Brook, pictured on her first day on the Channel 4 television programme
Johnny adds: ‘We went from living in a nice house to one that had an outside loo and not even an inside bathroom and he was on the dole. My parents were going to divorce anyway, but we couldn’t afford a house big enough for all of us.
‘At the time, my grandmother had died, so Mum inherited a bit of money and bought a tiny little cottage. My sister had to be in one house and me in another because there weren’t enough bedrooms for both of us.’
However, Johnny learned some survival skills from watching his father turn disaster into triumph. ‘It wasn’t Dad’s fault — his own father took all the money from the family business,’ he says. ‘But Dad was a good engineer and had a good reputation, which was how he was able to get back onto his feet quickly.
‘At the age of 45, about my age now, to lose everything and carry on was remarkable. It was awful and it did get him down, but he faced up to the challenge of it.
‘We had great times during the school holidays when we’d be working side by side in his shed, taking wire coat hangers from the dry cleaners and using them to make printed circuit board holders for Plessey. It was the first order he got to get him back on his feet.’
Johnny met Antonia, a costume designer, while working in a West London video shop and they married in 1999 after six years together.
Vaughan later went on to host the show with Liza Tarbuck – who he describes as 'brilliant'
‘I knew Antonia before I was jailed and she used to write to me while I was inside, but she was a model and zipping around the world,’ he says. ‘I had another girlfriend at the time and she was there for me when I got out, but it didn’t last because her parents thought I was the most vile person on the planet.
‘That’s another thing — a lot of my friends’ parents didn’t want me around because of the drugs thing. Dave Allen, the comedian, let me into his house because his son was a big pal of mine, otherwise I was persona non grata.
‘It was always surprising that my wife’s parents let me go round there considering she was quite the trophy bird and I was just the bloke from the video shop who’d been banged up. Mind you, her mother’s Australian and that’s where most convicts ended up, so genetically that probably makes two of us!’
Johnny’s entry into showbusiness was by chance after a friend invited him to hang around during the recording of the pilot episode of a TV series. He came to life on camera with his infectious, mate-next- door manner.
When he presented Channel 4’s the Big Breakfast for the first time in September 1997, he was a complete unknown. No one had successfully filled the gap left by the original presenters Chris Evans and Gaby Roslin. But within just three years, Johnny had become the hottest property in British TV.
His on-screen chemistry with co-presenter Denise Van Outen sent ratings soaring from 300,000 to more than 500,000.
Mingling with the stars: Johnny Vaughan with U2 band members Bono, Adam Clayton and The Edge after an interview at Capital Radio
‘Denise is funny like no woman I’ve ever worked with and very good at reining me in, which I need,’ he says.
‘She can tell the most revolting stories about herself and sometimes I think: “Jesus, I wouldn’t have admitted that!” But she doesn’t give a damn.’
When Denise left the Big Breakfast, the partnership with her replacement Kelly Brook failed to produce chemistry. She was replaced by Liza Tarbuck, before Denise returned again in 2000.
‘I loved working with Kelly before she was asked to leave. There was a problem with her reading the autocue, but we got the best figures we ever had when she was on — I guess people looked at her and listened to me!’ he laughs. ‘But I think Channel 4 lost their bottle because they were getting flak about her’.
After Denise appeared on his Capital breakfast show as a guest, Johnny was reunited with her as a co-host in a move to boost listening figures, but she left halfway through her contract in 2008 and was replaced by model Lisa Snowdon. The show rose in the ratings, taking the top spot.
‘Lisa was brilliant and the chemistry also worked with her because she doesn’t know how funny she is — she’s smart, but she sometimes lets little slip-ups get in there, but she can laugh at herself just like Denise can,’ he says.
But right now Johnny just can’t wait to get going with his Olympic show, interviewing show business stars alongside athletes.
‘To quote James Ellroy’s Dick Contino’s Blues: “You’ve got to play the music you love to an audience you respect.” This happened to me for eight glorious years at Capital, now I look forward to it happening at Absolute Radio during the Olympics,’ he says.
Johnny Vaughan Live from Hyde Park is on Absolute Radio every day from 5pm throughout the Olympics, starting today.