Bleak House - press pack phase three
Starts Thursday 27 October on BBC ONE
Johnny Vegas plays Krook
Birds, booze and bullying are almost what audiences have come to expect from comedian Johnny Vegas, whether it's in his stand-up act, his BBC THREE series, Ideal, or his recent Channel 4 series, 18 Stone Of Idiot.
But viewers are about to see a completely different side to Johnny, as he becomes serious, period actor, playing Krook in Andrew Davies' adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, Bleak House.
The birds in question are the feathered variety and belong to Krook's lodger, Miss Flite (played by Pauline Collins); the booze is from the shop Krook owns, although you can't help thinking that he's drinking all his profits; and the bullying relates to almost anyone he comes into contact with who is of a lower social standing than himself.
Krook is a simple rag and bottle merchant who realises he's on to a good thing when he comes across some old love letters, written by Lady Dedlock – despite the fact that he can't read and has no idea what's in the letters.
"He's a pretty loathsome guy," says Johnny. "He's a bully, really. In some ways he's very much tipping his hat to the gentry. He's one of those people who becomes a weak, spineless man in the presence of anyone who's seemingly important.
"In his own little world of the bottle shop, though, he bullies Miss Flite over the rent and seems to take pleasure in making people feel uncomfortable.
"He's very unlikeable but it's lovely playing someone like that. He's somebody I would hope I could say I've got nothing in common with and there's a sort of wicked freedom to that."
"He's the cheapest-gin-in-town man," says Johnny about Krook, who is rarely seen without a gin in his hand. But Johnny wasn't swigging away on a bottle during filming. "It's just water. I don't think on an early shoot at the start of a long day they'd give me real gin!
"The character could go off on a tangent – I don't think singing Neil Diamond in Bleak House would go down very well!
"I'm actually very well behaved," he adds. "It's really funny, when you speak to directors they tell you that people have said to them beforehand, 'Ooh, Johnny Vegas…'
"They're almost disappointed when they see I'm really well behaved!"
Johnny reveals that he had his own secret weapon when trying to win the part of Krook: "I was quite lucky. I didn't have to read the part – I went in and had a chat with the director and the producer and a few days later I was offered the role.
"When I went for it, though, I had gout. I was just recovering from it so I was pretty much looking the part of Krook! I caught my reflection in a window and saw myself limping and thought I've nailed it, by accident!"
Although this isn't Johnny's first attempt at period acting – he played a music hall comedian in Andrew Davies' adaptation of Sarah Waters's Tipping The Velvet ("It was great, all I had to do was go out and be a rubbish comic – that's not too much of a stretch!") – it is his first proper foray into serious acting.
And with a cast including the likes of Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance, Timothy West, Denis Lawson, Pauline Collins, Alistair McGowan and Hugo Speer, Johnny admits that he was just a little awestruck.
"I find myself very intimidated around straight actors. I sort of have this guilt that they think I'm meddling in something in which I don't belong. Comedians can be very precious about comedy so I was expecting actors to be the same. But they all turned out to be massively supportive.
"I was nervous about meeting Charles Dance (who plays evil lawyer Tulkinghorn) but he jumped out of the car and said (adopts posh voice), 'Johnny bloody Vegas, how are you?' and I thought, thank God for that!
"I did a scene with him and I was terrified of his character – you genuinely feel that he's going to turn round and give you a good thrashing with the cane!
"Richard Harrington (Allan Woodcourt) and Burn Gorman (Guppy) became particularly good mates. In fact I got a text from Burn the other day saying, 'Have you seen the Radio Times cover? You look constipated!' And I've been out drinking with Richard on a few occasions. He's a damn bad influence," he laughs.
"I also had a lovely working relationship with Pauline Collins. She was really funny. And she's got a marvellous house! We dropped her off one night and I couldn't hide my jealousy – she had so many rooms! The working relationship was never the same after that!" he laughs.
"The invite's open to my place, if any of them are shooting in St Helen's. They don't shoot much period stuff up there, though!"
While Krook is obviously not the sharpest knife in the drawer, he's certainly a man of considerable wealth. He has the shop and the lodgings above and makes a good living out of collecting rent payments – when his lodgers pay up on time.
"My guess would be that his money would have to be something to do with inheritance. I wouldn't put it past him to have gone into business with someone and killed them!
"He's quite shy, he can't read and he's not very bright but his other senses are really tuned. He can sense things in other people and he knows when he's on to a good thing, even if he doesn't know what it is. He knows that there's something in the letters and that he can make something out of it. There's always money to be had."
Krook can count his friends on the fingers of one hand but the friend he reveals all his inner thoughts to is a four-legged one who can't answer back.
"Lady Jane is his confidante and she's pretty much in as bad a state as him. Looking from the cat's point of view, she's probably thinking, 'I could do better than him'!"
Lady Jane may say nothing but she makes her feelings well known to Krook and all his visitors and, says Johnny, she was rather well behaved.
"I find it an odd premise that you can train a cat because, in my experience, they pretty much do what they want. But by shaking another cat in front of her – a realistic looking (toy) one – we got some great reactions."
Krook finally gets his comeuppance when, in the words of Dickens, he "spontaneously combusts" – he basically burns from the inside out. Such a death was hardly commonplace in Victorian London but that's the fate that awaits the old drunk.
"It was really good fun filming that," laughs Johnny. "I didn't want to get too carried away with it. It's odd because he's dying but he's saying, 'Ooh, that's warm'. It seems to be comforting to him. It's almost as if he's going to Hell but Hell's coming to get him, and he seems to kind of like it. It seems like he's going to fit in."
Luckily, the death scene isn't too graphic – it is, after all, being shown pre-watershed – and Johnny admits that he can't wait to see his first on-screen demise: "I think a lot of it will be CGI (computer generated imagery)," he says.
"It's great when you're in something and you're really looking forward to seeing how they're going to do it.
"They deserve a slap on the back for this. It's quite a bold move, especially doing a production of this size. And I'm not including myself in this but the stellar cast that they've got is amazing – everyone's desperate to be involved in something like this.
"I must admit I've not read the book. But this is fantastic. Anything that doesn't dumb it down but makes it more accessible to people is doing a really good job in my eyes."