Desperately seeking salvation

Vegas's tour of US churches tells us more about his own quest for happiness

<strong>Johnny Vegas'

I turned on Johnny Vegas's Guide to . . . Evangelical Christianity (11 September, 11.05pm) under the illusion that it was a guide for us, the audience. Not so. It really was Johnny Vegas's guide, as in:

"Here you go, Johnny. We'll fly you to Nevada, let you loose in Las Vegas for a bit to emphasise just how sinful you are, and then abandon you to a lot of smiling born-agains with giant teeth, because we know that: a) you used to be quite keen on God and even joined a seminary and b) you are, as you acknowledge, miserable-bordering-on-depressed, you drink far too much and it makes you feel like shit, and you're desperate to change your life.

"So, see what you make of it all, Johnny. If you fancy salvation, fantastic. Hello, Jesus! You can move to Colorado Springs, the so-called 'Evangelical Vatican', and attend a church the size of the Home Office three times a day for the rest of your life, cranberry juice all the way. If not, no worries: the beers are on Channel 4."

You'll notice that the above is in speech marks. Four months into this job, and I'm adept at imagining the cynical pitches that producers make to commissioning editors and celebrity presenters alike. Or at least I think I am. Who knows? What I'm trying to say is that what the documentary lacked in facts, it made up for with wobbly close-ups of Vegas's kindly but monstrously swollen face, an approach that was moving, but also painful to watch. For all his sweetness, for all his bluster, it's clear that Vegas is slowly killing himself with fags and booze, and that he knows this, but is powerless to do much about it.

Rather than baiting the born-agains, he genuinely hoped to find solace in their embrace, and you ached for him when, for a few brief hours, he did. But it was worse when, at the end of the film, he staggered around in the Nevada sun, pink and drunk and rambling. I didn't want Vegas to take up the guitar, become a homophobe and get himself a set of rodenty new porcelains; but nor do I want him to go on being unhappy and ill. What kind of a deal was this show offering? From my point of view, if not that of the good folk of Colorado Springs, he was damned if he did, and damned if he didn't.

So what did we learn of the American evangelicals? The usual stuff: that their churches are vast and carpeted; that they think the Grand Canyon was made by God in a more than usually magisterial creative moment; that the way to avoid sleeping with your girlfriend before you get married to her is to remember, constantly, that she is a daughter of the Lord. And what of Vegas, a 36-year-old comedian and actor from St Helens? Though he often tied himself up in rhetorical knots, he was also insightful. He explained that his desire to be a priest (he joined a seminary twice, at 11 and at 24) was born of a need to please others, notably his father, a devout Catholic - a thought that stayed with me once he arrived in Colorado Springs, where new churches sprout like warts. The harder the people he met smiled at him - people like Terry MacAlmon, America's most famous touring "worship leader" - the more you sensed his desire to embrace their Lord, much as he might praise their pot pies or admire their gleaming SUVs. But there was more to it than that. After a chat with a pastor, Vegas announced: "That was life-changing, that!"

I don't believe that he was only trying to make them happy. He was hoping for the slate to be wiped clean: to wake up the next day and have no need of tranquillising Guinness and daytime television. So when, soon afterwards, you saw him selecting kitsch religious gifts for his son (a model of Jesus skiing, anyone?) before his flight home, his laughter was not entirely convincing. I was relieved that he hadn't fallen for the pastor's spiel. But there are worse things than sophistry, aren't there?

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Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq