What is talent? And what is British? You may not expect these considerations to arise when watching the Opportunity Knocks de nos jours, where the interests of Simon Cowell and his judges disincline towards the philosophical. But this year’s Britain’s Got Talent was different. When the shock-haired, hi-vis clown Viggo Venn gamboled his way to first prize, which includes a cash award of £250,000, boos were heard from the crowd and hackles raised on social media. He’s Norwegian! And he’s not displaying a skill, he’s just fooling around!
“I think it’s hilarious,” says Venn now. “I’m not British, I don’t have a talent, and I won Britain’s Got Talent.”
Reader, Viggo is being demure. He has talent in abundance, even if it’s a talent for fooling around. For Venn is no amateur, no red-nosed dilettante plucked from obscurity. “Some people think I started in January,” he says, over coffee in London on his first day off since winning the BGT crown. But comedy-watchers have delighted in the 34-year-old’s work for years, with sidekick (and fellow graduate of elite clown school Ecole Philippe Gaulier) Zach Zucker, in his own shows, and as part of a booming UK clown community that includes his partner Julia Masli. He’s been a fixture on the festival circuit for almost a decade, and he “gigged every day for nine months after Covid ended, because I’d missed it so much”.
That’s why he was match-fit, with a hi-vis routine (one vest hidden under another vest, hidden under another vest) perfected in pubs nationwide, when Britain’s Got Talent came calling. Speaking to the press after victory, Venn claimed to have entered the show for a joke. “That was mischievous,” he admits, “but also a little bit true. My whole act is a joke, no?” He went into the audition with a red vest obscured under his hi-vis vests, to display when he got red-buzzed off the show. “I thought just that clip, of me being voted off and having a red vest, would be great for my career.”
That wasn’t the half of it. “The day before the final, in rehearsal, the other acts started taking photos with me. The production team too. Then I saw on TikTok and Instagram that people everywhere were dancing with hi-vis vests on. And I was like, ‘Something bigger than me is happening. It’s out of my control, but I love it.’”
There’s a degree to which Venn’s BGT audition was entirely serious, however. As he explains: “I was making £10 per gig in London.” He told a recent interviewer that he’d bought no new clothes for six years. “And look at me now!” he says today. “New pants! Can you write that, ‘He looks good now’?” It turns out that being one of UK comedy’s best-loved kooks is not usually a lucrative affair. “I was just doing festivals and festivals, spending all my money to get to the next place – for years. I tried to live in the UK but I wasn’t really making a living here at all.”
Is that a clown thing? There’s an established path for standups, from solo work to radio to TV panel shows and beyond. But clowns? Their ramshackle, inextricably live, often silent (some say creepy) shtick is less easily accommodated by the mainstream. “Clown is the lowest form of entertainment,” says Venn. “It goes opera singer, actor, standup, and then you have magician, stripper and then clown at the bottom.”
Venn’s love of this lowly art form stems from when he was an unhappy economics student in Norway, encountering the great American act Dr Brown on his first trip to the Edinburgh fringe. “I was like, ‘Woah!’ I was laughing so much.” In the teeth of parental disapproval, he quit economics and went to clown school. Ten years on, Dr Brown (AKA Phil Burgers) is a friend, and Viggo’s mum was sitting beaming in the audience at the Britain’s Got Talent final.
Having wooed Simon Cowell across his three appearances, threading those separate acts into an unlikely narrative arc, Venn now has the entertainment world at his feet. Will this football fan (giddy about a recent meeting with Arsenal star and compatriot Martin Odegaard) hoof it away, or play keepie-up? “I’ve said ‘no’ to a lot of things,” he says. He’s turned down every commercial approach apart from a partnership with Workwear Express, who now sell Viggo-branded vests for charity. He’s about to play a comedy festival in northern Norway for only £200, “because my grandmother is from there. So I’m still making stupid decisions.” He’s having conversations with TV people, about plugging the 30-year gap left by Mr Bean. And he’s doing two shows in Edinburgh, one at midnight, and one – not common, this, among recent BGT winners – in a yurt.
Then there’s his UK tour, titled British Comedian – booked off the back of TV glory, and the one thing Venn is uncomplicatedly thrilled about. “It’s been my dream for so long. And some of the places we’re playing are soooo cool. Philippe talked at clown school about the need to ‘remember the people of Paris, up on the balcony’. I never thought I’d be able to play to audiences on more than one floor.” He beams at me, a clown whose dreams have come true. “Before Britain’s Got Talent, all I wanted was to play in front of as many people as I could. And I still do.”