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The Hardest Working Man In Show Business? Craig Charles Talks To Tootal Blog

Your list of credits on Wikipedia is the longest we’ve have ever seen: Actor, comedian, author, poet, television presenter and DJ. Do you ever take time off?

Not really. It’s all about time management. I’ve got very good at sleeping in cars. I’ve got a driver, a pillow and a blanket; I just get in the back of the car and sleep all the way to the next place. I don’t even know I’m travelling. Which is quite good…

I’ve actually gone on stage and said “Hello” to the wrong country. I do a lot of ski festivals. We did Andorra this year, we did Meribel, we did Bulgaria; that’s just the Skis. Then we did Croatia, Australia, Ibiza, Majorca… it’s quite nice though, to travel and play music. The other day, I come home after I’d finished the radio show and I said to my 14-year old daughter, “I’m really tired”. She said, “Dad, playing music and talking nonsense isn’t really work, is it?” I felt like grounding her! I don’t really see it as work; I see it as fun. I’m lucky; I feel as though I get invited to all these really cool parties and I get to choose the music.

If you had a business card you’re not going to fit all that under job title. What’s it going to say?

Chocolate Love Monkey. That’s my wife’s pet name for me; I don’t know how P.C. it is but she calls me her Chocolate Love Monkey.

One of your first breaks came when you climbed onstage at a Teardrop Explodes gig. What’s your recollection of that evening?

I was 15 or 16, and they’d just bought out Kilimanjaro. And ‘Reward’ was at the top of the charts. They did these four nights at The Temple, this club in Liverpool. I heard them turn on the speakers and all that, and I jumped up with this poem;

He’s really into the music scene / No one’s been where he’s been /He saw the Pistols at the Hundred Club / He f***ed a girlfriend of a UK Sub / ‘Cause he’s really into the music scene,

He told me Strummer was a queer / Said he’d bought Siouxsie a beer / When he mentions Ian Curtis well he always sheds a tear / ‘Cause he’s really into the music scene,

Taught Pete Wylie all he knows / Used to manage The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes / know a celebrity because he knows loads / He’s really into the music scene,

What’s his name I hear you shout / I can’t say he’ll sue if word gets out / But I’ll tell you something to give you hope / It begins with Julian and ends in Cope.

And then I just went, “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Teardrop Explodes!” And I jumped off the stage, and they came on, faces like thunder!

You were subsequently in a few bands yourself.

Craig Charles meets The Screaming Eagle of Soul: With the late, great Charles Bradley.

Yes, I was in a band called Watt 4, with Roag Best. I was 14, 15. We used to rehearse in The Casbah, which is the first place The Beatles played; a coffee shop in West Derby. It was decorated by The Beatles and that’s all still there; it’s worth a fortune. Mona owned it, Pete Best’s mum. Neil Aspinall and Mona had an affair; and Mo had Roag, so he’s kind of Pete’s half-brother. Roag was the drummer in the band; I played keys. And Pete used to be always hovering around. It was quite weird being steeped in that Beatles history from a very early age.

I was in there for a while but we were shite, and nothing happened. Then I was in a band called Shades Of Grey. And a really cool band called The Lawnmower, who did, “Ride your pony, get on your pony and ride”; all that kind of stuff. So, yeah, I’ve done a lot of music.

Any unfulfilled ambitions in that area?

Not really. I used to write all the lyrics and stuff like that. I got to the stage where the bands kept breaking up, and I ended up with a surfeit or lyrics and a deficit of musicians, so I kind of re-jigged them and turned them into poems, and that’s how my poetry career started.

Where you actually signed to Acid Jazz Records at one point?

I was, the album never came out. Eddie Piller phoned me up the other day, and said he’s found some of the tapes; the tapes got stolen. That’s a real lost, forgotten album, that. I was really proud of the work. And Eddie says he’s found a track called ‘Handgun’, which was way before The Sopranos; “Handgun, handgun, handgun. Put your hands on your head and give me all your money”. Very similar to the Alabama 3 track but years before.

These days you’re a fixture on national radio. Is it right that one of your first radio appearances was a John Peel session?

The Red Wedge Comedy Tour, 1986: “Ooh, a little bit of politics there”.

Yes, I did two John Peel sessions. I did one in 1983, and one the year after, ’84. It was featured in John Peel’s Festive Fifty. I was, what, eighteen? So, that was a proud moment. There was a track on it, a kind of Reggae infused track, called ‘Party Night’ which Peel used to really get into.

Then I did the Red Wedge comedy tour; me, Skint Video, Mark Miwurdz and an all girl troupe called Sensible Footwear. We used to have meetings at Red Wedge with Billy Bragg and Paul Weller. It was about trying to give Socialist musicians and artists a platform to express their work because it was all “Thatcher’s Britain” at the time. It was quite nice to be involved in the early days of that, sort of, agitation, I suppose. I was doing that Red Wedge comedy tour when Saturday Night Live started; Ben Elton, you know, “Ooh, a little bit of politics there”. Fry and Laurie, and Harry Enfield. And I became a regular on that; ‘Angry Young Man’ stuff.

I remember I used to have a Wendy Dagworthy jacket that I wore on all the shows. I’d love a scarf made out of that now. I do that a lot; I see things and think, “That would make a nice scarf”.

Your main “occupations” all attract a fanatical audience. Is it the fanatic in you that attracts you in the first place?

I don’t know; I’ve just been very lucky. I’ve managed to appeal to a lot of different demographics. You’ve got your ‘Corrie’ demographic, you’ve got your Red Dwarf, Robot Wars, Takeshi’s Castle, now The Gadget Show. Then the Funk & Soul Show crowd is completely different; so I suppose if you work hard enough and you do so many things, and they’re not shite, you can build up a following that way.

In Red Dwarf: Back To Earth, Dave Lister visits the set of Coronation Street, where he meets the actor Craig Charles. To quote The Happy Mondays, that must have “twisted your melon”.

Two Worlds Collide: Red Dwarf Back To Earth visits Coronation Street (Photo: © Dave TV)

I did twist me melon; it was such a weird thing. And my mate Simon Gregson, who plays Steve McDonald, we got him into the show as well. I don’t know how they pulled it off. I thought the storyline was brilliant; it was a bit Corrie Meets Blade Runner, really. The Red Dwarf cast arrive back on earth, and they find out they’re actually characters in a sitcom, and unless the writer writes new episodes they’re going to cease to exist. We go off to find the actors who play us, and we end up on Coronation Street looking for me. Walking into The Rovers as Lister was just so bizarre, it’s like two worlds colliding. That’s a very special memory. It was really fun to film; I thought it was a great story.

Let’s talk about style. Can you remember the first time you were allowed to buy your own clothes?

My Mum said I could buy a Budgie Jacket. I had a black and white one, with a Penny Round collar. I actually saw one online the other day but it was too small for me. It was a proper 1972 one, as well. My Mum used to be a seamstress, and she’d make a lot of clothes for us. We’d have the six-button waistband Birmingham Bags, with pockets wide enough to put an LP sleeve in. And before platforms it was stack heels. I had an Afro; I looked like a little Michael Jackson, to be honest.

Where did your love of Tootal scarves start?

Just call him Scarf Ace: Craig Charles in Bristol, 2016.

I always liked that Carnaby Street, Sixties Dandy look. The Proper Mod, High Fashion look. Everyone seemed to be wearing these scarves. I thought, “Where do you get a scarf like that?” I think it might have been Dean Rudland who said, “That’s a Tootal scarf”. And then I did a bit of research into Tootal, and I know it’s been going for hundreds of years, and all that kind of stuff. Proper, lovely silk, and a lovely feel to it. So, that’s how my love affair began, so much so that Lister in Red Dwarf wears Tootal scarves all the time now. Tootal might have been going for hundreds of years but three million years into the future, it’s still around. Which is quite cool.

Was there much music in the home when you were a child?

Yeah, my dad came over to England in about 1958. He was a Merchant Seaman, and he missed his boat back; he was in Holland, and because he had a British Guyanese passport, instead of sending him to Guyana they sent him to Britain. He ended up at Liverpool Dock with a bag full of records and a pocket full of change. When most of Liverpool was listening to The Beatles in our house we were listening to Harry Belafonte, and Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding; Motown, Stax, Philadelphia and Miami Soul. I suppose I kind of grew up in a parallel universe in Liverpool. We weren’t into Beat music – you know, The Kinks and The Who – we were into what has become the golden era of Black American music, and that’s what I grew up listening to.

What about the first record you bought?

The first record I bought was the Bay City Rollers. What can I say? My Mum made the trousers; tartan stripes down the side and tartan cuffs at the bottom. “Bye bye, baby, baby, don’t cry, baby”. I must have been 8 or 9, something like that.

When did you start collecting records?

Scrubbed Up Nicely: Revisiting the Probe Records site, Button Street, Liverpool L2.

I started hanging out in Probe Records, in Liverpool. It was when Pete Burns used to work behind the counter. Adam & The Ants road crew used to hang out at Probe, as well, with their ‘Ant Music For Sex People’ tattoos. And Geoff (Davies, owner) took me under his wing, and that’s when I started really getting into music more seriously. I reverse engineered my way into Funk and Soul, really, because I was really into Led Zeppelin. When Houses Of The Holy came out, I thought it was a brilliant album. Then I got Led Zep 1 through 4, and I’d be playing it and me Dad would go, “Him steal that!” He introduced me to John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters and B.B. King, and he’d say, “There’s that lick”.

When Parliament / Funkadelic started I really got into George Clinton and P-Funk. “Wants To Get Funked Up; Can You Imagine Doobie In Your Funk? P-Funk; Uncut Funk; The Bomb.” That opened up a whole world for me, you know? Funkadelic’s ‘Maggot Brain’ is just amazing; I saw them play it live at Glastonbury, and that Eddie Hazel lead guitar lick, man… it goes on for about five minutes and it was mind blowing.

What about the first time you DJ-ed?

When Kiss FM stopped being a Pirate station Gordon Mac offered me a job as the breakfast DJ.  The first time I went out playing live I had a friend called Simon Hodge with me, who’d be at the back telling me what to do. I didn’t start mixing for years but now I mix it all up; now I do it all myself. Back in the day I’d just be a selector because I used to like David Rodigan, and people like that; people who could just give you a selection of music that would go through the night. A lot of Northern Soul DJs are like that; you can’t really mix Northern Soul, to be honest.

The Craig Charles Funk & Soul Show on the road.

We’ve kind of created this genre where its music you know in a way you’ve never heard it before. That’s where all the remixes come in, and stuff like that. We’re trying to take the golden era of Black American music and make it relevant to a modern dancefloor, and that means getting it to the 18 to 25 year olds. My show is not for purists; snobs who want to listen to stuff on the right label, with the right catalogue number, blah, blah, blah; that’s not what we do. We bring a party, and we try and package it in a way that makes it relevant to a modern dancefloor. That’s why there are hardly any men of my age in the audience; it’s generally young people. A lot of the stuff I play has been recorded now, mixed now and we want to make it alive for the next generation; it’s not a history lesson.

John Peel famously kept a record box with his personal favourite, ‘save in the event of fire’ 7-inch singles. What’s in your own personal “can’t live without ‘em” box?

I’m kind of into album experiences more than 7-inch singles. I love the idea of, I suppose, the Black response to the Summer Of Love, 1967. When Black bands took off their suits, stopped the syncopated dancing, grew out their Afros, started wearing beads and flares; Psychedelic Soul. I’d definitely have What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life, Hot Buttered Soul by Isaac Hayes, The Undisputed Truth, The Main Ingredient, then Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, The Chi-Lites, that kind of stuff.

Then the modern stuff; I like the new Allergies album, I think they’re really cool. I love Smoove & Turrell; when you go and see them it’s like a stag night has just arrived in town, it’s crazy. I really like Cookin’ On 3 Burners, who were over from Australia recently and played with me in Manchester. Ivan (from CO3B) has got a label called Choi Records, and he’s put out some really cool stuff.

I’m actually doing a project with Cookin’ On 3 Burners. I wrote these epic poems, which I did with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. We did two so far, we did Hansel & Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood; they’re about 45 minutes long. I’ve done the orchestral version of them, Iain Farrington wrote the music, but now I’m going to do a Funk & Soul version, with Cookin’ On 3 Burners doing the music.

You already have your own Fantasy Funk Band, with has featured some amazing talents. If time and money were no object who would be in your ultimate line-up?

Ooh… I suppose Clyde Stubblefield, or Bernard Purdie on the drums. Let them rotate; one might be doing a session somewhere else. Bootsy Collins is probably on the bass, and Nile Rodgers on the guitar. I’m going to put Georgie Fame in; Georgie or Jimmy Smith on the Hammond would be pretty cool. Or Jimmy McGriff… there’s so many great Hammond players. Tower Of Power on the horns. Now, vocals; Teddy Pendegrass if we’re going for that Soul sound, or Bobby Byrd or James Brown if we’re going for the more rugged, testosterone fuelled approach. Candi Staton, if we want to do a Soul vocal, Betty Davis if you want to give it the full throttle. That would be a band, wouldn’t it!

Are there any signs of you slowing down?

My brother, Dean, died when he was 52; I was in the jungle, doing I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. They brought me into this room and said, “Bad news; your brother’s dead”. He was only two years older than me. That’s why I left Coronation Street; I thought if I die tomorrow, like Dean just has, would I be happy with what I’ve achieved? Well, no, I wouldn’t really; I’d been in ‘Corrie’ ten years, and I want some new adventures while I still can; while I can still remember the lines.

What’s next for you?

I’m doing The Gadget Show at the moment; that goes out on Fridays on Channel 5. The new Red Dwarf XII is Thursdays on Dave. I’m too busy, really; I’m just trying to keep all the plates spinning. Don’t want to let any drop and shatter, which I’ve been want to do in the past. Staying happy, staying healthy, working hard – living the dream, really. I really enjoy it. I’m 53 years of age and I’ve been on telly since I was 18, so I’ve done alright. I just want to keep it going, you know what I mean?

The Craig Charles Funk & Soul Show is on BBC 6 Music every Saturday evening at 6.00pm, and available on demand on BBC iPlayer.

Craig Charles House Party is on BBC Radio 2 every Saturday evening at 10.00pm.

Red Dwarf XII is currently showing on Dave TV, Freeview Channel 12, SKY TV 111, Virgin media 127.

For details of live events and all other information visit www.craigcharles.net