Open season for the trunk of funk – the Craig Charles interview

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Six Sensi: Craig Charles manning the decks

According to your spheres of interest, you may know him best as Coronation Street’s Lloyd Mullaney or Red Dwarf’s Dave Lister, or just as that cheeky Scouse lad off Robot Wars or Takeshi’s Castle.

But many more of us know him as the performance poet who went on to carve out his own niche behind the turntables, on radio and in clubland.

I’m talking about actor, DJ and presenter Craig Charles, who appears to have the erm … sole power to offer us a little spinage a trois and talcum time while unleashing that trunk of funk every weekend.

He also happens to be the fella with perhaps the longest Wikipedia entry I’ve chanced upon. So how do we address the man himself?

“I don’t know really. I’m just very lucky I get to be able to do all of it really, and on a regular basis.

“I really like acting, so Coronation Street is great for me as I get to act on a daily basis. That keeps your hand in and makes you a better actor … I hope so, anyway!

“Plus – every weekend, on Friday, Saturday and sometimes Sunday nights, we get to go and DJ – all over the world!

“We’ve played Australia, Ibiza, Corfu, Croatia, and all over Britain, from the tip of the east coast to the tip of the west, north and south coast, and everywhere between.

craigcharles“And it’s getting to a stage now where we’re selling out everywhere we go. People are having a fantastic time, and it’s good time music, y’know!

“It’s party music that appeals to all ages and everyone. We do this thing, The Secret Soul Boy, and I reckon everyone in the world has a favourite soul record.

“It’s just one of those genres that appeals to all age groups. You get a great cross-mix of society at the gigs, and it’s just a pleasure to bring that music alive.

“A lot of the music I play is from the golden era of American music, but it’s played and recorded by bands now. It’s not just a history lesson.

“And it’s a vibe that’s really started to grow, thanks to people like Amy Winehouse, Adele, Duffy and Mark Ronson.”

That seems to be the case with Northern Soul too, another of Craig’s loves, re-kindled interest via artists like Duffy and John Newman more recently followed by positive publicity for the new film borrowing that name.

“Definitely. It’s not a dead genre, it’s growing, and being listened to by young people. And you’ll be surprised how young some of the crowd are at my gigs.”

10404367_10152281782821249_9113737293754646905_nMy excuse for catching up was the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Club’s return to Preston on Saturday (October 18), for what could be the DJ’s final gig at the doomed 53 Degrees venue.

“We did it a few months ago, now we’re about to do it again. It’s always a wicked gig. Honestly, it’s all good!”

He’s then set to return to my patch on Saturday, December 13, manning the decks for ‘Britain’s biggest, funkiest Christmas Party’, a Band on the Wall fund-raiser at Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom, also featuring Soul II Soul.

“We did the Winter Gardens as well last year with The Brand New Heavies, and this year it’s Soul II Soul, flying Caron Wheeler in from America, with Jazzie B too.

“It’s going to be absolutely stonking. I’m really excited about it already. And what a building!”

When he’s not on the road or on TV, Craig’s on the airwaves, having been at 6 Music since the digital radio station’s 2002 opening, give or take a little time off for bad behaviour in 2006.

“I’m the longest-serving DJ there. I was there on the first Friday night, and have been doing it ever since. And it’s grown and grown.

“But back in the day, when we started, I would have had a bigger audience listening to my music if I’d just put the cassette in the car and drove around London with the window down.”

His 6 Music show has also proved a great soundtrack to Saturday night cooking shifts, in my case while my girls are in the back room watching Strictly Come Dancing.

“It’s our Saturday night kitchen disco. We’re the great alternative to the X Factor, y’know! If you want to hear the real thing, just go in the kitchen and turn the radio on.

“We get a lot of texts and emails from people saying, ‘The wife’s watching The X-Factor in the other room and I’m dancing in the kitchen like a drunken uncle!’”

Besides his 6 Music shows, those for older sister station Radio 2, plus club and festival appearances, there’s a new CD compilation coming out too.

fsrcd107And Craig Charles Funk & Soul Club Volume 3 is apparently just part of his ongoing mission to spread the sound of good grooves right around the world.

“Yeah! And Volume 2 was No.1 in the r’n’b and hip-hop charts and Juno Download charts and No.8 overall in the Amazon download charts. It did really well.

“When you think of it … when the BBC first came to me they asked what I wanted to do, and they wanted me to do an archive show. I said I wanted to do a funk and soul show, and they looked at me a bit weird.

“But what we thought was going to be this little niche kind of show has grown to have the biggest audience share on the network.”

He wasn’t new to it all back then, having started out with Kiss FM in its pirate station days, and – when they got their licence – did the breakfast show for a couple of years back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

“I was always running the DJ-ing alongside Red Dwarf and Robot Wars, sort of undercover. I’m not one for the big celebrity DJ thing.

“Because you’re on the telly doesn’t mean you know how to play music. I never really promoted it that well, but that worked well for me.

“People have actually found me rather than me forcing myself down their throats.

“A good testament, one that makes me kind of proud, is that all the top DJs don’t see me as an interloper. I’m good friends with DJs like The Reflex, and I’m seen as one of them.”

Dwarf Days: Craig with fellow Red Dwarf cast members (Photo: BBC)

Dwarf Days: Craig with fellow Red Dwarf cast members (Photo: BBC)

It was a very different DJ who gave Craig a big break in the early 1980s, Radio 1 legend John Peel giving him two sessions in his performance poetry days.

It’s 10 years since we lost John Peel this month. Was he an important influence on you?

“He was. You could listen to his show and there would be about four or five records you just had to go out and buy.

“You had to listen to a lot of punk and stuff I found inaccessible, but every now and again there were a few gems and I thought, ‘that’s where my pocket money’s going!’”

Craig, now aged 50, has many musical heroes, but likes to mix everything up and offer an alternative slant.

There’s certainly a broad church within his radio shows, from Northern Soul to funk and so on.

James Brown often gets a good airing, but can he name his favourite artists or top five grooves at any point in time?

“It depends what day it is! I mentioned The Reflex, who gets hold of original stems of recordings from the studio and remixes them for the modern dance floor, such as his version of The Jackson 5’s ABC.

“You’ve got Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and although a lot of that is just too slow or too retro for a modern dancefloor, what I like to do is get it remixed.”

Sound Wave: Craig gets to meet his public

Sound Wave: Craig gets to meet his public

That’s certainly apparent in some of the live clips I’ve seen, including one in which he fuses Tom Jones’ take on Venus, Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic and Sylvester’s (You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real. And that takes some thought.

“That’s it – it’s all about mixing it all up! I like to play music people think they know and deliver it to them in a way they’ve never heard before. And that inspires people.”

What was the first band or song this Liverpool-born son of a Guyanan dad and Irish mum heard and fell in love with?

“My earliest memories of are of my mum and dad dancing around the kitchen to Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman. By the time that song finished I was in love with soul!

“Dad came to England in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s with a pocketful of change and a bag of records.

“When the rest of Liverpool was listening to The Beatles we were listening to Harry Belafonte, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, that kind of stuff.Funkadelic-Maggot-Br

“I grew up listening to this golden era of Black American music, then later – when punk was kicking off – I was into P-Funk, Parliament, Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain – that album was the most psychedelic, and more hardcore than punk!”

Could he ever have imagined while growing up that he might one day be making programmes for Radio 2?

“No. I never thought I’d ever be doing Radio 2! Now I do six ’til nine on 6 Music then channel-hop on to Radio 2 and do until 10. That’s my Saturday nights sorted. Then we go off and do a gig!”

For the past decade – again with a brief break while facing drug allegations and charges in 2006 – Craig has become a well-known figure on Coronation Street.

And he’s become established enough to help mould his character, philandering taxicab driver Lloyd Mullaney, who also happens to be a funk and soul fan and DJ.

“It’s great to be able to work all that stuff in, with Lloyd playing a bit of Northern Soul and collecting records!

“And every now and again they allow me to choose some records in the background, and Twitter goes crazy, saying, ‘Craig’s playing Dobie Gray in the background!’”

How does his live show differ from the radio version? Is there a fair bit of interaction?

“Yeah. I get on the mic a bit, but it’s more dance-oriented. We do drop the beat down and all that, but while you can get away with playing slower tunes and chuggers on the radio, on a live show it’s about trying to keep the floor full.

“It’s about showing off too. We get a lot of people really into their dance and they get up the front and work on all their spins and that. It’s a great feeling!”

Swift One: Craig Charles aka Lloyd Mullaney on the Corrie set (Photo: ITV)

Swift One: Craig Charles aka Lloyd Mullaney on the Corrie set (Photo: ITV)

Craig has written an autobiographical work, but it certainly sounds as if it won’t be ready for the Christmas market this year.

“I can’t bring that out for a while yet, especially when things are going so well. There’s too many bodies in it!”

His performance poetry came first, and having recently met Benjamin Zephaniah in Preston for the launch of Black History Month, it occurred to me how their paths seemed to cross a little in the early ‘80s, not least with both appearing on Channel 4’s Black on Black and the BBC’s Pebble Mill at One.

“Me and Benjamin are friends, and started out doing poetry tours and lots of stuff together. He kept with the poetry while I took my foot off that.

“But I’ve just written a series of books, Scary Fairy and the Tales of the Dark Woods, nursery rhymes with all the blood and gore put back in! So I’m hoping that will get published next year.

“I’d love to do an album of it too, a bit like Peter and the Wolf, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra – me reciting, and each character with their own theme tune.”

Are you not tempted to have some Funkadelic in the background then?

st034

Vinyl Inspiration: Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf

“D’you know what? One of the characters is going to have a really funky, hip groove going on, but I remember Peter and the Wolf when I was a kid, so it would be nice to have a bit of Prokofiev or something in a modern setting.

“The music will be a bit more hip and trendy, but it would be lovely if we could get the BBC Phil involved. And things are looking positive on that front.”

Do you still get asked about your Red Dwarf character, Dave Lister, in public?

“I don’t think Lister will ever die. He’s something of an anti-hero, and it’s such a pleasure to play him. In fact, a lot of the time I wish I was him!

“I get a lot of talk about Robot Wars too, because those viewers are at university now. And I get a lot of mentions of Takeshi’s Castle.”

That’s understandable. There seemed to be a time when you couldn’t go a day or so without hearing his voice on radio or TV.

“Well, it’s been a crazy ride, and I’m just trying to hang on. And it’s just getting better, because Corrie’s going well, the radio’s going well, the DJing’s going well …”

Is there a worry that you might get written out of Coronation Street some day soon?

“Well, it’s not Game of Thrones. I’d hate to be involved in that! If you read a script you’d wonder if you’re going to be alive by the end of an episode.”

“Lloyd’s in this new relationship with Andrea now and that storyline’s just reached its peak, so it’s quiet for Lloyd at the moment, having had six months non-stop on that.

“We’re on the back-burner right now. It’s a bit feast or famine on Coronation Street.”

Talking of back-burners, is that where Dave Lister is too while you’re on Corrie?

Space Traveller: Craig Charles as Dave Lister in Red Dwarf (Photo: BBC)

Space Traveller: Craig Charles as Dave Lister in Red Dwarf (Photo: BBC)

“Well, we did Red Dwarf 10 a couple of years ago, and that was absolutely massive. It smashed all sorts of records, not just here but worldwide.

“And I know the lads are keen on doing more, so watch this space!”

How about your stand-up show? Any of that coming our way?

“Oh, I don’t know. I find DJ-ing so much easier than stand-up, which was such a nerve-racking thing. That said, I got out of it just at the wrong time.

“Now you can do a tour and you’re a multi-millionaire. So I might go back to it just for the money!”

You shone from an early age, academically and artistically. You seemed to be driven. Was that largely down to your upbringing?

“Yeah. I grew up on a housing estate called Cantril Farm where there were like 1,000 white families and our family. And Liverpool in the mid and late ‘60s was quite a racist place to be.

“My mum always said, ‘Craig, if you go for a job and you’ve got exactly the same qualifications as the white guy next to you, he’s going to get the job’.

“So it kind of instilled in me this need to attain and achieve. I never really lost that.”

There’s a contentious council move in Liverpool at the moment to close 11 public libraries, inspiring lots of public support for keeping them open. Were you a library regular and avid reader growing up?

“Completely! Even now I’m never without my Kindle. I love books too, and have a library, but with this little tiny gadget I’ve got around 10,000 books on it.

“I take that everywhere I go and that’s where all my down-time goes. Plus it’s a great way of not getting hassle when you’re sat in the corner of a pub reading.

“It stops a flood of people asking, ‘Can I have a picture?’

Metal Mates: Craig on the set of Robot Wars (Photo:  BBC)

Metal Mates: Craig on the set of Robot Wars (Photo: BBC)

“We were always members of the library, although it’s a measure of my irredeemable soul that I was looking through my library the other day that I found some books that I had not returned when I was around 12 or 13.”

I believe you’re a fair keyboard player too.

“Yeah, and a mean piano player! I played keyboards in a lot of bands when I was growing up.”

It was during a 1981 gig by fellow Liverpudlian band The Teardrop Explodes, that Craig climbed on stage and recited a rather risqué poem about the singer, Julian Cope.

Does he remember the poem? The answer’s yes, and not only does he remember it, but he recites it to me on the spot.

Not as if I can repeat it all here, I’m afraid, good as it is.

As it was, The Teardrop Explodes liked it, and invited him to be their support act, with performances at the Larks in the Park festival at Sefton Park and the Everyman Theatre following, alongside the likes of Roger McGough and Adrian Henri.

The rest was history, but he’d always had a talent for writing, and at the age of 12 won The Guardian Poetry Prize, his runner-up 20 years older.

And now he has family of his own with his second wife, Jackie, his youngest daughter 11 and his eldest 17, the latter having recently passed her GCSE results, amassing seven As and two Bs according to her proud dad.

“They talk about dumbing down in education, but they’re not at all. I couldn’t even look at her homework. I don’t know what it’s about, to be honest.”

15274_1_review-craig-charles-xmas-funk-and-soul-show-53-degrees-preston_banSo are your daughters likely to follow in your footsteps?

“Well, Anna-Jo goes to Manchester High School for Girls, a very academic school, yet she wants to be an actress. What can I say? Know what I mean? If I say anything, all I get is ‘It works for you, Dad’.”

Maybe they can learn from your mistakes, at least.

“I hope so! And you can’t get away from my mistakes now. All you’ve got to do is go on the internet!”

Talking of which, that’s a mighty long wiki entry he’s got there, so to speak. Craig’s TV credits fill several pages on their own. So what’s the worst show he’s ever done?

“Oh, there’s been lots! Fortunately, people only seem to remember the hits though.

“I did a show, Cyberzone, which would have been really good if the technology was up to it.

“It was a virtual reality game show where you walked on a treadmill and the character on the screen walked with you, having to go through all these rooms and so forth.”

It sounds like it would probably work now.

“It would look like a proper hi-tech video game now! I’m always being asked if we’re going to bring back Robot Wars or do more Takeshi’s Castle, but maybe we should do more Cyberzone instead, and this time do it properly!”

craig-charles-funk-and-soul-blackpool-christmas-ballFor details of how to get hold of Craig Charles Funk & Soul Club Volume 3 – ‘19 personally selected, party-starting slices of full fat’ – try this Freestyle Records link here.

To find out more and snap up tickets for Craig’s final Preston 53 Degrees try here and for more about the Blackpool Christmas Ball with Soul II Soul try this Band on the Wall link.

This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, first published on October 16, 2014.

 

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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