‘Music appeals to all ages – and it’s a pleasure to bring it music alive’
You might know him best as Coronation Street’s Lloyd Mullaney or Red Dwarf’s Dave Lister, or just as that chirpy Scouse lad off Robot Wars or Takeshi’s Castle.
But many more of us know Craig Charles 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 a DJ who appears to have the erm... sole power to offer us a little spinage a trois, talcum time, and open that trunk of funk every weekend.
He also happens to have perhaps the longest Wikipedia entry I’ve chanced upon.
So how do we address him?
“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.
“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 Friday, Saturday and sometimes Sunday night, we get to go and DJ all over the world!
“We’ve played Australia, Ibiza, Corfu, Croatia, all over Britain, from the tip of the east coast to the tip of the west, north and south coast, and everywhere between.
“It’s getting to a stage 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. 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 Black American music, but played and recorded by bands now. It’s not just a history lesson.
“It’s a vibe that’s really started to grow thanks to people like Amy Winehouse, Adele, Duffy and Mark Ronson. You’d be surprised how young some of the crowd are.”
The Craig Charles Funk and Soul Club returns to Preston on Saturday (October 18), for what could be his final gig at the university’s threatened 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 then returns on Saturday, December 13, manning the decks at ‘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 it 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 not on the road or on TV, Craig’s on the airwaves, having been with 6 Music since the digital radio station’s 2002 opening, give or take time off for bad behaviour in 2006.
“I’m the longest-serving DJ there. I was there that first Friday night, and have been doing it ever since. And it’s grown and grown.
“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 show has also proved a great soundtrack to Saturday night cooking shifts, in my case avoiding Strictly Come Dancing in the back room.
“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, turn the radio on.
“We get a lot of texts and emails saying, ‘The wife’s watching The X-Factor in the other room and I’m dancing in the kitchen like a drunken uncle!’”
Besides 6 Music and shows for older sister station Radio 2, club and festival appearances, there are his CD compilations, too.
And Craig Charles Funk & Soul Club Volume 3 is 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.
“When the BBC first asked what I wanted to do, they wanted an archive show. I said I wanted to do a funk and soul show, and they looked at me a bit weird.
“What we thought was going to be this little niche show has grown to have the biggest audience share on the network.”
He wasn’t new to it all, having worked on Kiss FM in its pirate days then – licensed – doing a breakfast show there for a couple of years in the 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.
“I never really promoted it well, but that worked for me. People have actually found me rather than me forcing myself down their throats.”
Another DJ gave Craig’s first on-air break in the early ’80s, Radio 1 legend John Peel proving inspirational – not just in giving him two sessions as a poet.
“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 50, has many musical heroes, but likes to mix everything up live, offering an alternative slant.
“You’ve got Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and although a lot is just too slow or too retro for a modern dancefloor, what I like to do is get it remixed.”
One clip, for example, has him fusing Tom Jones’ take on Venus, Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic and Sylvester’s (You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real.
“That’s it! I like to play music people think they know and deliver it in a way they’ve never heard before. That inspires people.”
What was the first song this Liverpool-born son of a Guyanan dad and Irish mum 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.
“I grew up listening to this golden era, then later – when punk was kicking off – 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 he might one day be making programmes for Radio 2?
“Never! Now I do six ’til nine on 6 Music then channel-hop to Radio 2 and do ’til 10.
“That’s my Saturday nights sorted. Then we go off and do a gig!”
For the past decade – again with a brief break following drug allegations and charges in 2006 – Craig has become known for his Coronation Street role.
He’s become established enough to help mould his character, philandering taxicab driver Lloyd Mullaney also happening to be a funk and soul fan and DJ.
“It’s great to be able to work that in, with Lloyd playing a bit of Northern Soul and collecting records!
“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 his radio work?
“It’s more dance-oriented. We do drop the beat down, but while you can get away with slower tunes and chuggers on radio, live it’s about trying to keep the floor full.
“It’s about showing off, too. We get a lot really into their dance who get up the front and work on all their spins and that. It’s a great feeling!”
Craig has written an autobiographical work, but it certainly 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!
“But I’ve just written Scary Fairy and the Tales of the Dark Woods, nursery rhymes with all the blood and gore back in! I’m hoping that will get published next year.
“I’d love to do an album of it too, like Peter and the Wolf, with the BBC Philharmonic – me reciting, and each character with their own theme tune.”
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. 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 a lot of mentions of Takeshi’s Castle.
“It’s been a crazy ride. I’m just trying to hang on. And it’s just getting better.
“Corrie’s going well, the radio’s going well, the DJing’s going well ...”
Is there a worry 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 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 Lister is while you’re on Corrie?
“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!”
You shone from an early age, academically and artistically. You seemed to be driven. Was that down to your upbringing?
“Yeah. I grew up on a housing estate 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 said, ‘Craig, if you go for a job and you’ve got the same qualifications as the white guy next to you, he’s going to get the job’.
“That kind of instilled in me this need to attain and achieve. I never really lost that.”
It was during a 1981 gig by fellow Liverpudlians The Teardrop Explodes that Craig climbed on stage and recited a risqué poem about the singer, Julian Cope.
Does he remember that poem? The answer’s yes, and he recites it to me on the spot.
I can’t repeat it here, though.
The Teardrop Explodes liked it, too, inviting him to be their support act, performances at Larks in the Park at Sefton Park and the Everyman following, alongside Roger McGough and Adrian Henri.
The rest was history, but he’d always had a talent for writing, and aged 12 won The Guardian Poetry Prize, his runner-up 20 years older.
Now his youngest daughter is 11 and his eldest, 17, recently attained seven As and two Bs in her GCSEs.
“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.”
Are his children likely to follow in his footsteps?
“My eldest goes to a very academic school, yet wants to be an actress. What can I say? All I get is ‘It works for you, Dad’.”
Maybe they can learn from your mistakes.
“I hope so! And you can’t get away from my mistakes now. All you’ve got to do is go on the internet!”
l Craig Charles’ Funk and Soul Club at Preston 53 Degrees – Saturday, October 18 (10pm-3am), £10 plus a booking fee, 18s and over.
Craig Charles’ Funk and Soul Christmas Ball with Soul II Soul and special guests at Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom – Saturday, December 13 (8pm–2am), £30 plus booking fee, 18s and over.