What with the prison stretch, the career postponement, the gory trial, it hasn't been an easy year for Craig Charles. But on London's streets the television star is a hero
There's nothing like a stretch in prison for enlarging your circle of acquaintances. Craig Charles had barely sat down at the caf table when he spotted someone he knew through the window. "There goes Mills," he said, in a tone of disbelief. Mills, he explained: old lag, in and out of jail, shot in the foot once, brilliant at table tennis even so...

Mills and Charles briefly shared a cell in Wandsworth, where Mills, according to Charles, "stank up the place and read my books". But that was in another life, a life Charles is trying to put behind him.

To recap: not long after dawn on a Saturday morning last August, Craig Charles, a comedian, the star of the spoof science fiction television series Red Dwarf, and his friend John Peploe, a businessman, visited an ex-girlfriend of Charles's in her flat on a Clapham council estate in south London. Charles would later state that they were looking for breakfast. That afternoon, police went to Charles's house in nearby Kennington and told him he was under arrest, charged by the woman with rape. Peploe was arrested, too, and the woman also alleged the involvement of a third man who was not identified and whom the prosecution could not produce.

Refused bail, Charles served three and half months on remand in Her Majesty's Prison, Wandsworth, mucking in with Mills and the rest. When the forensic tests came back, yielding nothing, he was finally allowed out, pending trial. He returned to Liverpool, to the semi owned by his father, 70, a retired lorry driver. Over the next four and a half months, he lay on the bed in the spare room, watched rented videos and wondered how he was ever going to come back from this.

We met early one morning a week after the jury found him not guilty. Charles suggested we go out for breakfast. I looked to see if he wished to share an ironic or knowing look at this point, but there was nothing. In any case, we did not drive to a council estate in Clapham. We did not knock up any people of Charles's acquaintance. Instead, we walked around Soho Square in central London and found a caf in Wardour Street, where Charles ordered coffee and a packet of Marlboro. (Charles is a voracious smoker; he bites into the filter as he sucks. As he spoke, the ashtray filled with gnawed butts.)

Charles is 30, short and fit-looking. He was dressed luxury-casual: sunglasses, a polo neck jumper, a big shouldered brown jacket, buttoned up, with an expensive sheen, Chinos. Occasionally he flexed his shoulders to sort out the lie of the jacket. As we walked, his arms swung easily across his body, in the manner of people who have been on television a lot.

In those few moments in the open air, Charles was recognised by fans at roughly 100-yard intervals. All of them seemed to be chuffed for Craig. A taxi driver shouted: "Craig! Nice one!" A courier, entering an office with a package, paused and called from the steps: "Well done, Craig." To each of these, Charles said, in his thick Liverpool accent: "Cheers, matey."

He is a speedy, noisy talker - an entertainer. His laugh is a high-pressure, thwarted expulsion from the back of the nose. "K-k-k-kssssshhhhhh." His eyes meet yours firmly but also scan about looking for other eyes to meet. Even in what was for most of the time an empty caf, he played the room a little. A certain amount of cocky resilience, of Liverpudlian front, must have come in handy over the past nine months, what with the prison stretch, the career postponement, the suspension of his life, the sense that behind the eyes even of friends, there lurked doubt. Was he...? Did he...? Would he...?

Charles was keen to show me that he has not gone entirely unscathed. He leaned across the table at one point and tipped his head up. "You see these bare patches?" There were a number of lake-shaped, completely hairless areas in the stubble along his jawline and under his chin. "Stress," he said.

It was an ugly trial and not only because of the nature of the accusations. On one occasion, Charles and his accuser shouted bitterly at each other across the court room and had to be called to order. The case lasted a fortnight: the jury deliberated for only 90 minutes. Afterwards, Charles publicly gave vent to relief and anger. He went on the air and in the papers to object to what he perceived to be the inadequacies of the Crown Prosecution Service. He said he resented the way the woman in the case was referred to as "the victim": he said he thought he was the one who was victimised. He called loudly for the right of accused rapists to anonymity. He did so on Frost, The Big Breakfast and Kilroy.

Not everyone found Charles's strenuous post-trial protests appropriate or appealing. On the morning we met, Charles had received a letter from the governor of Wandsworth prison. Charles produced it from the inside pocket of his jacket, smoothed it out on the caf table and read it aloud: "Dear Mr Charles, Congratulations on the happy result of your trial, I'm very pleased for you. However, I was shocked to see you on my television screen informing all the millions of viewers, to use your phraseology, `I was banged up 23 hours a day.' Surely this cannot be true, considering your farewell words on getting bail were, `Thank you for looking after me so well.' I suppose the famous like yourself do not realise us lesser mortals have feelings too. Good luck for the future, Governor Fisher."

Charles's voice rose in exasperation. "What was I supposed to say to the governor?" he said. "I wasn't even out of the door yet. The jail's full of psychos. And that's just the people who work there."

At Wandsworth, on remand, you get to wear your own clothes. Charles's girlfriend, Linda, would bring him changes daily. He was visited by Doug Naylor, who wrote Red DwarfNed Sherrin and James Whale sent him letters. "But all the things you've got to look forward to are over by 10.30 in the morning. Then it's just sitting around, reading. I couldn't watch telly or listen to the radio because I knew everyone on it and they were having a life and mine had been taken from me."

Charles went on "A" wing, refusing an offer of a cell on "Route 43", a protected area for potentially vulnerable prisoners. "It wasn't bravery on my part. Going on Route 43 would have been like saying I did it - I'm a rapist. In there, you're with child molesters and rapists and people who make your skin crawl. Whereas you can talk to a burglar. There's a glamour in armed robbery. I know there shouldn't be, but it's a glamorous crime. You can talk about that."

For the most part, he rubbed along fine. He remembers a prisoner reassuring him early on: "S'awright, Craig. We know you done nothing. No one's gonna give you a clump." (Charles now specialises in prison argot, delivered in a piping Cockney voice: "Give i'm a body swerve, Craig. 'E's a wrong 'un" etc.) He was attacked just once. A fellow prisoner came at him with a razor. "I didn't get attacked because I was Craig Charles. I was attacked because the guy was a fraggle and he couldn't get his medication and I just happened to be the first person he saw. He never got me though. Missed me! Ner ner! K-k-k-kssssshhhh." Worst of all, he said, was the prison officers coming up with their jokes. "Here, Craig, I've got one for yer. You'll love this one."

There was more than enough time to calculate the damage. "I had The Big Breakfast, I lost that. I lost You're Booked [a books programme, handed to James Whale]. I lost untold corporate work. These accusations can change the way people see you. Mud sticks."

This is what Charles fears will hinder his comeback - not the rape charge, which was dismissed, but the things the case brought out about his social life. He had to admit to some cocaine use. "That's in the past. I haven't taken drugs, one day at a time, in a long time. I'm happy to be well out of it." One tabloid pondered the possibility that Charles had slept with 60 strippers. "Get a life," Charles said to me. "Am I Captain Stud or something? I doubt I've even got into double figures, never mind bedding 60 strippers."

The night before Charles turned up at the Clapham estate, seeking a bacon buttie from an ex-girlfriend, he had dined at L'Escargot. What appeared to emerge from the trial was the picture of a dual social life, one in which Charles would socialise with BBC brass and then adjourn to a strip- pub in Kennington.

"Look," he said. "The Queen Anne is opposite my house. It's my local. I walked into that pub having bought that house - I didn't know what went on in there. I don't go to stripper places, I go to my local pub. I mix with everyone. I mix with the top bods and I mix with the man in the street. I'm not a snob. But I'm not a pervert, either. I don't go around looking for strippers. They come to my local pub. I'm an approachable guy and I get approached.

"As fas as having a kind of split social life - I'm not two separate people. I don't even watch the strippers half the time. I play the games and the pool. In any case, I've had to start giving the place a miss. It's been swamped with journalists."

It's early yet, but evidently the work offers are beginning to come. "People are asking me, `When are you going on television again?' And they're asking me that on their television show." Charles said he was considering a book deal, but wasn't sure whether to do it as a novel or as an autobiography, "a kind of from-cradle-to-court-thing with emphasis on Red Dwarf. Or maybe I should do the Red Dwarf book as a separate deal and just do this as a novel."

When we left the caf (passing the actor Tim Piggot-Smith who rose from his table to give Charles a kiss), something happened which rather bore out Charles's image of himself as a hapless magnet for potential trouble. We turned out of the sunlight into a shaded passageway and there we got approached by a hustler - some sort of clothes pusher. A pale young man came up and offered to sell Charles a suit, which he was carrying in plastic wrapping, as if freshly laundered.

As Charles was shaking his head and holding up both palms and saying, "Nah, matey, not for me," the suit-dealer realised whom he was talking to and said, "Oooh! You!", before turning away with a half-formed grin.