PROFILE: CRAIG CHARLES: THE INSIDE STORY

Writer and comedian CRAIG CHARLES talks with James Rampton
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Craig Charles recalls his worst moment during the three and a half months he spent on remand in Wandsworth Prison. He was approached by a mean-looking skinhead with "Hate" and "Love" tattooed on his fingers and knuckles that scraped the floor. Thrusting his face to within inches of Charles's, he eyeballed the comedian and snarled: "You're Gary Wilmot, aren't you?" "He should have beaten me up," Charles wails, "it would have been less painful."

This is typical of the man; he's so relentlessly sparky that he can turn even the trauma of a spell in one of the country's toughest jails into a source of gags. He even performed a segment of his stand-up show, "Live on Earth", last year in a mocked-up prison-cell. He lives out the philosophy that anything which doesn't destroy you, strengthens you. He's more upbeat than Anthea Turner.

And also busier. Fridays are becoming like a themed Craig Charles Night on TV. Last night saw the first episode on Channel 4 of Captain Butler, a broad new sitcom about a cowardly pirate with Charles in the lead. Next Friday, he hosts The Funky Bunker, a late-night chatshow on ITV, and the Friday after he returns as the curry 'n' lager-guzzling spaceman, Lister, in Red Dwarf, BBC2's impossibly culty space sitcom.

He positively fizzes with life. Dressed in an immaculate three-piece pinstripe and a crisp white shirt fastened at the cuffs with silver, rifle- shaped links, he chain-smokes Marlboro Lights and tosses out one-liners like they were going out of fashion. "I've got a son, eight," he reveals. "What a stupid name that was." He makes for entertaining - if slightly exhausting - company.

Sitting under a display of the costume Mel Gibson wore in Forever Young on a garish, leopardskin-effect sofa at the Planet Hollywood restaurant in central London, he reflects on the time he spent inside waiting to be acquitted of a rape charge. "Now I'm glad I lived it," he claims. "I feel a richer, more complete person. Prison widens your circle of friends. In my stand-up, I can now talk about things that no one else has the right to touch. I took the positive aspects of it and forgot the negatives, so I would not turn into a bitter and twisted mess. I laughed at myself in Live on Earth and then exorcised the ghosts with The Governor [Lynda La Plante's tough prison drama]. It makes me the authentic article."

That is certainly the view of Doug Naylor, the writer and executive producer of Red Dwarf. "I don't think you could have gone through what he did without being profoundly affected. One minute you're a showbiz celebrity, and the next you're in jail. Cleaning blood and hair off the walls is not exactly the life of a luvvie. `Sorry, darling, I just don't do that, it's not in my contract.' You'd get a kick in the nuts.

"What he brings to Red Dwarf is a sense of reality," he continues. "He grounds the whole thing and makes the character of Lister totally credible. That is absolutely essential because often the situations are so incredible. It needs someone to ground it - like June Whitfield does in Absolutely Fabulous. Craig has always made Lister like the guy next door."

Christopher Skala, the producer of Captain Butler, could also act as a recruiting officer for the newly formed Craig Charles Fan Club. "He has an energy and an ability to talk to anybody - much like Damien Hirst. His great skill is not to care about people's social standing. There's no pretence about him. What you see is what you get. He's an open, risk-taking, charming personality."

Charles wasn't always so admired. "He'd be the first to say that in the past he had a reputation as a `party animal'," Skala concedes. "But since his troubles, that has disappeared."

The actor has also had brushes with the press. "Critics called me `egregious' - I had to look that one up - and `creepy'," Charles remembers, "but now I don't read them, I weigh them. Once journalists have been rifling through your dustbins, you do try and keep them at arms' length. My favourite headline was `Craig Charles bedded 60 strippers'. The only thing they forgot to write was `In his dreams'."

Now Charles is grabbing more savoury headlines. He reckons he's popular because "I'm seen by people to be one of them. They think that if I can do it, then so can they. I've got wealth and fame but I haven't changed my roots. People are relieved to see someone on telly who didn't go to Oxbridge. How many more Oxbridge gameshows are we going to have to watch? In this country, we have a rich tapestry of people; we're not all white, middle-class wankers with degrees in physics."

Not that Charles has ever experienced overt racial prejudice in the industry. "It actually worked in my favour. When I started, Lenny Henry was the only black mainstream performer. You couldn't have just one - or people would start talking. The fact that I was a Scouser as well meant they got two minorities for the price of one. They instantly filled their quotas.

"But I'm not into the colour thing," he carries on. "Red Dwarf is the only mainstream show with two black stars where the colour of our skins is never mentioned. Why have black people on telly only talking about being black? Why not have them talking about football? Otherwise, it turns into ghetto television."

Charles is very far from being ghettoised - in fact, he's gleefully surfing the mainstream. "It's turning into the British Charles Corporation, isn't it?," he says, with relish. "Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated. Success is the best revenge."

`Captain Butler' continues on Friday at 10.30 pm, C4 when `Funky Bunker' begins on ITV.

`Red Dwarf VII' starts on Friday 17 Jan, BBC2

CHARLES'S TOP 3

1. Lister in Red Dwarf Charles reckons the space-com has lasted so long because "it's very difficult for a show set in the future to be dated because there are no topical references. In space, there's an unlimited bag of goodies."

2. Buffy, an unhinged prisoner in The Governor. "People said to me, `Why do The Governor?' Why not? Why throw away good experiences? I'd done all the research, I'd got the T-shirt."

3. Captain Butler "I've been offered lots of sitcoms where I am the black working-class neighbour to posh people, and you have to read to page 16 before laughing," Charles sighs. "But this is different. It's a Boys Own story, like Captain Pugwash with real people."

EYE TEST

1964: Born in Liverpool. "I grew up as the only black kid in a school of a thousand white kids. I had to make people laugh or get beaten up."

1980s: Planned to go to university, but was offered a job on C4's Black on Black instead. Went on to co-host Wogan (BBC1), where he performed poetry, and appear on Saturday Review (BBC2) and Saturday Live (C4)

1988: Took role of Lister in first of seven series of BBC2's Sci-fi- com Red Dwarf

1990s: Presenter on C4's The Big Breakfast and Loose Ends on Radio 4

1995: "Live on Earth" stand-up tour and video

1996: Appeared as Buffy in The Governor (ITV) and C4's Captain Butler.

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