Champion of funk soul brothers

Craig Charles is on a mission to remind 6Music listeners that music didn't start with Elvis
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The Independent Online

Craig Charles, poet, actor, cult radio presenter, and icon to science-fiction nerds the world over, turned to walk out of a London newsagent buoyed by the lift of public recognition. He had forgotten his wallet at home but the shopkeeper had been persuaded to let him owe her 50p after a group of children had advised: "You've got to let him off, miss. He's really famous." As Charles bounced out the door, one excited youngster brought him down to earth: "I can't believe we just met Craig David!"

Craig Charles, poet, actor, cult radio presenter, and icon to science-fiction nerds the world over, turned to walk out of a London newsagent buoyed by the lift of public recognition. He had forgotten his wallet at home but the shopkeeper had been persuaded to let him owe her 50p after a group of children had advised: "You've got to let him off, miss. He's really famous." As Charles bounced out the door, one excited youngster brought him down to earth: "I can't believe we just met Craig David!"

Charles tells the story and bursts out laughing. "Oh, how the mighty fall," he says. The former teenage prodigy has hit 40. But despite this self-deprecation, his roller-coaster existence - which reached its nadir in 1994 when he was held in prison on a rape charge before being cleared - is beginning another upward curve.

Those youngsters who knew his face - and confused his name with that of an R&B singer - probably recognised him from his role as Dave Lister in the long-running television show Red Dwarf. But those looking for the real Craig Charles should look elsewhere, in fact, listen elsewhere. The Craig Charles Funk Show on the BBC's digital station 6Music is a platform that showcases the Scouse motormouth's wit and energy, underscored by the passion that he clearly has for the music which was part of his upbringing.

Even as a young poet, the Liverpudlian peppered his jolly rhyming couplets with fiery social commentary that railed against injustice. And behind the gleeful enthusiasm he has for such master funkateers as George Clinton and Bootsy Collins is a barely concealed anger over their lack of pecuniary reward.

Charles is on a mission to educate and to ensure that credit is given to those to whom it is due. His fear is that "everyone will think that Elvis Presley invented everything".

He says: "It's about who created what and who did what, where that noise came from and putting a finger on the man that did it. I'm into doing that - but doing it in an entertaining way and not sounding like a lecturer."

He has been distressed to learn that guests such as the reggae pioneer Jimmy Cliff and Philadelphia soulster Billy Paul (both of whom are judged to have suitably funky credentials) are "all skint".

He says: "It's quite nice for these people to get the recognition that they deserve. I want to be the voice of that."

The show was very much Charles's own idea, a response to a suggestion by BBC bosses that he should present a programme that highlighted the corporation's musical archive. "I said, 'No, I want to do the music of my youth,'" he says.

Charles's infectious broadcasting style was honed during a career that began with guest appearances as a teenager on Janice Long's Radio 1 show (recorded in Manchester) and later involved working with Ned Sherrin on Radio 4's Loose Ends and hosting a breakfast show on Kiss FM.

Although he abandoned the Kiss show after recoiling at the popularity of techno (especially at that time of the day), he embraces modern music and is anxious that his show is not an entirely retro affair.

Charles and his producer Henry Lopez-Real have devised a host of special features to demonstrate the breadth of the funk genre and its influence. "Sample City" is a segment that allows him to demonstrate the funk roots of his favourite hip-hop artists, such as Cee-Lo Green. Every week, the "Funk Log" highlights a funk track originating from a different country. (Nations as diverse as Poland, Pakistan and the Czech Republic have been featured.) And "Facts of Funk" works its way through the alphabet (he's currently on L), showing the diversity of the music.

The Friday show (recorded live, 8pm-11pm) is intended to be a lively accompaniment to a night in, and the Saturday programme (prerecorded and broadcast 6pm-9pm) a warm-up for hitting the town.

When Charles was growing up in Liverpool he would go out in the largely black neighbourhood of Toxteth and would listen to funk at shebeens and unlicensed clubs. He looked up to the black Liverpool group The Real Thing. But he liked his rock and indie, too. He hasn't forgotten the time Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott picked him out in the audience at the Liverpool Empire. He made his poetry debut by leaping uninvited on to the stage ahead of a Teardrop Explodes gig and reciting a rhyme that was less than respectful to the band's singer Julian Cope.

He was soon appearing on Terry Wogan's show and marrying the actress Cathy Tyson. They got divorced five years later, but have a 16-year-old son, Jack.

Charles has found himself hosting - with varying success - a series of quirky TV shows from Robot Wars to Space Cadets. Having been a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, he still has ambitions as an actor. He has high hopes for The Dealer, a 24-minute short gangster film, which stars the ubiquitous east-London hood Dave Courtney. Filming of a scene in which Charles's character knifed to death a victim on a boat and dumped his body overboard nearly led to the Liverpudlian being shot by the police last year. "We were filming in the Medway. I saw a red light on my chest and there was a helicopter overhead, which was a police armed-response unit," he says. "Five people had phoned the police saying that there had been a murder. As we filmed the scene five times, they must have thought it was a bloodbath."

Radio presents no such dangers. Indeed, it's a chance for Charles to hang out with his idols. He recalls an exchange with that funk founder and sex machine James Brown, who is a father of eight, including, at the time, a two-year-old. Charles commented: "It's still working for you then, James?" The Godfather of Soul responded, glumly: "Nowadays, on stage more than off. But I like your style."

Charles recalls that he surprised Brown by asking him questions about his early career with the Flaming Flames. "All of a sudden, Brown thinks, 'This guy knows more about me than I do'. You've got to know your stuff," says Charles, observing, wistfully, that "James Brown is now the support act for the Red Hot Chili Peppers".

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