It's worse than bad TV, and they love it

Every day, 200,000 people visit Keith Chegwin's live Web show, putting it among Europe's top 10 sites. What's the attraction of Russian street comedy, nonsense videos and inane chat?
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A young woman with a microphone stands in front of an amateur cameraman in Red Square and says in a thick Russian accent: "I will try and prove we have a sense of humour. This man has a joke."

She yanks an unassuming passer-by into shot. The man smiles, and obliges in his best English: "Once upon a time Lenin was asked what is better; to have a mistress or wife. And Lenin answered it's better for me to have mistress and wife both, because to my wife I'll tell her that I'll go to my mistress and to mistress I'll tell that I go to my wife tonight, and as for me, I'll go upstairs and work, work, work." The woman with the microphone laughs like a squeaking guinea pig.

Over in a village near Newbury, Berkshire, a man sticks his head out of an upstairs window of a cottage and shouts "HELLO!!!" with the enthusiasm of someone who has been marooned on a desert island and has just made his first human contact in 50 years. The greeting is immediately followed by a donkey's bray laugh. The sound could only come from Keith Chegwin.

Chegwin, 44, is the man responsible for bringing Russian jokes to the Great British Public. The woman (Chegwin has no idea who she is) is just one of an assortment of oddballs from around the world who send him videotapes to play on his website, Launched nine weeks ago, the site now attracts more than 200,000 unique visitors a day. If the figures are to be believed, the site is almost as popular in Europe as the search engine Google. "We hire a statistical company and they log all the people visiting the site. It's more accurate than TV, you can't lie on the Web," says Chegwin.

Chegwin's latest venture is more than just a website. The former presenter of the Eighties TV classics Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and Cheggers Plays Pop, and latterly It's A Knockout and The Big Breakfast, has installed an outside broadcast unit in his bedroom, enabling him to produce a live online TV show. It is the first of its kind in Britain. Such is its popularity in America ­ with whom remains a mystery ­ that it has twice been struck by Chinese hackers; one morning, instead of cheery Cheggers, viewers woke up to the words "Fuck the US Government" across their screens.

Usually, visitors will see the excitable blond sitting in front of a big wooden bed covered in prizes, with a "Cheggers" logo in the background nicked from Cheggers Plays Pop. When not chatting inanely with his co-presenters, Chegwin plays pop videos, answers e-mails, holds competitions and plays any nonsense on video that viewers care to send him. He also has the technology to cut to people's webcams around the world. During one competition, viewers watched a Canadian running round his house banging on pans and flushing his toilet, under Cheggers' instructions.

It is hard to believe that anyone ­ let alone 200,000 people a day ­ would watch this stuff. But many viewers, who stay for 20 minutes on average, keep the site open in a corner of their screens at work. Russian attempts at humour clearly constitute a welcome break for many during a dull day in the office.

I walk up the cottage stairs and find Chegwin sitting at his mixing desk in the bedroom. While he is fully dressed ­ black shorts and a camel shirt ­ one is taken back to the irksome memory of him presenting a naturist game show on Channel 5 last year completely naked.

The room is a shrine to his glory days. Draped over the end of the bed, and in camera shot, is a white waistcoat from Swap Shop. Propped up next to it is a blown-up photograph of Chegwin standing next to Thereze Bazar of Dollar on the set of Cheggers Plays Pop. Chegwin is reading out e-mails. "If you ever have reformed drug addicts round your house for Christmas, never offer them cold turkey on Boxing Day. They might get upset," he reads, braying. He reads another one: "I got my T-shirt yesterday, Keith, how did you guess my size?" "They're only one size ­ large," he says, still irrepressibly chirpy despite two decades of dealing with intellectually-challenged members of the public.

Why does he think the site is so popular? "I dunno. I haven't got a clue," says Chegwin. "The show takes any format we like," he continues, drumming his knees in excitement. "It changes from day to day. People send in tapes ­ we have experts like Ho Ho Harry, who's a gardener in Cornwall, and he's BRILLIANT, and we have a computer expert called Val up in Liverpool. Some people send in videos of themselves making animal noises for five minutes. Don't ask my why, but I just think that's funny."

Chegwin describes the show as "a mixture of TFI Friday-cum-Parkinson, with maybe a bit of Jeremy Paxman, combined with a bit of music and anything, you know. We're the only network on the Web that has the rights to play pop music." Where does the Parkinson bit come in? "Basically the interviews that we get, like Anthea Turner on the phone. Marillion want to come in!"

The show is broadcast on weekdays from 9am to 7pm. If anyone can talk virtually non-stop for 10 hours, it's Chegwin. Has anyone ever told him to shut up? "Oh God, yeah! We get some very rude e-mails. But you get that on TV as well. The letters I used to receive when I was on TV you wouldn't believe."

Still, Cheggers isn't complaining. One gets the impression that he lives in a world in which everything is either "BRILLIANT!!!!!" or "RUBBISH!!!!!" "I've never enjoyed myself so much in my entire career!" he squeals, almost falling off his chair with enthusiasm. "There are only two programmes I've enjoyed as much. There was Star Search on Sky TV, which was a talent show for the general public. It was RUBBISH! ­ 2,000 acts and nobody made it. And the other was It's A Knockout."

Chegwin grew up in Liverpool, and became a child actor. His mother was a school cook, and his father a timber rep. It was, he says, a "BLOODY BRILLIANT" childhood, which he shared with his twin Jeff, and sister, the former Radio 1 DJ Janice Long. At 18 he got the job as Swap Shop's outside broadcast presenter. He had lied at the interview, saying he had done some presenting. But the inexperience didn't show, and the children loved him. "Don't ever work with kids, you'll end up with every disease they've got," he warns. "I had nits, lice, bugs... I was always at the doctor's. I had my pockets pinched."

I confess that the flea-ridden pickpocket may well have been me. As a child, I once asked for his autograph in a restaurant off Bond Street, and proudly stuck the signed place-mat on my wall. "You're joking!" he squeaks, clearly chuffed.

It was during Swap Shop that he fell in love with his fellow presenter Maggie Philbin. Urged on by their child viewers, the pair married in 1982 and had a daughter, Rose, now 13. They divorced acrimoniously in 1993. Chegwin denies that the breakdown of his marriage had anything to do with his alcoholism, which he famously confessed to on This Morning with Richard and Judy in November 1992, and later overcame. Last year he married Maria Fielden, 34, who had lived with the couple and was Philbin's assistant. They have a son, Ted, aged two.

Happy that questions about his past are over, Chegwin reads out an e-mail from a viewer who insists that no word in the English language rhymes with "month". "Bumph!" I say. Chegwin continues to read: "There's no word in the English language which rhymes with orange." "Door hinge," I prompt. By now, Cheggers is about to explode with excitement, and dismisses the e-mail as "RUBBISH!"

As I walk up the gravel path towards the gate, a head pops out of the bedroom and bellows: "BYEEEE!", followed by a loud bray.