Craig Charles Interview: Soul Survivor

Craig Charles talks to Mark Dale about sourcing music for his Funk and Soul show, Manchester vs Liverpool and taking his Red Dwarf cast members to The Hacienda.

Ben Smith

Last updated: 18th Aug 2016

Image credit: Steven Sibbald

Craig Charles is best known as a TV actor having played lead character Dave Lister, the last surviving human on science fiction sitcom Red Dwarf and philandering, Northern soul-collecting Lloyd Mullaney, the owner of cab firm StreetCars, on Coronation Street.

To fans in the UK he is also a popular club and radio DJ. The Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show, which began in 2002, is the longest running show on BBC Radio 6 Music (take a listen below). It is also the name of his club night which holds several UK residencies, including Band On The Wall in Manchester and is a popular feature at many festivals. 

Charles started his career as a performance poet in Liverpool and gained his first appearances on TV with this discipline. But it was for his role in Red Dwarf, beginning in 1988, that he shot to fame. Much more TV work followed including notably Robot Wars and Takeshi's Castle before he joined Coronation Street in 2005 and stayed for 10 years. 

We caught up with Craig Charles for a quick chat as he was coming towards the end of a several month stint filming series 11 and 12 of Red Dwarf.

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Hey Craig! Hope you're well, man. How's the filming going for the new series of Red Dwarf?

I'm good, thanks. It's going well. Quite tough at the moment because we're just coming towards the end of filming. We're doing the last episode next Wednesday. But it's been really good, the episodes are fantastic. Honestly. I'm really pleased with them. They're really funny. It's like classic Red Dwarf.

Who were your main influences in the early days when you were writing poetry?

People like John Cooper Clarke, Roger McGough, Adrian Henri. I used to love John Cooper Clarke, he was the best. Those sixties Liverpool poets, Roger McGough, Adrian Henri, Brian Patten took me under their wing, got me to do a load of gigs with them and stuff.

With the radio show and the club nights, that's an awful lot of music to source, especially as you play so much new stuff and you have so many other commitments. Where do you get all the music from? Do you have any help?

I'm really lucky, I get sent an awful lot of stuff. We have listening nights. I listen to an awful lot of music anyway. I get a lot of albums, new mixes of things sent and I've got a team, Simon Hodge, Ben Appleyard. It's no hardship, it's actually fun. I don't look at it as a job, really. It's more like a hobby that's got a bit out of control. 

The basis of the show is that it's grounded in the golden era of black American music, but a lot of it is the European and worldwide response to that music now. So it's not a history lesson. Yes, we play a lot of music from the sixties and seventies, but there's so much music that's being performed and recorded now. It's nice to be able to give it that feel, so you can pay homage to that era but you can also see what people who have been inspired by that are doing now.

Who are your favourite club DJs and who are your favourite radio DJs?

My favourite club DJs are people like Sam Redmore, Diesler, The Reflex, Joey Negro. With radio it's more the shows that I like. I love Guy Garvey's, Cerys Matthews, I love Huey Morgan's show. They're all different kinds of shows. Cerys's has got a lovely feel for a Sunday afternoon, Guy's has too.

If you had to pick one artist whose back catalogue you couldn't live without, who would it be?

Ooooh, good one. Bill Withers is very important to me. I love him. It's surprising how many hits he had. On the newer front I love the two Cody Chesnutt albums. There's also Stevie, Marvin, Al Green. There's so much music I couldn't do without really.

Same question, but this time a record label?

Well, Stax, I suppose.

Over Motown?

I'm a Stax man more than a Motown man. Don't get me wrong, I love Motown. Stax are a little bit harder edged, a bit funkier, a bit more urban, do you know what I mean? It had a bit more attitude to it. Motown was kinda pop music for black people.

You were part of the Red Wedge tour in 1986. Do you still support the Labour Party and what do you think of Jeremy Corbyn?

I did do the Red Wedge comedy tour and I still support the Labour Party. I don't think they're very electable at the moment. I think they're too divided. With this European debate that's happening I could see both Labour and the Tories splitting into two different parties.

You're a Scouser who presented the Beatleland documentary for BBC Radio and yet you've got a long history in Manchester thanks to much of your TV, radio and Djing work. From which city does the best music come?

It depends what generation you're talking about. Liverpool owned the sixties and the eighties, Manchester owned the two following decades, so we'll just have to see what happens in this decade.

Has the humour of Red Dwarf changed in any way that you perceive since original co-writer Rob Grant left the writing team?

Not really. We just get the finished scripts so I don't know who the Andrew Ridgeley was in that relationship, if there was one. But no, especially not in these series. I think it's pretty standard, we just haven't grown up. You're not allowed to grow up in sitcoms, are you? 

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What would Lister rather do? Find Kochanski or return to earth?

Find Kochanski.

Do you think Lister prefers Rimmer as a hologram or his physical parallel?

I don't think he prefers Rimmer any way! [laughs]

At least he could punch the physical parallel if he got too annoying.

[Laughs] I prefer Ace Rimmer, to be honest. I wish he'd just come back as him, that would be good.

What kind of a pub would you imagine the Aigburth Arms to be? (it's the name of the pub Dave Lister was supposedly born in, under the pool table) to be?

It's a real pub! It's still there! And they have a pool table. And people go in there to look at the pool table that Lister was born under. Who'd have thought that?

In the new series is Holly still offline?

Erm, I can't say.

If you live until you are 181 (the age Dave Lister is supposed to die) is that enough time to collect all the music you want to track down? 

I doubt it. I've been offered the opportunity to go and have a rummage round the vaults at Motown and I'd love to do that. I don't know if you know, but most of their singles would be recorded by four or five different artists, then they'd decide which they'd prefer to put out.

So there's a load of famous songs recorded by famous Motown artists which were also recorded by other Motown artists and I'd love to go and dig some of them out, make a series out of them.

Was your libido not a consideration when you decided to stop playing serial philanderer Lloyd to going back to playing Lister who has been single, more or less, for over 3 million years?

[Laughs] Well Lloyd had his heart broken so many times as well. No, it wasn't really. I'd done ten years on Coronation Street and they couldn't give me the time off to do these two new series.

I've worked with these guys for nearly 30 years and Coronation Street will always go on. They couldn't really make Red Dwarf without me, so it was a case of showing loyalty to people who I'd worked with since I was 23 years of age. 

Going back to the time when you were 23 years of age who was the best raver when you took Red Dwarf cast members Norman Lovett, Chris Barrie and Danny John Jules to The Hacienda?

Alls I've got to say is that Norman Lovett has got a helluva lot of stamina. [Laughs] A helluva lot of stamina, that lad. They were all fairly crazy back then, even Chris Barrie, believe it or not. Get a couple of IPAs into him and he was on one.

Where would you take the cast members out now during the recent filming if you had to choose a club in Manchester?

Well we're filming in Pinewood, just outside of London, but I'd love to get them up to my night at Band On The Wall. I think they'd turn a few heads. I think I'd want them to come in costume [laughs].

Talking about turning heads, I have a lot of mates in Croatia and when I looked online at which of my friends liked Red Dwarf it seems the show is really popular amongst them. I think you're probably quite famous over there.

It's crazy. I go out there to DJ, I'm doing Soundwave and Electric Elephant this year. The first time I went there, as I came out of the airport there were all these people looking at me. I though, oh fuck, it's racism. It was the first time I'd ever been over there and people had warned me about eastern Europe and that it's not as diverse as it is over here, so I was prepared for a bit of stick.

Then, all of a sudden, people were coming up and asking if they could have their photo taken with me. I was thinking 'surely they must have seen black people before?' But then one of them said, oh, we love Red Dwarf. All of the taxi drivers we had were massive Red Dwarf fans. It was quite weird, coming out of the station in Zagreb and everyone knowing who you were. A very strange experience.

Who has the better taste in music, you or Lloyd? 

Well the good thing about Lloyd is that he's a record collector, a crate digger, just like me. That was a little part of my personality that I was allowed to invest in Lloyd. So we're quite similar, although he's a bit more on the Northern front. He's a little less diverse in his tastes than me but he's certainly got a healthy taste in music. 

Have you ever paid £1000 for a record like Lloyd did?

Have I bollocks! You can get it on CD! [laughs]

Do you ever get free cabs from the real Manchester firm Street Cars?

No, I don't, but I should do! When I go back I should phone up their MD and demand free cabs for life. I put you guys on the map!

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Upcoming UK dates: 

Blackpool - Bootleg social, Saturday 20th August 

Cumbria -  Tarnside Farm, Friday 26th August (Solfest)

Manchester - Band On The Wall, Saturday 27th August

London - Clapham Common, Monday 29th August (Madness presents House of Common)

Like this? Read Craig Charles set for homecoming funk and soul club show