Festival preview: Craig Charles at Willowman, Knayton, North Yorkshire

Craig Charles
Craig Charles
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CRAIG Charles could be forgiven for sounding more gravel voiced than usual today. He’s been filming from 7.30am, hot on the heels of a weekend of partying.

While the actor, comedian and DJ may turn 50 next month he’s showing no signs of easing gently into middle age if the past few days are anything to go by.

Last Friday was spent in his home city, Liverpool, recording a live open air version of his Funk and Soul Show for BBC 6 Music. “It was brilliant,” he enthuses, “there were about 7,000 people going mental outside the Liver Building then there was a firework display. Lee Fields was exceptional as were Smoove and Turrell, and there was an after party”.

On Saturday he was DJ-ing at “a massive boat party on the Thames in London on a paddle steamer called the Dixie Queen”. Father’s Day was spent relaxing with his family but on Monday the Coronation Street star is back in the thick of things.

This coming weekend he is to DJ at Willowman, the boutique music festival near Thirsk in North Yorkshire. Festival-goers can expect a set of “funk and soul – exactly what it says on the tin”, he says. “I’ve got together party music that makes everyone get their wiggle on.”

At the moment he’s “really got into” Mod jazz, especially Blue Mode’s revamp of Smells Like Teen Spirit as well as modern reworkings of Jungle Boogie and Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, “stuff designed to make you dance and make you smile”.

Funk and soul have been part of Charles’ life since childhood. His father, a merchant seaman from British Guyana who wound up in Liverpool in the early 1960s after being deported from Amsterdam “with a pocketful of change and a bag full of records”, filled his son with with a love for Harry Belafonte, Ray Charles, Sly and the Family Stone and Otis Redding.

“The first record I remember hearing was Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman,” he recalls. “I was always into black American music – the golden era of the 60s and 70s.”

Growing up on the Cantril Farm housing estate, where his was the only black family, music offered a welcome refuge from the racism he frequently encountered.

“On Cantril Farm there were 1,000 white families and us – it did feel like us against the world,” he remembers. “The music I really liked was black music. It felt as though I had my own gang – and they were all American.”

His tastes broadened in his teens when he worked in the Liverpool record store Probe Plus with future pop star Pete Burns. Along came Led Zeppelin and The Cure “before they became famous”.

Charles hankered to become a musician himself and was in a couple of bands who were “not very good, to be fair”.

“The bands kept breaking up. I was the lyricist. I was left with a surfeit of lyrics and a deficit of musicians to play them.”

So instead he turned his attentions to performance poetry, which, thanks to likes of John Cooper Clarke (of whom Charles was a “massive fan”), Attila the Stockbroker and Seething Wells, was in vogue at the turn of the 80s.

Soon he was performing with Mersey Sound poets Roger McGough and Adrian Henri at the Everyman Theatre. His way with words led to invitations to appear on TV shows such as Riverside, The Saturday Review and Black on Black. Given a spot on Wogan, he realised he had to leaven his angry young man act with humour. Gradually he became known as a stand-up comedian.

His major breakthrough when the producer of the TV show Saturday Night Live asked him if he’d like to be in a “revolutionary sitcom on BBC2” called Red Dwarf. Teamed with other non-actors – “Chris Barrie was an impressionist, Danny John Jules was a dancer and Robert Llewellyn did satirical comedy songs” – it became a cult hit, running for eight series. In 2012 it was revived on Dave.

“It’s funny looking back 27 years and we’re still talking about making more Red Dwarf,” he says. “At the time I did not realise how big it was going to be. I go all over the world and people call me ‘smeg head’. My wife doesn’t like it all that much.”

Latterly he’s become equally well-known playing cab driver Lloyd Mullaney in Coronation Street. “Lloyd is a part-time DJ who plays Northern Soul,” Charles explains. “Sometimes the producers phone me up and ask what songs should we play in the Rovers [Return]”.

“It’s nice that it’s little bits of me in the character of Lloyd. It makes you own the character a bit more.”

Since 2002 Charles has presented his weekly Funk and Soul Show on BBC 6 Music. He joined the station from Kiss FM with whom he’d “fallen out” when they asked him to play techno music on his breakfast show. “I’m not a big techno or house music fan,” he says. “I find it all a bit headache-inducing, especially at that time in the morning.”

Initially 6 Music wanted him to trawl through the BBC’s archives for hidden gems but Charles had other ideas. “I said, ‘No, I want to do funk and soul’. They were already playing a lot of thin white boys with guitars, they hadn’t thought about something like that.”

What was originally a niche show is now the most listened-to programme on the network. “The audience share is staggering,” says Charles, with evident pride.

He notes he’s in good company with the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Guy Garvey, Cerys Matthews and Tom Robinson. “It’s a great line-up. They’re not DJs, they’re musicians who share a love of music in general.”

Doing the show has enabled him to meet several of his heroes, including James Brown, who warmed to Charles so much he even allowed him to address him by his first name.

“When you get to share in Mr Brown’s presence – you have to call him that – meeting your idol, for some people it’s like interviewing The Beatles or the Rolling Stones,” Charles says. “I think of James Brown as that iconic and to get on so swimmingly was great.”

Interviewing “legends” such as George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker, Candi Staton and Al Green was similarly thrilling. “Wow, man, you can’t believe you’re in the same room or talking to them on the phone,” he admits. “You do have to pinch yourself.”

Now his Charles’ son Jack – from his first marriage to the actress Cathy Tyson – is following in his father’s footsteps. The 22-year-old singer recently featured on five songs on album by Lack of Afro. “He’s done very well,” Charles observes proudly. “He’s a big funk and soul fan – music that’s really up my street. I can play it on my show without it sounding out of place.”

Willowman Festival takes place at Knayton, near Thirsk, North Yorkshire from June 19-22.

Joining Craig Charles on the bill are The Wailers, The Blockheads, Ruts DC, Ian McNabb, Tenpole Tudor, Smoove and Turrell and Hope & Social.

Adult weekend tickets are £75. For details visit hwww.willowmanfestival.co.uk.

Smoove Turrell also play at the Brudenell Social Club, Leedes on Sunday, June 22.

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