Craig Charles’ struggle as a working-class artist still feels too familiar

He’s been an actor, a poet, a DJ and a stand-up, but being thrust into the limelight at such a young age was difficult for someone from a working class background  

When I was 16 I was studying English at college, but my real focus was on playing in loads of different bands. One of the main ones was a band called What For? – our manager was [pre-Ringo Beatles drummer] Pete Best. I used to write all the lyrics. I always found I had a surfeit of lyrics and a deficit of musicians, so I turned my lyrics into poems and started doing stand-up poetry. By the time I was 16 I was hiring out the Everyman Theatre [in Liverpool] on a Sunday night and putting on poetry recitals. This was the time when John Cooper Clarke was going strong, and Steven Wells and Attila the Stockbroker. I was into them but I was also reading WH Auden, EE Cummings, the Russian poet Mayakovsky. 

I was very precocious, very young when I started. I kinda grew up in a place [in Liverpool] where there weren’t many black people. All the black people lived in Toxteth. There were only a couple of black people in West Derby comp where I went, so I always stood out. My mum gave me a lot of my drive. Looking back I’m not sure if this is healthy or not, but she used to say to me, if you go for a job and you’ve got the same qualifications as the white guy who goes for the job, they’ll give it to the white guy. You’ve gotta be better, faster, fitter, stronger. Like she was. She had four sons by the time she was 24, then she went back to college and became a teacher. My dad was a lorry driver, so I rarely saw him. He’d leave for work at five, six in the morning and when he came back we were in bed. 

All of my brothers and me got married very young. Jimmy, my half-brother, who was five-and-a-half years older than me – he got special dispensation from the Pope to get married at 16 ‘cos his girlfriend was pregnant. So I was only 11 when he went off. My brother Dean and I were fairly close, we shared a bedroom. But he also got married young, at 18, and I got married at 19. It sounds like we couldn’t wait to flee the nest, like we couldn’t wait to get out. But it wasn’t really like that. People just got married early then. Maybe we grew up faster in those days, but of course it wasn’t a great idea to get married at 19. I’ve got a lovely son, Jack, from my first marriage [to actress Cathy Tyson] – he’s 32 now and I’m proud of him – but getting married at 19, it’s just stupid isn’t it? You’re not a fully formed human being, you’re still a child in very many ways. 

I’d tell my 16-year-old self not to be in such a hurry. I was famous when I was quite young. There was no preparation, no fame school where I came from. You’re not taught how to handle it, this sudden influx of wealth and fame. And I handled it all very badly. I was unreliable. I was cocky. I was always late. I didn’t prepare things. I used to wing it a lot. I mean, friends can come and go, but enemies, they last a lifetime. You make enemies when you’re climbing the greasy pole and along with my immaturity and insecurity… I just didn’t know how to handle it. Suddenly I was thrust into situations where I was doing things like Loose Ends on Radio 4, with people who came from completely different walks of life, like Emma Freud and Robert Elms, tremendously talented people from a completely different world. I think they liked what I was doing but I’m not sure they liked me as a person. I could have handled that an awful lot better but then again, it was an education. It wasn’t a life I was really ready for – I was supposed to be a van driver!

Looking back, I was too ignorant and too inexperienced to actually enjoy what I was being shown sometimes. So I got cocky instead. I was part of a thing called the so what? school of journalism. I remember going to an art exhibition at the ICA, and the curator telling me how excited he was about this and that, and me saying, hmm, it’s all a bit ‘so what?’ He was apoplectic. But that cockiness – it was probably a defence mechanism as well, to be honest. You know, sort of masking my ignorance by taking a ‘stance’. I’m not like that any more. I like to soak up knowledge, new experiences, different things.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

I was actually quite a sensitive kid. You don’t start writing poetry if you haven’t got some sort of sensibility and something you want to say. I was one of the regular radical poets in the first days of Saturday Live with Ben Elton, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. I was doing all the poems about the police and Thatcher and South Africa, which came across as fairly hard hitting. I did enjoy being recognised. At first. But if I could talk to my younger self I’d say, go for money, not for fame. I’d rather be rich and anonymous than have everyone know who I am. The shine wears off. My kid won’t go shopping with me, they tell me just to stay at home. But you do enjoy it at first cause it’s kind of validating your decisions, the early risks you took.

My younger self would be amazed he’d still be relevant at 55. A lot of people I started out with, they’ve disappeared from our screens. Who’d have thought 32 years later we’d still be doing Red Dwarf? That and Robot Wars were big hits for me. And Coronation Street! I have quite a wide demographic. My radio show on 6 Music has just had its highest ratings and it has the highest audience share on the entire network by a sizeable amount. When I was about 19 my agent said, we can either just rip this now, and you can have a short career and make a whole heap of money, or we can build a career. And I knew I wanted to build a career.

Being a dad… I’m not gonna write the whole review, you’d have to ask them. But I love it. I’ve got two daughters and they drive me crazy. Because I’m from all brothers, no sisters. And my mum died really young as well, when I was 24. And now I live in a house full of women; my wife, two daughters and quite often my wife’s sister and her two daughters are around here as well. I’m the only bloke. My remote control is not my own, put it that way. I know far too much about the Kardashians. I need a good talking to.

If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be my brother Dean. He tried to get hold of me just before I went into the jungle [to do ITV’s I’m a Celebrity in 2014]. We’d not spoken for a few years – there was a family falling out. And I just thought, you know what, I’ll leave it, go and do the jungle thing and I’ll come out and we’ll all be together for Christmas. And he died while I was over there. The production team came to me and asked me to go and see the psychiatrist and I just thought it was a health check, you know, to see how you’re coping. But the doctor said, “I’ve got some terrible news to tell you, Craig. Your brother Dean has passed away.” So I had to get on a plane straight away. He was so far away. And it took so long to get back. I’d have loved to have had a conversation with him. I’d have loved to have made up.

I’m very happy where I am now. I’ve made bad decisions and I’ve made good decisions and I’ve been unfortunate and I’ve been lucky. But now I’m at peace with who I am and what I’ve got. I love my wife and kids. I love my house. I love my job. I’m just really happy. I found growing up quite stressful in many ways. I couldn’t wait to grow up. If I could I’d go back to my younger self and I’d tell him to slow down. But I couldn’t wait to be big.

The BBC Radio 6 Music Festival takes place March 6-8. Listen on 6 Music and BBC Sounds, watch on BBC iPlayer with highlights on BBC Four and the Red Button. The Craig Charles House Party is on BBC Radio 2 on Saturdays, 10pm-midnight.  The Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show on is on BBC 6 Music on Saturdays, 6-9pm