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EXCLUSIVE Craig Charles Interview

The man also known as Dave Lister talks about Red Dwarf X and his new Funk And Soul CD...

You must be delighted with how Red Dwarf X went down with the fans?

Yeah, we were all very concerned. We didn’t want to do anything that was going to spoil the legacy of Red Dwarf . We tried the experiment of doing it filmically with "Back To Earth", which I kind of feel missed the mark, although I was really happy with it – if you watch the director’s cut, where it’s just one film, it’s not done as three episodes, I think it really stands up. But Red Dwarf i s a sitcom, and we wanted to make a situation comedy, like we did back in the day. It was very important that if we were going to go back to Red Dwarf being a sitcom it had to be as good as the classic series, like three, four and five, where it was really at its peak. So we wanted to be back on the ship, not in Starbug, back on board the Dwarf. We wanted it to be character-based. We wanted it to be personality-led, rather than story-led, so it was all about the interactions of the characters and how they got on with each other. Getting back to a live audience. Getting back to being a situation comedy again and I think we’ve achieved that. We’re all really pleased with it and really happy with the way it’s been received.

You guys have been doing it together a long time. Do you make each other corpse a lot?

Completely. Wait till you see the DVD! I think even more so now. I think we’ve become less regimented. Back in the day we’d try our best not to. Now we just take the piss out of each other. We do make each other laugh. The four of us were together doing a load of press and publicity for the launch, and I don’t think I’ve laughed so much. Some of these running gags between the four of us have been going for 25 years, and yet we still laugh at them. We’ve all got our own little quirks and foibles and the people we play are very much caricatures of ourselves. There’s so much love between us now that we can really, really take the piss out of each other and we all know that it’s done out of love. There’s no egos involved. Nobody’s trying to hurt anybody. We’re just going for the laugh. Comedy can be a brutal game.

Does making Red Dwarf feel like you’re going out and having fun with your mates?

It is like having fun with your mates, although it is a lot harder than cutting records on a turntable and making people dance. Most of that work’s been done for you. All you’ve got to do is get the selection right. Comedy, you’ve got to get the feeds right, you’ve got to get the punchlines right, you’ve got to work on your inflections. It’s a very physical thing as well. For an ensemble piece like Red Dwarf, if you’re doing the feed line, you can’t over egg the feed line, because you’ll kill the gag. There’s an awful lot of things you need to think about. Plus you’ve got to get the scripts right. I’m just so proud that Doug Naylor got the scripts right, because the scripts were rocking. I'm so pleased with it

Do you guys have much input to the script?

We do. Especially on this series. This series there’s been more ad libs and stuff coming in than  before. But Doug does 98% of the work. The scripts are finely honed by the time you get them. Then it’s just down to us to try to bring them alive. But we’ll be taking the piss out of each other in the green room, and the script we receive the next week will have a load of the stuff that we were saying in it. Doug’s such a thief. He’s like a social commentator. He’s an anthropologist. He studies us.

Since the last time you did Red Dwarf in front of a live audience you've done other acting jobs like Coronation Street. Do you think you've evolved much as an actor?

I really hope I’ve evolved as an actor. If I didn’t, I might as well just pack in now, really. There’s been some really nice reviews written about my acting being good in this series, which has been really nice. You’ve got to remember that back in the day the only acting we did was when we did Red Dwarf . In between, I’d be doing stand-up, or presenting this or presenting that or doing something else. So Red Dwarf was the only acting we ever did. Before Red Dwarf, I never acted at all. I was a stand-up poet. Chris was an impressionist. Robert was in a comedy troupe called the Joeys.  And Danny was a dancer. So I think we were all a bit rough around the edges. Which, in many ways, was what made it work. But I act every day now. Because you’re acting every day you get better at it. I hope you do anyway. It’s not for me to say though, is it? I can’t write my own reviews!

Turn the page for more Red Dwarf...

Are you happy with the way Dave Lister has evolved as a character?

He’s a very nice guy, but I don’t think he’s evolved that much at all. I think he’s stuck in a bubble. Now it’s getting to the stage where he’s heading towards fifty without a handbrake and he’s inappropriately dressed. He’s definitely someone I’d like to go out for a pint with. I think that’s what he was always intended to be. He’s meant to be everyman. He’s the last human being alive, and he’s got all these different bloods in him, and that’s why he looks the way he looks

His outlook on life is great. He's the ultimate optimist...

Yeah, he’s got that cheeky, chirpy optimism. I think that’s one of the things that’s kept him going. Otherwise, three million years, deep space, looking for a way home and a really hot curry. Hasn’t been laid in quite a while. If he wasn’t optimistic, Jesus, I think he’d have offed himself by now.

Were you conscious in the early nineties that you were out- Star Trek -ing Star Trek in terms of the sci-fi ideas in there?

Yeah, Rob and Doug are so talented at that. A lot of the stuff from Red Dwarf has become science fact. It’s not science fiction anymore. We started off as science fiction and it’s become science fact over the course of time. We were really aware that we were on the cutting edge of science ideas which are difficult to grasp, but we had a much harder job than Star Trek because we’re on the cutting edge of these science ideas… but now how do you make it  funny? That was what we always wanted to do, make it funny. That’s never as easy as just doing a straight drama. I loved the original series of Star Trek , but I did find some of the ones with Jean-Luc Picard a bit dry. It was like the middle class won the class war. It was all very PC.

It’s  24 years now since the first Red Dwarf . If someone had told you then you’d be playing Dave Lister now , what would your reaction have been?

Honestly, I would have just laughed them out the room. When we first started, we thought we’d do two series, which is twelve episodes, of this quaint little curious BBC Two comedy set in space, and then we’d all go our separate ways. If I knew that I’d have to still take Robert Llewellyn’s calls 25 years later, I don’t know if I’d have taken the job!

The set norm for a hit comedy was you did 12 episodes, then people don’t find it funny anymore. You know, Fawlty Towers – 12 episodes, done, dusted. The Young Ones – 12 episodes, done and dusted. That was the template for successful sitcoms and we thought we were gonna follow that. But we didn’t hit our stride until about 12 episodes, I don’t believe.

It’s so much fun to do, and it is so different, and it is so imaginative and the scripts are so well-written. When you get them, you read them and you do laugh out loud, and they are challenging to make, and some of the stories are difficult to get your head round. It does feel like a really rewarding day’s work when you’ve made something funny that when you first approached it you didn’t even understand the concept that you were trying to get at.  But no, I didn’t think I’d be doing it in my 48th year on the planet!

Over the page, Craig talks Funk And Soul...

The Craig Charles Funk & Soul Club is out on CD next week.  Is that a spin-off from your 6 Music radio show?

Yeah. It’s basically a continuation of the radio show. I’ve been doing the radio show for over ten years, and about seven years ago people started saying "Craig, you’ve got to take this on the road." So we started doing a number of residencies around the country, and we play the festivals and all that. It’s basically just bringing out a CD of the stuff we play in the clubs – real party starters, shit-kicking tubthumpers, you know? It’s a CD that’s guaranteed to get the party started, stuff that I love playing and that makes the audience go crazy.

So are you going for classics, or is there an element of introducing people to stuff they might not have heard before?

There’s loads of classics on it, but maybe in a way that you haven’t heard them. There’s a lot of covers that we think are better than the real thing. We’ve got The Incredible Bongo Band’s version of "Satisfaction". We’ve got Alice Russell’s version of "Seven Nation Army". We’ve got The Apples’ "Killing in the Name Of", which is brilliant. There’s things like that. But there is a lot of classic black American stuff. We’ve got Al Wilson’s "The Snake", a bit of Northern on there. But it’s not a history lesson. Over 70% of it is new music by bands that are recording now. So it’s basically the golden era black American music and then the European and worldwide response to that. It’s a really exciting album. It’s really alive. It’s not like curating dead music or anything.

Do you find that a lot of your audience are people who wouldn't usually listen to funk and soul? Your 6 Music show is quite different to a lot of the station's output during the day.

I think so, yeah. When you think of funk and soul, you wouldn’t think of this album. I’m trying to change people’s perception of funk and soul music. When people think of funk and soul, they think of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Reverend Al Green. Don’t get me wrong, we play a lot that and we love all that, but the stuff we play is a lot more edgy. There’s a lot of banging brass, basslines, boogaloo, a load of Hammond organs and that kind of stuff. It’s a bit more edgy, very very dancey. It’s very live – real drums, real bass, real horns, real guitarists. There’s no drum machines. It’s not new modern soul, which is a bit like black pop music. It’s not like that. You’d have to listen to the album to understand what we consider to be funk and soul.

Do you still feel as passionate about music as you did before you started the show?

I don’t see it as a job. I have a job. I work 9 to 5 on Coronation Street , which I love doing. And every now and then I get to fly off to space and wear the leathers and put the dreadlocks in. I work every weekend, and I still don’t see it as a job. It’s the way I unwind. I look at it as every weekend I get invited to the coolest parties and I get to choose the music. I really don’t look at it as a job at all. If I wasn’t the DJ, I’d still be going out and doing the dancing but I wouldn’t be getting paid.
Richard Edwards

The Craig Charles Funk & Soul Club is out on CD and MP3 download from Monday 26 November. Red Dwarf X is out on DVD and Blu-ray now, and you'll be able to catch the first episode again on Dave on Saturday 16 February.

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