The Den Of Geek interview: Keith Chegwin (Part Two)
Why was Cheggers Play Pop axed after one episode? Will it be revived? And how did Keith Chegwin end up working with Roman Polanski and Ginger Rogers?
Haymarket Hotel, London. Thursday 8th November, 2007.
Read part one of the interview here…
And when you're ready, we're about to ask Cheggers about Roman Polanski and Cheggers Plays Pop...
Can I roll back about 35 years to the point where you were in Macbeth?
Fleance in Macbeth! I was!
How the hell as a 14-year old from Bootle do you end up in a Roman Polanski Shakespeare production?
Well it was weird; I mean, to go back even further, as a rough synopsis, I used – when I was eight years of age – to be a great fan of Des O’Connor. And I used to emulate him by coming out from behind the sofa singing Des O’Connor songs.
You used to pretend to be Des O’Connor?
Yes, I used to pretend, when I was eight, to be Des O’Connor. Coming out from behind the sofa. My mum and dad hated it.
But we went on holiday to Rhyl, and er, it was a wet and windy day and we didn’t know what to do. So we went to see this end of pier show. And while the show was on, the compere turned round and said does anyone want to get up here and sing a song? We’re doing a talent competition. And I got up and sang a Des O’Connor number, and I won it! And this bloke came up and – this is cutting a very long story short – said do I want to join the concert party, and sing for charity up and down the country. So I did!
And from that I went onto a childrens’ television show called Junior Showtime and sang this song called What A Wonderful World, which wasn’t that wonderful, and whilst I was there, June Collins – who is Phil Collins’ mum – asked me to come down to London to audition for a stage show called Mame with Ginger Rogers.
So I came down, auditioned for the show, got it, rehearsed with Ginger Rogers, but then couldn’t do the show because the licensing laws in those days would only allow you to work thirty days a year. So I couldn’t do it. But I stayed on at stage school, and that’s where I got the opportunity to audition for films and television.
So I did, oh my God, Open All Hours…
You were in that?
Yeah, I did the first ever Open All Hours. I was in Liverbirds, Z Cars, Tomorrow People, Black Beauty, oh I did everything. Sang with bands. I was in a band called Kenny, who did a song called The Bump that got to number one in the charts [it was number three in the UK].
I did West End stage shows. There was me, Russell Grant, Simon Le Bon in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and then, as part of all that I auditioned for Roman Polanski. To play Fleance in Macbeth. And did the job. And then Martin Shaw was my Dad, Francesca Annss was Lady Macbeth, it was fantastic.
And what was it like working with Polanski?
Well, Roman Polanski, great film director, they’d say “He not turn up today”. That’s all we ever heard. I was booked to work on it for six weeks, and ended up working on it for six months!
Just because he didn’t turn up?
Just because he didn’t turn up. Or he’d turn up and go “I feel ill, I go home”.
Were you paid per day?
Yes, paid per day! The Evening Standard wrote an article, I’ll always remember, called The Gobstopper Millionaire, because of the money in those days…
[Keith’s phone rings. No novelty ringtone here. It just rings. Quick break while he answers it and promises to call the person on the other end of the phone back. His burger - which we discussed in part one of this interview - still sits there uneaten.]
From there, the first time I saw you was Children’s Film Foundation.
Yeah, you see, I did about three. I did Robin Hood Junior, Egghead’s Robot with Roy Kinnear, and Patricia Routledge – Mrs Bucket – she played my mother in Elspeth’s Double or something.
All that must have been quite bewildering?
Oh it was in those days. And there was this thing for me, when a friend of mine phoned me up a long time ago and said, Macbeth is on at the Swiss Cottage, do you want to go and watch it? And I said oh God, because I’ve never really seen it as a film.
And I went to see it, and I think a lot of people were studying for ‘O’ Levels, because my name comes up thirteenth on the screen. And one bloke in the audience went, “Oh no, not fucking Cheggers”. Never forget that!
Presumably your memories of the Childrens Film Foundation are mostly fond?
Oh God, yeah, because I was 14 or 13 or something…
It was an apprenticeship and a half…?
Well, what kid wouldn’t like riding horses, shooting bows and arrows and fighting all day, because that’s all we did!
How long did you get to film each of the Children’s Film Foundation projects?
Erm, Children’s Film Foundation films were always made on a budget and very quickly. So each film would be a three or four week shoot. So when I did Robin Hood Junior, that was literally just a three week film. And they were always done on the cheap. And some very big actors would do it as a learning curve for themselves so they could try out new characters and roles.
Are you surprised how fondly they’re remembered? There’s a lot of warmth for them now.
Oh very much so. I think Sky bought a whole load of them up. It’s really embarrassing, because people come up to me and say “I saw you on telly the other day with Peter Sellers in The Optimists”, and you’re going “Oh, right, okay!”
Have your kids watched them?
Nope! No they haven’t! [we kind of got the impression here that Keith's happy for it to stay that way]
Obviously the big thing for us, and I was a child of the 80s, was Cheggers Plays Pop.
And you’d already done a stint as DJing before that?
Well, it’s really quite weird actually, I don’t know where the DJ slant has come from. I did do four years on Radio One with Tony Blackburn, but that only came after doing Swap Shop and Cheggers Plays Pop. So I’ve never really done DJing, which is always something that’s stuck with me, but I don’t care…
There’s a picture of you at local radio on the Internet…
Yes, I used to work for Radio City in Liverpool, and I was there for, I think, two or three years, and I used to drive up after doing Swap Shop, a Saturday morning programme for kids…
You don’t have to explain Swap Shop to us…!
Oh, there you go! I’d drive up, do Radio City on a Sunday and then come back. But Cheggers Plays Pop, that was so funny for us. Because it was axed, nobody knows this.
What happened was BBC Manchester phoned me up and said, look, come and have a meeting, we’ve got this idea of doing Top of the Pops combined with doing It’s A Knockout. What do you think? I said, oh, fantastic.
So London were quite jealous of Manchester. London wouldn’t talk to Manchester, and Manchester wouldn’t talk to London. They used to have their budgets and time slots to fill. So London heard that they were making this pop music programme for kids, and they thought it was along the lines of, I don’t know, some classy quiz. But they didn’t realise that we had, you know, The Stranglers on…
Because you used to get all the names…
I mean I can’t tell you. Every big name you can think of, from Freddie Mercury to even Paul McCartney…
And it’s also what they were there to do – they weren’t singing an old song, they were launching a single on your programme.
Exactly! I think the record companies suddenly realised that with Top of the Pops, people would watch their show and then think about it overnight, and go and buy the record in the morning. With Cheggers Plays Pop, you could watch the show and buy it in the afternoon! And so that really affected the charts. So we had a lot of bands competing, believe it or not, to get on it.
So who did you turn away?
Er, do you know what. I remember one day my boss saying there was a choice between Scritti Politti and Level 42, and I said that Scritti Politti’s quite nice, get rid of the other band then. It was all like that. And we were so big – because we were getting seven million viewers – that if anybody caused us a problem, we could get rid of them!
And did you?
Yeah we did. There were two very big names, and I can’t name them, and we said get there for 2 o’clock, and they arrived at 6. I’d love to name them, but you know…
So how come the show was axed?
What happened is London hadn’t seen Cheggers Plays Pop, and they put it out at 4.20 on a Monday, and the bosses of BBC London watched it and thought this is not what we want kids to be watching, they can’t watch Johnny Rotten being followed by some It’s A Knockout game, jumping over inflatables. So they axed the show, I got a phone call at 6 o’clock on the Monday saying “That show’s gone out, but we’re not doing any more”. After the first one!
And then what happened was, they saw the viewing figures, and they brought it back for nine years!
So where did it all start? You said they came to you with the idea?
Yeah, literally we sat down and had a chat, I always remember it, in Victoria. And this producer said we’ve got this idea for pop music and games, not sure if it’ll work, but we’ll have a go. You can crack a few bad gags while you’re doing it, and we’ll see how it goes. But – and it sounds really big headed doesn’t it? – the show was so big, we could get people phoning us wanting to be on it. Like Ken Dodd! What does Ken Dodd want to be on Cheggers Plays Pop for? Bring him on!
The queue of guests who just wanted to come on and say hello who would trek up to Manchester! All the Radio One DJs! It was bizarre, really bizarre.
Being completely honest, the little kids: how many of them were little shits?
A lot of them. They were quite complacent a lot of them, because they used to take part as a school, but it was incredibly competitive, and the noise! It was horrendous! I’d walk into the studio and they’d scream from beginning to end!
So how long did it take to film something like that?
Well, in those days, because editing facilities weren’t that good, and to put just one edit into a show would take 20 minutes, so if you imagine, that’s why a lot of the shows in those days were done ‘as live’. So we’d have three recording breaks in the show. It ran for half an hour, but it would probably take about 45 minutes to record.
Which presumably was about the attention span…
… of the kids in the audience, yes!
Do you have any particularly strong memory of one particular child?
No, not really.
I’d imagine, nine years’ worth of a show with little kids…?
I mean when I worked on Swap Shop there were some kids. I had one vomit on me! I had to introduce this kid from the St John’s Ambulance, and she was so nervous, and I was trying to make her feel easy before we did it. And we went live on TV, I said good morning, and she went bleeeurrrghhh! And just threw up all over me!
Has anyone dug out the clip yet?
The clip’s around! It’s been shown, just not recently. Because I don’t know whether you know that the BBC got rid of their archive?
It was so sad. Very short-sighted.
Presumably your influence over Cheggers Plays Pop grew as it became more successful?
Not really, no. I’ve always been fan of bosses are bosses.
I got taught a lot of tricks in this business, and one of them is always put your name in the product, because it costs too much money to change it, so I learned that if I put my name in Cheggers Plays Pop they couldn’t get rid of me for a long time. Because it cost £25,000 to change the titles!
And maybe you can resolve the one that we used to argue about at home – did the reds win more than the yellows?
Is that true?
Yep, that is true. It was about even. Everybody thought it was one-sided…
I thought it was fixed!
It was about even.
Any truth or thought in reviving it?
They want to. ITV has asked me to revive it, which is really weird, and the BBC want to do Cheggers Plays Pop, but I’ve said no. The reason being because they won’t do it the way I want to do it. And that is if you are going to do it, let’s bring back the audience, but not as nine-year olds, but as how they are now. So we have the original audience in…
That’s what UK Gold has been doing…
Yeah, the Jim’ll Fix It revival. With the bands, we’ve still got the videos of the bands, so why don’t we cut the old videos of the bands with how they look now?
Will it happen?
It might happen.
Is it close?
Er, no, it wouldn’t happen for a while, another year I would say. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan in reviving something for the sake of it, because you’re playing with people’s memories, and if they are going to do it, I don’t like television shows that are up their own backside, when it’s a bit of embarrassing TV and you’re just making it for the sake of it.
Basically we want to do it sort-of-like Friends Reunited, that’s how they were, this is how they are. I want to see Dollar on there, I don’t just want to see old clips of Cheggers Plays Pop. I want to see Dollar as they are now!
And then obviously we have to talk about Swap Shop…
[Keith then notices his burger is undercooked. It’s sent off to be cooked a bit more. This seems a good point to end the interview for part two]
The third and final part of this interview, where we talk Swap Shop, The Adventure Game, adult joys and - shudder - The Naked Jungle, is right here!
Cheggers Party Quiz is published by Oxygen Games – www.oxygengames.net - and is available on PC, Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii.
Keith Chegwin’s own website can be found at www.keithchegwin.com