After troubles with drink and the disaster of Channel 5’s Naked Jungle, Keith Chegwin finally seems comfortable with his fame, his past and himself. ‘I know how good life can be’ he tells Tom Gockelen-Kozlowski…
Keith Chegwin’s career wouldn’t be the first place to look for those wanting a template of media careers. The popularity of ‘Cheggers plays Pop’ is contrasted by the Daily Mail’s declaration that his Naked Jungle gameshow, ‘plumbed new depths of indecency on television’, and yet still his name attracts almost unanimous goodwill. His appearance in Rick Gervais’ Extras in 2006 showed audiences that he too is aware of his lovably kitsch brand of celebrity. So when The Badger caught up with the veteran Liverpudlian star, in the wake of Brighton’s Beachdown Festival, it seemed somehow perfect that he was ringing from a Tesco car park in Andover.
His appearance at the fledgling festival is typical of his popularity amongst the ‘yoof of today’. ‘I find it totally bizarre’, he admits, ‘I get invitations from Universities all the time, I have had 5 or 6 from Manchester alone and have only passed them up because my daughter is there and I don’t want to embarrass her.’ For a man who began his career over 40 years ago as a child actor, this continually expanding section of his fan-base is an undeniable marker of success. Yet two things have taken hold of Keith Chegwin’s celebrity status, Naked Jungle and his alcoholism.
These low points in his life are, you quickly realise, not taboo with a man who seems ultimately comfortable in his own life. ‘Naked Jungle was the biggest mistake of my career’ he quickly says at its mention. The speedy reply does not, however, belie discomfort and he laughs as he explains that ‘my mum still hasn’t forgiven me’. The experience hurt a man who had lost his position as a prime-time family audience winner but he also takes issue with Daily Mail’s aforementioned description of the show. ‘The people who complained weren’t supposed to be watching…what an old person is doing up that late I don’t know.’ The point is fair when you think that Nicolas Lyndhurst has received very little sensationalist press coverage for After You’ve Gone, a career move which has turned equally sour; the lack of flesh on screen allowing
him to get off scot free.
His strength of mind during this period was never in doubt to those who knew the ‘real’ Keith Chegwin. A long battle with alcoholism rarely has a happy ending but he now looks back ‘appreciating’ a fight that has left him with a healthier view of life. ‘Nobody can blackmail me now’ he declares, ‘I’ve been as low as I can be.’ He readily concedes how lucky he has been; ‘I had a financial benefit that most people don’t have’. His experience has lead him to help alcoholics where possible, ‘I know how tough it is to quit’ he says, with a seriousness that contrasts with the nations image of the entertainer.
All this now is in the past, however, and Keith Chegwin is back in charge of his personal life and his career. Future biographers will refer to this time as the post-Extras periods in Chegwin’s life and there is no doubt that his shocking caricature of himself and his profession has ingratiated him in a new audience. ‘As soon as I told my wife I’d been offered the part she just said go for it’. As a child actor, Keith Chegwin performed in Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, and his acting impressed Gervais. ‘He was a very generous man to work with… he accepted my suggestions and made me feel able to find my own character within the script’. To be involved in a Golden Globe winning show is a great a achievement for a man who has long been associated with cursed phrase, ‘light entertainment’. The experience was one which the former child star relished; ‘I’ve been performing for over 40 years and this, it was the most enjoyable show which I’ve been involved in, in all those years.
With Gervais’ life in Hollywood turning him into an international star, the world of the silver screen is not so far away for the 50 year old. Asked who his film star crush is, Chegwin quickly replies, ‘Nicole Kidman’. With Extra’s confirmed as a cult hit in the US, a Kidman-Chegwin double-billing blockbuster, could be more than just the strange dream of an Acid-addled accountant.
The wiser, happier and more thoughtful Keith Chegwin, is not to be blown off course by such talk of stardom. When I ask him about the Presidential election in the USA (Secretly hoping to run with a, ‘Cheggers
backs Obama’ headline), he simply reflects that ‘all these politicians seem as bad as each other. They only get into it to get the money and power. It just seems that they’re in it for themselves, whilst no one cares about normal people in normal jobs’.
His optimism seems to fall short of international affairs altogether. ‘My one ambition is that we don’t kill ourselves off, and destroy the planet while we are at it’. As the interview went on Cheggers was tested by random questions, coming in from all sides of human knowledge. In ensuing minutes he admitted to wishing to be ‘cryogenically frozen’ and said that his perfect dinner party guest would be Winston Churchill. If the world doesn’t destroy itself and we all stop making so many guns, then maybe, like the Polar Bears, Keith Chegwin could be enjoyed for generations. Isn’t that what mankind’s progression, and its ceaseless efforts to better itself has all been about in the end?