King Cheggers makes his Portsmouth debut in Beauty and The Beast
It's been a long, strange career for Keith Chegwin.
He started off as a child actor, even appearing in Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Macbeth and the pilot episode of Open All Hours, before finding his niche for many years as a presenter on children’s TV, most notably with Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, Cheggers Plays Pop and Saturday Superstore.
There were the almost inevitable wilderness years, and a battle with alcoholism (he’s been dry for more than 20 years now), before he bounced back with stints on The Big Breakfast and GMTV.
The less said about Channel 5’s 2000 gameshow The Naked Jungle, the better (‘the worst career move’).
But one thing that’s been a constant is panto – and now he’s at the Kings in its Easter panto, Beauty and The Beast, playing Jolly King Cheggers opposite Basil Brush as the Beast’s sidekick and X Factor’s Stevi Ritchie as Wally. It’s his second Easter season in the role.
‘I got a phonecall from this guy Anton Benson (the show’s producer) saying we’re putting on an Easter panto, and I said: “That won’t work!’ He said we want you to be in Beauty and The Beast and it was packed houses - it was chocka.
‘I tell you, it’s the best script I’ve ever done in 35 years of doing panto. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.
‘Last year, there were a few people who came to the panto and one woman complained that it’s “not the Beauty and the Beast that I recognise, and I can’t understand why I’m covered in banana and gateaux!” And someone else said “Why do you sing The 12 Days of Christmas at Easter?” Well, because we can!
‘What I like about it is you bring your children along as angels and take them home as hell’s angels. We had one great compliment. Well, to me it was a compliment. The theatre manager came over and said: “We’re enjoying it and the kids are enjoying it, but can you do me a favour and stop the kids tearing the seats apart?”
‘Michael Winsor, who plays Basil, turned to me and said: “Yes, we’ve made it!”’
This will also be Cheggers’ first time playing in Portsmouth.
‘It’s really weird because I used to live near Newbury and I always wanted to do the Kings Theatre, but never had the opportunity. Even when I was in Newbury I toured places like Swindon, Reading, Basingstoke and just toured those year on end, and Portsmouth and Southampton were so close, but I never went there.’
He pulls himself up: ‘Hang about – I did do the Mayflower. I did a programme called Dancing on Ice, and even though people and the judges thought I was the comedy turn, I got a phonecall from Russia – even I was gobsmacked. They said they were Imperial Ice Stars. They’re a Russian skating team – between them they hold 200 medals. He said [puts on a terrible Russian accent]: ‘We are doing the Nutcracker On Ice and we want you to come and stay with us”. I thought it was Jon Culshaw winding me up or something.
‘They asked me to do Drosselmeyer on stage with them I asked: “Why me?” And he said: “We often do people that are famous in Russia, and we saw your skating on Dancing On Ice.”
‘It was really weird, but it wasn’t like panto. People would shout “Wahey Cheggers!” when I came on, but I couldn’t shout back.’
You get the sense that Cheggers would like to focus on the future, but is aware he can’t escape his early TV successes.
‘I did seven years on GMTV, and three years on Big Breakfast – but everything always refers back to Cheggers Plays Pop and Swapshop, but who remembers that now? It’s like living in the past, innit? It’s fine, but it’s 40 years ago now!
‘I did seven years knocking on people’s doors and I loved it. Some of the doors I knocked on, Jesus, it was live on air and I gave this woman a cheque for £10,000 and she went: “Hey Cheggers, don’t tell anyone I’ve been done for shoplifitng will you?”
‘I did another guy a cheque for £10,000 and he was so happy, he was jumping up and down like a kangaroo, doing Jackie Chan kicks in the air. He suddenly went: “Is this live? Yeah... Oh no, I’ve just lost my benefits!”
While he’s done Big Brother and Masterchef, he maintains he turns down a lot more because he finds them ‘boring to watch.’
He has however appeared in Ricky Gervais’ Extras and Life’s Too Short, which he describes as ‘the biggest compliment ever.’
‘There’s a guy like him who’s trusting you with his material. and if you’re rubbish in it, it scuppers the programme – then all the focus will be on how rubbish you were. Ricky said to me, “We’ve got Johnny Depp, Liam Neeson, Sandra Bullock, and... you”. That programme goes out all over the world - a lot of them won’t know who Keith Chegwin is, so that’s a nice compliment from him.’
So does he regret not following the acting side further?
‘I must admit I do. Unfortunately now I couldn’t do it, I get offered parts in things like Casualty or the Bill, but I’m not really a fan of those shows where they just get a celebrity in for a week.’
* Keith and Basil Brush will be doing a Facebook Live Q&A from 2 to 2.30pm on Tuesday on The King’s Facebook page.
* Beauty and The Beast is at The Kings Theatre in Southsea on April 18 at 5.30pm and at 2pm and 5.30pm on April 19. Go to kingsportsmouth.co.uk