TV host Keith Chegwin on his booze battles, Ricky Gervais and 'the most disgusting TV show ever'
Keith Chegwin is a strange sort of British icon.
A kids' television presenter turned gameshow host, turned alcoholic drop-out, turned rejuvenated ironic sitcom star.
So universally known on his home shores is he that the actor and comic David Mitchell wrote a newspaper column opining: "The true test of a Briton is whether or not he knows who Keith Chegwin is."
The sort of celebrity who goes on Dancing with the Stars (tick), Celebrity Big Brother (tick) and yes, Celebrity MasterChef (tick, and the reason for this chat). It's an eventful episode where Keith – to give a solely Kiwi point-of-reference, a sort of tubby, manic, perma-smiling Jason Gunn – consistently confuses tofu with halloumi, gets bossed around by his cooking partner, hard-bitten hack Samira Ahmed, then burns himself badly but soldiers manfully on. "What the hell was it?" he asks cheerfully of the halloumi-tofu question.
Chegwin has been offered MasterChef a few times before, but given it takes a month of concerted effort, he says: "I don't know anyone who has got that much time apart from people who aren't working." This is delivered with the nonchalance of someone whose career has emerged from those wilderness years where there wasn't much work going at all.
The BBC cut him after a 14-year stint of fronting kids' shows and gameshows, and he won't criticise them: he got too old for children's TV, and that's that. Eventually, he found himself running his own online bingo (Cheggers Bingo) and set up a webcam in his bedroom (Cheggers Bedroom) to keep the flame flickering.
Being a raging alcoholic didn't help: he eventually confessed to a two-bottles-of-whisky a day habit that cost him his marriage to fellow TV host Maggie Philbin. The confession came, unplanned, live on breakfast television. "It was the best thing ever for me," says Chegwin.
"I had drunk myself into a stupor. I had been to clinics so many times I couldn't lie any more about being in clinics for depression – people know I am not a depressive person.
"So I had a choice: the choice was to come out with a load of lies and be chased by the press and eventually the truth came out, and perhaps be distorted, or I could grab the bull by the horns, tell it like it was and wipe the slate clean. So the press could phone me and say 'did you fall off the stage drunk?' and I would say 'yes, that was me'; 'you didn't leave a hotel for two weeks and your drinks bill was over three grand?' 'yes, that's me'. There was no point in lying. It's surprising the amount of friends I made from it. It's also amazing the amount of friends I lost who I thought were true friends."
Post-booze, he got gigs on various channels – including his career lowlight, fronting a late-night nude quiz show called the Naked Jungle. He was offered the show, he explains, and when he got there and realised the competitors weren't all bodybuilders and models, he figured it would look weird if he wasn't naked too.
"Nobody's gonna watch this, right? It's on at 11pm on Channel Five. How wrong could I be. It still holds the record for the highest viewing figures ever on Channel Five. It got mentioned in the House of Commons as the most disgusting programme ever. I've promised my family I will never take my clothes off on telly again." Incidentally, he hasn't stuck to that.
If Naked Jungle was the worst of times, an early-morning show called The Big Breakfast was the best of times – Chegwin played a roving reporter who would door-knock people at unreasonably early hours to present them with prize money with the phrase: 'Wake up you beggers, it's Cheggers!'.
"One old lady, I gave her a cheque for ten grand. On live TV. 'Keith', she says, 'You won't tell them I've been done for shoplifting will you?' Another guy was jumping up and down like a kangaroo, all over the place, then he stopped and said: 'Is this going out live? Oh God, I've lost my incapacity benefit then.' I've always loved live telly."
But his real renaissance came thanks to Ricky Gervais, who called up one day asking if he could act. Chegwin is, actually, rather proud that he's a trained actor – he started off in kids' TV movies and had parts in things like Z-Cars. It turned into a part in Gervais' sitcom Extras. "He is one of the most generous performers I've ever met," says Chegwin.
"If he writes a line that's funny, he will give you the line instead." Then Gervais came up with Life's Too Short, a mockumentary following the actor and small person Warwick Davis, with cameos from Liam Neeson, Johnny Depp and Sandra Bullock – and then Chegwin. Davis, playing an embattled agent, tours the clubs with an inspired combination of chatshow host Les Dennis, former Eastenders actor Shaun Williamson and Chegwin, who are told by Davis: "Individually, you're Z-list celebs, but altoether the three of you make one D-List."
Sending himself up, a brooding Chegwin gets drunk, strips naked (see), and is immediately hired by satellite television. He did it, says Chegwin, because he gets offered lots of rubbish, and he knew this would be good.
Like what? "I don't do those talking heads shows – a waste of time, lazy TV." Yes, he's done a lot of reality TV – but none that comes past his front door: "They don't know what my wife looks like, they don't know who my kids are."
MasterChef he did for a laugh, he reports, but the rest of them say around in the green room with cookery books, and their own pots and pans, and Ahmed even smuggled in her favourite potato peeler. "Fantastic person," he says. "But god, can she nag you."
The upshot of his rather bizarre CV is longevity. "I've always done what I've always wanted to do – and that is entertain and perform," he says.
"Naturally, you can't please all the people all of the time but fingers crossed sometimes something I do does shine through. I never thought the industry owed me a living: you've got to work for it. Sometimes I am on telly a lot, sometimes I am not on at all." The difference, he says, is he can sing, dance, act, entertain: he's got enough talents to keep working, unlike the reality-TV graduates.
And so, as Mitchell said, he's a strange sort of national icon. "I find it really weird when younger people come up to you and say 'Big Breakfast!" or "MasterChef!" and then someone 80 years old goes past you in a supermarket and says "Hello Cheggers!" says Chegwin.
One day, he says, he was in a particularly deserted part of the Australian Outback, going for a walk. A single backpacker loomed in the distance. Slowly, he trudged closer and closer. As the two men passed by, he finally spoke just two words: "Alright, Cheggers?" Yes, he concludes, "I've been lucky".
Celebrity MasterChef premieres Monday 7 March, 8.30pm on FOOD TV.