Oli Davis chats with Keith Chegwin about his new film, Kill Keith…
“Hello!” yelled the manically cheery voice on the other end of the phone. For a moment, I knew how it felt to have Keith Chegwin “down your doorstep” – not a euphemism, but a feature he ran for Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast in the 1990s. He’d knock unannounced on peoples’ front doors, offering prizes and fun. Arguably that, and his stint on the 1970s, BBC children’s programme Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, is what has earnt him national treasure status.
A glance at the clock, however, shows it past noon. Perhaps for some people, it’s always morning; the sun perpetually rising; awake, hyper and gulping down gallons of orange juice at a time. If there are, Mr. Chegwin would be up before them all. “Call me Keith!” he bellows after I call him ‘Mr. Chegwin’ for the second time.
So, as the definitive morning person, full of 6am cheer, what attracted him to a low-budget, independent British horror film?
“Andy [Thompson, the director] rang up and said ‘Do you want to have a meeting?’” regaled Keith of the project’s first seeds being sowed. They had worked together on business pieces in the past, but now Thompson wanted to film his debut feature. “So I thought, ‘Oh, we’ll just meet up to talk about some new project and catch up.’ And then he said, ‘Look, I’ve got an idea for a film.’ And I said, ‘What’s it called?’…‘Kill Keith!’”
Usually, one would pause for dramatic effect before the film title punch line reveal at the end. Not Keith. You start to doubt he ever stops. How does he breathe? Can morning people indulge in photosynthesis?
“So I said, ‘What’s that about?’” Keith continued, his chuckle starting to rumble ever louder. You can only imagine how booming his laugh must have been at the time. “And [Andrew] said, ‘I haven’t got a bloody clue! Do you want to help write it?’”
So jolly was Keith’s tone up until then, that the fractionally pensive drop in speed continuing made him sound quite profound. “I said ‘No, not really’ because I always write favourably for me, but if you’re doing a movie, you’ve got to be, sort of, I don’t know, objective. I think it’s kinda nice that someone else has gone away and wrote it and brought this back.”
Keith’s gratefulness comes across sincerely. His career has spanned so long – approaching 40 years on television – and experienced such a variety of fame. He was the presenter of Channel 5’s infamous reality television show Naked Jungle, yet also the friendly face of many a generation’s childhoods, on Swap Shop and The Big Breakfast. He’s earnt his status as a cult hero, and seems flattered by the fact.
“So they came back with this script, and I tell you, I’ve never laughed so much in my life. The opening line was about a television show called Up the Crack of Dawn.” Keith’s laughter almost wrestled the audio recorder into submission at that point. The film’s female lead, you see, is also called Dawn. “So I gave the script to my son to read, and he came back after a couple of hours and said ‘Dad, you’ve gotta do it.’ And that’s what drew me to it, really.”
The film is a comedy, but it flickers between a few other genres – most notably Horror, specifically its Slasher strand. Or, in Keith’s words, “it’s like a horror movie, but not like a gory horrible nasty movie.”
Keith plays himself, as a roaming reporter for Up the Crack of Dawn. The lead anchor of the show, however, is soon to depart, and Keith is amongst a list of five candidates to replace him. To cast the other four, Keith gave Andrew his address book to thumb through for ideas. But Andrew flicked past the larger, more famous names, to settle on those who embody British light entertainment and the archetypical nostalgic celebrity reality television show contestant – Joe Pasquale, Russell Grant, Vanessa Feltz, and Tony Blackburn, with whom Keith co-presented Radio One for four years.
Those other names begin to die gruesome, breakfast-themed deaths (being shot, execution-style, wearing a cereal packet as a hood; drowning in a swamp of porridge). How long does Keith have left? Or is it he doing the murdering?
Keith’s by far the best thing about it, as he plays unhinged remarkably well. It could be because we’re so accustomed to a smile upon his face, and a chuckle in his voice. To hear and see otherwise is disconcerting, like Micky Mouse swearing.
There are parallels with Keith’s character and performance in the BBC sitcom Extras. “I don’t know, it’s weird because, like the Ricky Gervais thing, people who watch it think ‘oh, you’re just playing yourself’, but when Ricky Gervais phoned me up he said ‘look, I’ve got a part for you to play – can you act?… I don’t want you to play Keith Chegwin, I want you to play this character.’” Thankfully, he can act, and these homophobic, racist and psychotic characters bear no resemblance to his own personality.
“It’s kind of weird, because I did a lot of films in the past when I was a kid. I think I did about seven feature films, like, you know, Tragedy of Death, and, oh God, The Optimists with Peter Sellers, and I thought my days of filming had gone!” It’s a shame that the IMDb lists his performances in both Kill Keith and Extras under ‘Self’ rather than ‘Actor’.
The IMDb also lists the film’s full title as Kill Keith: Volume 1. If it weren’t such an obvious parody of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, you’d assume there was to be a sequel.
“I don’t know, you know, I mean, pfft – who knows!? But if there’s a Kill Keith 2, God, I’d be over the moon…I mean whether that will come to fruition or not, I don’t know, but the good thing is, this is a real surreal moment for me. In a couple of weeks, [Kill Keith] will be in HMV and, oh God, ASDA, and…everybody’s taken it, the lot. So it’s going to be really quite weird going into those shops, stepping out to buy me movie.”
His passion for the film, and the experience of making it, reverberates down the phone with laughter. “I’m a great fan of pure escapism. I’m the sort of guy who comes home on a Friday night and watches something that’s, you know – what’s the word? – A chicken-tikka-masala, put-your-feet-up, fun movie.
“And that’s what Kill Keith is. It really is. It’s just a get-away-from-the-worries-of-the-world, put-your-feet-up movie. It’s an hour and a half long, it’s just about right, and you can enjoy it, you know what I mean? Chicken tikka masala, beer, and enjoy.”