What do you get if you take Craig Charles, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Hansel and Gretel and shake them all up together? You get an invitation into the world of the Scary Fairy.
On a cold winter’s night in mid-December we were ushered into the BBC Studios at Salford Quays for an experience that was less Christmas and more Halloween: Craig Charles’s version of the Brothers Grimm classic fairy story. The actor, DJ and writer tells Northern Soul how the project came about.
“It started with poems I wrote for my kids at bedtime. I would do a couple of minutes a night before they went to sleep. As they grew up, I put them away and when I was leaving Coronation Street they said to me ‘Dad, why don’t you do something with those poems?’ so I dusted them down and realised they needed work to make them universal for all ages. It takes quite a while because each one is 45 minutes long and I tend to go off on tangents, I do a bit here and a bit there. I’ve created a whole new world in the Dark Wood and I bring in other people from other fairy tales.”
Many people know Charles from Corrie, Red Dwarf, his BBC 6 music Funk and Soul Show and Robot Wars, to name but a few. But he began his career as a performance poet, and it is to these roots that he returns with his suspense-filled retelling of the story of the ill-fated sweet-toothed siblings.
The premiere is part of Radio 2′s much-loved Friday Night is Music Night. BBC Breakfast stalwart Louise Minchin takes the reins as the corporation’s philharmonic orchestra sets the scene with fairy tale favourites from shows such as Wicked, Cinderella, Peter Pan and Pinocchio, all ably assisted by the wonderful vocals of Hannah Waddingham and James Shovelton.
Then it is the turn of Charles and co-writer, Iain Farrington. It is the pair’s second foray into the Dark Woods following their reworking of Little Red Riding Hood – Scary Fairy and the Tales of the Dark Wood in 2015. Charles narrates the spellbinding tale with the backing of the 60-piece orchestra. But do you dare listen on your own?
With a plethora of fairy tales to adapt I wonder what made Charles choose Hansel and Gretel for the Scary Fairy treatment.
“It suited itself to the world but also there are so many parallels with austerity Britain,” he says. “They are hungry and poor and go on a long trek which is like immigration. We had a slot for January so it lends itself nicely to a winter’s tale.”
This modern take on classic tales is refreshing and the children in the audience loved the naughty humour. So, are there more Scary Fairy poems in the offing?
“All in all, there are about seven to do,” says Charles. “I have Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs but they won’t be called Sleepy or anything like that, I have to de-Disney them. I want the dwarfs to be a travelling band going to do a gig at the castle. I’ve also got Rumpelstiltskin and The Three Little Pigs. It’s about fitting it all in.”
“When it started, I would have had a bigger audience playing CDs in my car and winding down the windows,” he laughs. “I’m not an expert but I am an enthusiast and it’s a joy to do. It’s a massive family now. I get emails from people saying their other halves are watching Strictly or X Factor and they are in the kitchen dancing. It is bringing back old-fashioned nightclub drinking rather than a gang of kids with a bag of pills gurning all over the place.”
The radio show has made it possible for Charles to take the natural leap to playing live. He’s now a permanent fixture on the festival scene and is particularly well-loved in Manchester thanks to his regular gigs at Band on the Wall.
He says: “Some festivals I enjoy and stay there, like at Glastonbury where we have our own campsite. I curate the Mostly Jazz, Funk and Soul Festival and that’s near my birthday and my brother-in-law’s birthday so I stay there but sometimes it can be two or three a weekend so I tend to come and go.”
Fans of Charles’s TV and film work will be relieved that, despite his musical success, he has no plans to give up the small – and silver – screen. In fact, he has a number of exciting projects in the pipeline including a movie in LA.
But even polymaths get nervous. When Charles walked out in front of the 60-strong BBC Philharmonic Orchestra for the Dark Wood tale, he looked a bit apprehensive.
“They are all professional, excellent musicians. I’m not used to being the weakest link and I really didn’t want to fuck it up.”
He adds: “They read the whole piece and are flawless. It’s empowering to be in front of them, it’s like standing in front of speakers at a heavy metal concert, you can feel the energy. If it’s not difficult, it’s not good. On Red Dwarf everyone thinks we have a good laugh but they are difficult shoots because we want to make it as good as possible.”
As the interview draws to a close, I ask Charles which fairy tale character he would be for a day. “I reckon the Wicked Wolf. When we did Little Red Riding Hood he had the grooviest music.”
Hansel and Gretel aired as part of Friday Night is Music Night on BBC Radio 2, January 6, 2017. You can listen to it on iPlayer here.