Keith Chegwin helped atone for the sins of the Seventies - and so redeemed all our childhoods
Grief at the Swap Shop star's death confounded our instinctive feelings for that baleful decade, writes Gail Walker
It’s strange how the mind works, the engrained assumptions, the repetition of received opinions, the cliched images, the Pavlovian feelings of vague unease and tired revulsion.
Take the Seventies. Just a mention of that now despised decade brings to mind orange and brown interior decor, economic decline and ‘Oooo… er’ sex comedies — to know true existential despair just watch a ‘Confessions of ...’ film or catch an episode of On the Buses on some here-today-gone-tomorrow satellite channel (OTB concerned itself with two ‘middle-aged’ bus employees on constant look out for ‘dollybird’ clippies. Phwoar).
Then there was the aftershave such as Brut, Old Spice, Hai Karate, the wall art including that Athena poster of the beautiful female tennis player scratching her bottom and the fashion — platform shoes, flares and migraine inducing floral shirts. Ah yes, sad, pathetic, desperate … in every sense of the word.
And that is the Seventies viewed through kinder eyes.
In recent years, it has also become a truism that it was THE decade of child sexual abuse with erstwhile Seventies stars being revealed as vile perverts. Step forward Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris, Gary Glitter and half a dozen or so lesser lights.
Yet the recent death of Keith Chegwin has reminded us that it wasn’t all like that. As the outpouring of grief for a man widely described as a national treasure showed, the Swap Shop/Saturday Superstore/Cheggers Plays Pop presenter defied those instinctive feelings we have about that period.
Everyone loved Keith Chegwin, it seems.
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For children in the Seventies, Cheggers was a fun-loving, elder brother. Cheeky but not undermining, he was a promise of — for want of a better phrase — ‘comfy anarchy’. Things might have been a bit shambolic when he was around but they would never get totally out of hand with Cheggers in control.
A guarantee of non-boredom, his appearances were made from windswept, rain-sodden provincial Britain. Wolverhampton! Carlisle! Torquay! Keith’s weekly sojourns were a little geography lesson for the watching millions of children, still in their pyjamas and dreaming their dreams of swapping their old Mousetrap (pieces missing) for a real live pony.
I wonder too if for children growing up in Northern Ireland, where the Troubles raged all around, the memory of shows like Swap Shop is all the sweeter because —briefly — you were transported to a place where there was no bombs or bullets or tears. And let’s face, programmes broadcast from 9.30am on Saturday mornings didn’t tend to be interrupted with police messages for keyholders to return to their premises ...
Cheggers definitely was an honorary kid. And more to the point he liked being on kids’ television. He seemed genuinely at ease with children, never patronising but taking them at face value. We should remember that Keith Chegwin wasn’t only working for the few minutes he was on screen. When the red light went off, he would entertain the milling thousands, engaging with them on a very simple but effective level.
What he did wasn’t easy — even if it appeared so. Vanessa Feltz summed up many of the tributes when she said: “What a lot of people didn’t understand about Keith is that he was really clever. He knew how to make live television work in a way that most people don’t. Most people do what they’re told and stand where they’re told to stand. But he wasn’t like that.
“He was always kicking it up a notch and doing something unexpected. He was a real TV genius.”
In that way, he was a trailblazer, kicking down the fusty, musty doors of ‘how things were done’. It may drive us barmy at times but the more relaxed, off the cuff, totally at ease with the idea of cock-up language of modern television is largely down to a figure often mocked for a kind of cheesy banality.
Even Chegwin’s inevitable decline from the heights of celebrity, whilst being far from dignified, avoided the grande guignol of the fall from grace of many Seventies stars. While alcoholism is terrible for those who have to live with it, it is also commonplace, ordinary — something to which we can all relate.
And his public declaration of his illness in 1992 on The Richard and Judy Show, casual, throwaway almost, was in a strange fashion brave, heroic and understated. Cynics could sneer about how undignified, how vulgar his confession was but it did further the public conversation about the illness, allowing, eventually, a little more understanding and a little less easy censure.
Ironically, the very industry which found Chegwin’s illness unacceptable, TV, was itself busy at the same time covering up sexual abuse, harbouring and protecting its most renowned practitioners.
Compared to those beasts, Chegwin’s failings now appear quaint and only a bit eccentric.
For Cheggers, public confession was the beginning of a kind of career renaissance. True, some of it was mortifying (Naked Jungle) and much of it was irony-steeped post-modernist nostalgia with Chegwin playing versions of himself (Extras, Kill Keith). But for all that, at the base of his re-emergence was simple, unalloyed affection. We recalled what he was to us in our formative years and took him to our hearts again. Obviously that reconnection was tinged with melancholy. How could it not be — we were decades older and winning a pair of roller-skates is not going to lift our sadness.
Now he is gone, aged 60. Too young, we chorus, forgetting that many die at that age or before it. But we’re also taken unawares because in our minds he is still 19 years old and wearing a tank top.
Still, thank you Cheggers for redeeming — if only a little bit — our childhoods.
The 1970s will be forever grateful.