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Having a smashing time with robots.

Byline: By Will Mapplebeck

A movement is growing in garden sheds, garages and small workshops across the world. Grown men and women stare at diagrams, tinker with soldering irons and fiddle with circuit boards.

They have one aim, to build their own robots and enter them into battle against other's home-made machines.

Actor, poet and television presenter Craig Charles knows all about this burgeoning sport - he presents its equivalent of Match of the Day, Robot Wars.

This year Robot Wars moves to Five from BBC2 and Craig will present with Northumberland's own Jayne Middlemiss.

Craig maintains that building robots and then smashing them up is the world's fastest growing sport.

He adds: "This is a sport that works without television, it goes on all over the country when we are not there."

In case you haven't seen Robot Wars, it looks something like this. The remote-controlled gladiators enter a huge arena to loud dance music and proceed to knock seven bells out of each other while a studio audience cheers them on. The winning robot is the last one standing.

It is not exactly Late Review, but it does make for a mindlessly entertaining 30 minutes.

And these robots are extremely complex machines that come with a fearsome array of weapons including retractable claws, hammers, spikes and even a flame thrower.

Robot Wars is a techie's heaven, a programme for blokes who love nothing better than spending a Sunday afternoon with their tool box open and a big project to complete.

But Craig doesn't love the show for the finer points of electronics and mechanics.

He says: "I like the fighting, the mayhem. The teams spend 18 months and thousands of man hours building a robot. Then it comes into the arena and gets its teeth kicked in within 30 seconds.

"It is fun and it is good competitive, innovative television. I feel honoured to be a part of it. A lot of the time I feel like I am working with the bright and the beautiful.

"It appeals on so many different levels. Five to eight-year-olds like it because of the cartoon nature of the violence. It can be mayhem, complete devastation and it is brilliant live, like Gladiators for robots."

He says this year's series is the best he has ever done because the standard of the battle machines has increased.

Craig mentions that new co-presenter Jayne has "got right into" the show's destructive ethos.

But why does he think that the BBC allowed Robot Wars to cross the airwaves to Five.

Craig says: "I think they just got bored of it. We started it all off but then so many other robot programmes appeared.

"Moving to Five will be good for us. It is like the Premiership moving channels, the sport's followers will switch across."

Craig didn't always feel this way about Robot Wars. In the show's early days - he joined in 1998 after Jeremy Clarkson did a brief stint as presenter - he wondered whether he might be making a huge mistake.

He says: "I thought `what have I done to my career?'. They were actually pulling the robots on with strings. I thought I was in anorak city, but it turned out all right in the end."

And the same could be said of Charles' career over the last few years.

He was noticed at age 12 when he won a national poetry award and began forging a career as an actor, poet, writer and stand-up comic.

But things really took off in 1988 when Craig landed the role of Dave Lister in the spoof science fiction comedy Red Dwarf.

Lister, a professional slob with a laid-back attitude, became a cult figure in a cult programme that ran for more than a decade.

Presenting work on the Big Breakfast and Wogan followed before Robot Wars came about.

Things were going well until late 1994 when Craig was charged with raping a woman. He spent three months in prison on remand before being cleared by a jury.

It might have sounded a death knell for most other show business careers but Craig managed to recover. He even turned his prison experience into material for his stand-up comedy show.

And now, aged 39, it looks as if the career is progressing nicely. As well as Robot Wars he presents a funk programme on digital radio and he still writes comedy and poetry.

His latest project is Scary Fairy, a no-holds barred version of classic children's nursery rhymes which will contain a lot of blood and gore.

Craig jokes: "They are nasty poems for snotty kids and there will also be a cartoon series."

It is quite a challenge, Craig has 15 poems to write and a deadline to beat but he says he is getting on with it.

And another thing to concentrate on is the movie adaptation of Red Dwarf, eagerly awaited by the show's massive fan base.

Craig explains: "I should be in Australia right now filming the movie but it has fallen through. Everybody says it is going to happen next year but I'll only believe it when I'm at the premiere."

The show has a devoted fan base and Craig visits conventions in America, Australia and Canada.

He adds: "The show is very much alive in the fans' eyes. Red Dwarf was a great period in my life. I was doing it when I was 23 and I really enjoyed it. But when I do things now people say thinks like `it is not Red Dwarf is it?'. They are high standards to be judged by."
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Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Oct 28, 2003
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