Craig's TV life: Late, but loving it

CRAIG Stevens, the man we've come to meet, is away having his make-up done. Dressing Room 7, more of a long and thin lounge, proves a comfortable waiting area in the meantime.

CRAIG Stevens, the man we've come to meet, is away having his make-up done. Dressing Room 7, more of a long and thin lounge, proves a comfortable waiting area in the meantime. It's got a pool table, a TV (displaying the sinking Love Island), a couple of bottles of wine and soft sofas.

There are a handful of speakers on the walls, but there's only one CD next to the player: a collection of organ music. The chance to fill the empty room with 34 high-volume seconds of Beside the Seaside, played on a Wurlitzer, is too delicious to pass up. It's a surreal start to what promises to be a surreal late night/early morning at The Maidstone Studios in Kent.

A sun-bleached head pops through the door. It's Craig, rouged for action. “I'm going to record a promo for ITV1,” he says. “Do you want to watch?”

Off through a maze of corridors, and a quick peep en route into a hangar-like studio where Basil Brush is filmed. Sadly, it's empty and there's little to see tonight. Then it's a case of stepping between the back-end of envelope-brown sets before emerging onto the brightly lit set of The Mint.

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In the make-believe world of TV, Mint Mansion is an opulent manor house. In reality, classical columns that appear rock-solid on screen are made of a light wood and can be made to sway by a stray elbow.

Craig sits behind a drinks bar and filming begins. His energetic promo, which will air later on ITV1, goes something like this:

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“Join me and the gorgeous Kat Shoob for The Mint, and your chance to win thousands of pounds. And our special guest is the lovely Jennie Bond, the BBC's former royal correspondent. We'll be asking her what life was like in the jungle with Jordan. Do join us later on The Mint on ITV1.”

Two takes and it's a thumbs-up.

The Mint is an interactive, live, late-night game show that began on ITV1 in April and now also features on ITV2 and ITV Play - the latter a newish “participation TV” digital channel (Freeview channel 35 and Sky 856, to be precise). On network TV it usually begins at midnight and typically runs for three or four hours a night, Monday to Thursday.

During a series of word and number games, callers can win prizes from £50 upwards. The ultimate goal is a shot at guessing the four-digit number that will unlock the vault at the back of the set and scoop a bumper prize. Craig was one of the presenters on May 12, when Diane Baylis won more than £108,000 by correctly guessing 8648.

Some folk have raised eyebrows about the explosion of night-time games programmes that could tempt people to part with their money. (Callers to The Mint pay a flat 75p, via a BT landline, to go into a pool from which on-air entrants are chosen by random.)

Craig says one of the principles underpinning the show was ensuring there were regular winners, and that people were made frequently made aware of the cost. He understands about £3.5 million has so far been given away. “Also, it's about entertainment and having some fun.”

That's apparent about an hour later when the lights go up at midnight and tonight's show begins. For the first 40 minutes it's going out only on ITV Play, before going nationwide on ITV1.

It starts with Craig and co-presenter Kat Shoob standing behind a tall desk on which are five red phones. The game's called 5 Rings and viewers are shown, in turn, the names of five foreign languages with the vowels missing. Getting one right wins 50 quid.

The presenters earn their corn. Much of the appeal of the show is down to their imagination, their personalities, quick wit, a dash of innuendo and warm banter - delivered while the director talks in their earpiece and switches between two cameras. It might look easy on TV. It isn't.

Craig and Kat quip about the time they had the Cheeky Girls on, and Craig says their mum - their manager and minder - was a bit intimidating. Someone emails to suggest Craig give his co-host a kiss. One problem, he says: his wife watches the early part of the show and it might not go down well in the Stevens household.

Deadpan caller Dave wins £50 for revealing that Sp­_n_sh is Spanish, but gets his leg pulled after revealing the most impressive thing he's done today is getting up.

Kat, a vision in grey dress and red high-heels, is the next to be teased. The 22-year-old from down Southend way who began her career last year on price-drop tv, has just done a photoshoot for men's magazine Maxim.

Craig won't let that golden opportunity drop - musing on why it is that the staples always fall in particular places.

He's also garnered a bit of a reputation for his impressions. A caller from Newcastle triggers an “Ant & Dec in Byker Grove” moment, while Christine from Norwich is treated to an Alan Partridge.

At 12.40am ITV1 joins the party and we're into a new game, with a top prize of £30,000, though I'm not the only one stumped by the question. There are three sums - 19-5, 6-5, and 4+3x2 - and you have to add all the numbers together to get the answer. But it's not as obvious as it looks (ie, all my suggestions prove to be wrong).

After a while a new activity is introduced: suggesting words that could go with “back” to form a compound word, such as backpack.

Jennie Bond arrives at 1.25am and in person looks a tad more fragile than the BBC correspondent we remember reporting on royal matters from 1989 to the summer of 2003. She's got stamina and tenacity, however - her runners-up spot a couple of years ago in I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here proved that - and she's a TV trooper. She takes her place on the sofa and is soon in the swing of things, chatting to callers and parrying questions from Craig with wit - and even returning his high-five.

Being awake for nearly 20 hours is beginning to show and I soon call it quits, leaving the presenters and production team still going strong. At my motel round the corner, the TV defaults - would you believe it? - to The Mint. There's still money to be won by guessing a word that goes with “back”.

Now, what was that number to call?

ONCE upon a time, Craig Stevens was stuck behind a desk in London and wondering if there shouldn't be more to life than the import/export business appeared to offer. Now he's having the time of his life as a TV and radio presenter - eternally grateful that Lady Luck seems to have taken a shine to him.

He co-hosts The Mint, occasionally presents Channel 5's lunchtime word game BrainTeaser, and does film reviews on Sky. At weekends, when you'd think he'd be desperate for a lie-in, he has three-hour shows locally on Vibe FM on Saturdays and Sundays, from 7am.

Craig was born in Walthamstow in 1976 but moved to Colchester at the age of nine or 10. He went to

The Gilberd School, did A-levels in English and art at college, and then went off to the capital.

“I did that for a couple of years. Getting dressed up in a suit and tie just didn't feel right. In the end I rang my mum and said 'I really want to come home. I don't know what I'm going to do; I want to get a job on the radio or something.' So she looked in the phonebook. I phoned up SGR and they said 'Go and do hospital radio and then come back to us.'

“So I did that for two weeks, then kind of got asked to leave. I was a bit cheeky.” How? “I said 'Some of you might not be with us after the break. I wouldn't worry; it's Chris de Burgh . . .'”

He sent a tape of his (limited!) work off to SGR, claiming he'd done hospital radio for six months.

“I think it was a case that they needed someone on the day my tape landed on the desk. I genuinely had not got a clue, and they were really nice to me and thought 'Deep down, we know you've never done six months - it doesn't look like you've done six minutes - but we'll teach you.' I got an overnight show for a while, and then moved on to the evenings, and then the daytime. Then I did breakfast.”

He wondered if he could do the same thing in TV. So about three-and-a-half years ago he made a showreel to send out on spec.

There followed a bizarre week, with interest from an agency on the Tuesday and the offer of a presenting stint on TOTP @ Play on the Thursday - a digital channel Top of the Pops spin-off show - and then a role on Top of the Pops on the Sunday.

He was so wet behind the ears that he thought the job was essentially a screen test, only to realise it was the real thing!

Luckily, experienced presenters like Josie D'Arby and Vernon Kaye were efficient anchors. “I had minimal bits to do - links and introductions into video clips ­- but it was still the scariest thing. It would be about 30 seconds, but it was the longest 30 seconds of your life.”

The week after, he got a call from Endemol, the independent producer behind shows such as Big Brother. Craig was asked if he'd like to screen test for BrainTeaser - talking about babywipes . . .

“I was probably quite rude, and took the mickey out of these babywipes for about five minutes. I thought I'd ruined it. But they said 'If you can talk that long on babywipes, you can come and work on our show.'”

It was daunting to get a job on a network channel, but there was time to learn the fundamentals of broadcasting. He confesses: “I genuinely didn't know at that stage which camera to look at!”

What was it about the broadcast media that attracted him?

“Growing up, I was always quite cheeky. But I always got away with stuff, somehow. The only thing I was ever any good at was being quite quick; I could come back with funny lines. I thought 'Maybe radio is somewhere I could do that.'”

This spring came The Mint. “It's just the most fun show to work on: literally a case of having fun and messing around.”

It does, though, mean getting home to Stowmarket at about 5.45am, and rising just before midday. Then there might be DVDs of films to watch for his Sky movies job. “You kind of sit there, bleary-eyed, with your Coco Pops, going 'What's happening? Rewind it!'”

The day after this interview he had to get up and watch two films before popping down to Sky's HQ in Isleworth, where he would probably finish at 2am. Then he would travel to Bristol to work for Channel 5 on the Friday. He would normally return to Suffolk for his weekend Vibe shows, but he had a week's holiday scheduled.

In fact, he's planning to give up his radio slots, even though the medium was his first love and he has great fun there.

It will boost his social life - and free more quality time to spend with Katie, whom he married in April 2005, with a big bash at Hintlesham Hall.

They'd met in Colchester. “It's really weird because, despite being quite cheeky, I'm rubbish at chatting up women. She had to come over to me and said 'Are you ever going to buy me a drink?'”

Katie works in a bank. “It's great, because we have something to talk about. If we both did the same thing, it would be incredibly dull. She's incredibly understanding about my hours of working.”

The couple bought a new house in Stowmarket eight months to a year ago, but aim to move to another home nearby that's since captured their hearts.

Er, hate to mention it, but you're due “on” in nine minutes.

Craig leaps off the sofa and threads his way back to the set. By the way, does anything ever go badly wrong?

“Not so far,” he laughs. Then he looks around in mock panic. “Oh, God, I've got to touch wood now!”

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