Interview: Greg James

Joanna Lonergan speaks to the Radio 1 DJ on music, mental health, and Cornish pasties.

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In a recent interview with The Guardian, Greg James admitted that he’d actually sh/t himself on the train on the way to speak at our very own Oxford Union. According to him this “may or may not have been the day after the Brits” so we’ll let you put two and two together on this one…

It’s this kind of laid-back, witty and approachable aura that impressed me when I spoke to the Radio 1 Breakfast Show DJ after his event at the Union. We talked about everything from his radio career and fundraising efforts to his university years and love of cheese and wine and, throughout our entire conversation, he was so at ease that I never would have guessed his traumatic train experience. It’s this relaxed and friendly approach which James tries to channel into his radio shows, spending time working on a more “natural style of presenting” like that of Terry Wogan, someone he counts among his heroes.

“There’s a lot of people on the radio that don’t actually understand what a radio show should sound like. It can be in the way they speak, sort of ‘Hello guys, hey you lot, how are you?’. But saying ‘How are you?’ is quite weird. What, are you supposed to go ‘Fine thanks!’? “It’s making sure you’re absolutely talking to one person. Just like you would do in the pub or something, when you’re like ‘oh did you see that thing on Netflix or here’s a funny email that I got.”

I experience first-hand the impact and resonance this approach has with his listeners, as we have to pause our interview on two occasions when students come over to say hello to Greg. Each time he is more than happy to chat with them, asking their names and what they study, and agreeing to take selfies with them. When Greg turns back to me the second time, he explains how important it is that people feel they have some sort of relationship with him. “That’s my only aim, to feel like they can just say hi to the point where sometimes they think they actually know me. Sometimes I even go ‘sh/t do I know you?’ and then I have to go ‘hmmmm no I don’t.”

The 33-year-old has an obvious talent for connecting with the ordinary person, something which has helped entice 300,000 additional listeners to the Breakfast Show since he took over from Nick Grimshaw (‘Grimmy’) at the end of last year. It’s well known that Grimmy is pals with the likes of Rita Ora, Harry Styles, Alexa Chung and Kate Moss – it only takes a glance at his Instagram to see his star-studded contact list. But James insists he is the flip side of the coin (or the CD?). “You need a Grimmy for there to be a me. You need to balance off someone.”

“I’ve never been interested in celebrities really, I’m not interested in fame. I don’t find all famous people automatically interesting, so it would be disingenuous for me to go on and pretend to want to talk to people I don’t want to talk to.” This strikes a particular note with me, especially as the modern media seems obsessed with what David Beckham had for lunch or the colour of Meghan Markle’s tights, often at the expense of the more acute issues of the day. Instead of the likes of Mr Beckham or the Duchess of Sussex, James says his real focus is the listeners.

“I’ve always found that listeners are more interesting than me or any guest you could have on. There’s 6 million people, with 6 million lives and stories to tell. I used to love hearing a caller be funny. There’s something very empowering about making the listener the star of the show. That’s what they should be. They’re literally paying for it and it’s a thing for them; it’s their show and they should be in control of it, to a certain extent.”

The desire to engage and connect with his listeners is what’s often inspired James to embark on his more ‘whacky’ projects for the show, and he uses the example of the “stupid pass the pasty idea”. After a listener from Scotland called in and admitted, to many peoples’ horror, that he had never tried a Cornish pasty, the team at Radio 1 decided to send a pasty from Padstow in Cornwall all the way up to Aberdeenshire via the listeners. Yes, the only companions the pasty had on its long trip was Greg’s producer, a microphone and various Radio 1 listeners.

“[My producer] would give the microphone to a listener and suddenly they were the commentator, or they were the reporter on the scene, and that’s a really special thing that you wouldn’t see on TV really…”

It’s here that James’ brain gives out on him and the revels of the previous night are hinted at. There’s a long pause, interspaced with various ‘ummms’, ‘errrrs’ and a “sorry my brain is a bit dead”, before Greg re-boards his train of thought and continues on.

“The listeners more often than not step up. They know the spirit of the show I guess, they know how to deliver it. They get the joke and they understand that it’s a very silly thing done very seriously. It’s really magical to hear a listener just sort of run with it and go. “We had a plumber, I think, who took [the pasty] from Manchester train station on a steam train. This guy just woke up in the morning and was going to his job, and suddenly he was the star of the breakfast show.”

In what I assume is his attempt at a Mancunian accent, Greg explains: “He was just like ‘We’re at the train station, big beautiful steam engine there and it’s a beautifully sunny day and the smoke’s billowing through the station.’ “It was this really beautiful description and I’m just like this guy didn’t know he was going to be on the Breakfast Show this morning and suddenly he’s the thing that brightened lots of peoples’ day.”

Although he’s likely too modest to admit it, Greg himself is also in the business of brightening peoples’ day. Listeners of his radio show will remember Katie, a primary school teacher from Kent, who had just been dumped by her boyfriend. Katie well and truly had her day brightened by Greg when he invited her to be his (platonic) date to the Brit Awards 2019. “Bringing along a teacher from Kent, who’s just been dumped, to the Brits is just like ‘c’mon, this is all nonsense’ – it’s wonderful nonsense the Brits is – so that was really fun. To see it through fresh eyes is really great. Hearing her go ‘Oh we saw P!nk, we were up close to P!nk’ because you can get a bit desensitised to the whole thing, a bit blasé like ‘ah it’s just the Brits’. But then suddenly you see it though Katie’s eyes and you go ‘oh yeah, this is fun’ and she really nailed it.”

The DJ showed promise as a radio DJ early on, winning ‘Best Male Presenter’ at the Student Radio Awards 2005. I ask him about his start in student radio, but he explains his passion for radio began long before he enrolled at UEA to study English and Drama. At 13, he began making his own radio shows in his bedroom, messing around with the jingles and recreating the chart show, but “didn’t really tell anyone about it”. From there he joined the local hospital radio station, taking requests and digging out CDs, before getting involved with Livewire at UEA. A desire to learn everything there was to know about the industry characterised James’ early radio career and he is keen to emphasise that he is still learning, even after over a decade at BBC Radio 1.

“You have to be obsessive. You have to be a nerd about it. I think you have to know everything, even things you don’t need to know. I need to know what Classic FM do, I need to know what Capital FM are up to at 4pm, I need to know all these things to know where I fit in.”

After his award in 2005, Greg did some shows for a radio station in Newcastle. It was then that Radio 1 got wind of the rising talent and invited him in for a pilot. He did his first show the day after he graduated. “When I got to Radio 1, I was very very new and I didn’t know anything about myself and I didn’t really understand about the radio industry that much, but I had been working at it. I wouldn’t say I’d been working hard, I’d just been enjoying it. I think in the last few years I’ve really tapped back into why I do it in the first place, and it’s because I enjoy it. You shouldn’t overthink it any more than that.”

After starting out on the Early Breakfast Show, starting at 4am, Greg moved to the drivetime show, where he accompanied listeners on their journey home from work. But after six years the DJ was beginning to grow out of this, and he says the move back to early mornings came at the right time, despite getting up before the crack of dawn. “I was done with the afternoon show. I’d had enough of finishing at. It’s just a long time to do any job, six years, and I needed a change and a new challenge. The getting up is all doable, and you know that it’s not going to last forever. There’ll be a time when they don’t want me to do the Breakfast Show on Radio 1, so you just grab it. “Also, going to bed at 9.30pm is such a great excuse not to go to things.” (If this isn’t relatable content…)

I’m keen to talk to Greg about his other great passion aside from radio – fundraising for charities. But his fund-raising efforts are more than your average bake sales, charity auctions or ‘celebrity experiences’. In 2013, Greg braved the crocodiles of the Zambezi River and in 2016 he completed five triathlons in five days. However, perhaps the most remarkable was his ‘Gregathlon’ which saw Greg cycle up the highest mountains in Wales, England and Scotland to raise money for Sport Relief’s projects to support young people living with mental health conditions. This challenge was especially gruelling and for a short while it looked like the infamous ‘Beast from the East’ might have ruined everything. But as soon as the harshest part of the storm subsided, Greg was back on his bike and competed his challenge, raising over £1 million.

“[The Gregathlon] became a metaphor for how people overcome their mental health issues. You couldn’t have written it any better really. We set out in the first week and I remember we all said to each other ‘I don’t know how this is going to go, but whatever the story is tell it and point a microphone at it, and jot all those little details down’. It’s all those little things that bring the story to life.” We talk a little about mental health, an especially acute issue at Oxford, as well as many other universities around the country.

Greg’s father-in-law, Alan Rusbridger, has been the Principal of Lady Margaret Hall since 2015, and Greg tells me that speaking to Alan has really opened his eyes to the problem. “[Alan’s] been surprised at how much he’s needed to learn quickly on the job about the stresses and strains that all the people who work and study here are under. How there’s never enough provision for peoples’ mental health. “You’re under a lot of pressure to deliver here, and you’re literally surrounded by the weight of this history of this place. It’s quite oppressive actually. It’s lovely on the one hand, but it’s largely irrelevant what Michael Gove did thirty years ago to what you’re doing now. It’s nice to have a history of a place, but people can get weighed down and overawed by it.”

Greg has his own experiences with mental health – his wife Bella has recently released a book, ‘Jog On: How Running Saved My Life’. Finding Bella is obviously something Greg is hugely grateful for, and he mentions it when I ask him about his greatest achievements. “Getting married is probably a thing I never thought would happen. I think I needed Bella to just give me the confidence to really go for the things that I believe in. She’s a really extraordinary person, and I think we really help each other because she suffers with confidence and anxiety and OCD. She’s been a really amazing addition to my life.”

It’s at this point we are interrupted again, though this time it is not a fan eager for a selfie. I am told to put my laptop away, since, of course, there are “no laptops permitted in the Union bar”. I spend the remaining five minutes of the interview surreptitiously peeking at my screen. Greg has a couple of bits of parting wisdom for me. He tells me that he is a qualified racing driver, that his first job was stacking papers in WHSmith, but he also tells me that the most important thing in life is to “be kind.” Having recently attracted media attention for ‘defending the snowflake generation’, Greg explains “being kind isn’t boring. It’s unfashionable to be kind, it’s much better to be shouty and a bit of an arsehole. Being an arsehole is in fashion.”

When we’re done, Greg transitions smoothly into his next appointment even though, in his own words, he feels “tonight I’m just going to put my mask on and then my ear plugs and just fall asleep as if I was in a coffin. I’m on my knees.” That’s the life of a radio star – the Brits, the Breakfast Show, the Oxford Union, and an interview with Cherwell, all in a days work.