The person who got me through 2021: Greg James made bad pandemic mornings bearable

The Radio 1 presenter’s breakfast show offered me reasons to be cheerful in 2021 – playing therapist to my bleary-eyed lockdown blues

Nothing good happens in the morning. As far as I’m concerned, we would be better off without them. While the larks among us are attempting to #seizetheday with meditation or punishing exercise, my mornings are usually spent waiting for the caffeine to kick in and overcome the bleary-eyed anxiety.

In 2021, lockdown and the lingering disappointment of a cancelled Christmas made winter mornings even more unbearable. For about eight weeks, from Blue Monday to the middle of March, I owed my fragile sanity to one man: Radio 1 DJ Greg James. The world is never darker than when you have just woken up alone, but listening to his nice-lad nattering as my brain began to whirr genuinely gave me hope that the world was a friendlier place than it seemed through the frosted glass of my bedroom window. “I always feel a little bad when people say thanks for cheering me up, because it cheers me up throwing myself into work,” says James, whose show has more than 4 million listeners. “It’s really saved me, particularly over the last two years.”

As host of Britain’s most iconic, if not necessarily most popular, radio show (that title belongs to Zoe Ball), James readily admits that broadcasting to an anxious nation, often from an empty office, has been more than he bargained for. “It became a much more serious job than I ever hoped it would,” he says. “But then, when I took over, I did think about how it’s weirdly quite a responsible position. Trying to get the tone right has been a bigger challenge than ever, but this is not the 90s – Chris Evans [could] go out and get pissed every night.”

James recalls his uncertainty on the day of Boris Johnson’s initial lockdown announcement. “I didn’t know how it would go the next day. There’s no handbook really: ‘Open the pandemic book and turn to page five,’” he bellows, with the perfect diction of one of his 1940s predecessors.

They explored retreating into a pop-insulated bunker of inoffensiveness and leaving the serious stuff to the likes of Adam Fleming, Fergus Walsh and Laura Kuenssberg. “My brief has always been to try to make the day go quicker and distract people from what’s going on,” he says. But ploughing on as though nothing had changed ran the risk of appearing tone-deaf. “It’s been a bigger challenge than ever. You don’t want to be ‘too fun’ when people are anxious or sad.”

It’s this quality that won me over. Prior to lockdown, I found the relentless pep of morning radio insulting; the crater between the way I felt and the way they sounded only compounded the morning blues. James’s show found another gear: breakfast radio as bulletin, breakfast radio as companion, breakfast radio as lifeline. “We tried to remove any sort of barrier of ‘I’m a radio presenter and you’re listening’,” he says. “It felt more natural to say: ‘It’s OK that I feel terrified, and you feel terrified; we’re going to try to muddle through it together. There are shitty jokes, but it became a safe space away from the rolling news coverage … Maybe one day I’d like to be a therapist!”

Aside from the small matter of his weekday programme, James took on a bevy of lockdown projects to keep himself busy through the winter. Not least, growing out his hair in homage to Jake “hair goals” Gyllenhaal, much to the delight of his wife, the author Bella Mackie: “She says I must never cut my hair short again!”

James also wrote a children’s book with Chris Smith, The Great Dream Robbery, which he describes as “all about imagination – dreaming your way out of a nightmare … It doesn’t take a genius to see we wrote that when we were feeling trapped but it was another great excuse to get out of my own head.”

Lockdown also provided the space for James to complete his passion project, a seven-part podcast series for BBC Sounds, Sport’s Strangest Crimes, about Allen Stanford, the Texas billionaire and Ponzi-schemer who scandalised the sporting world after buying his way into the cricket establishment. “It’s something that I would like to do more of,” he says of the forensic new lane he has found in the pandemic.

Despite the podcast’s success, James has no plans to depart the breakfast show anytime soon. “You’d be silly not to want to do the biggest show,” he adds, reiterating his commitment to the job. “During the pandemic, it became a crutch for a lot of people. I trust the listeners more than ever and they trust me back. It’s been a great experience doing shows where you have to judge the mood of the nation and set up the rest of the day.”

Recent weeks have seen an increase in Covid anxiety that is eerily reminiscent of this time last year. I expect I will be leaning on James to get me through another winter. “Yeah, lots of things are happening now but we’re still having to balance that with people being anxious, or unsure about what they can and can’t do safely,” he says. “It’s taken on a whole new life [in the pandemic] – but I quite like the challenge of a Tuesday morning in February.”


Sasha Mistlin

The GuardianTramp

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