At 6am sharp, I am standing outside Broadcasting House, central London, under a still inky sky, feeling seasick on dry land. I’ve been up since 4.30am, my head full of wire wool. I’m startled by the sound of someone hailing me from across the piazza. “A-HAAAA!!” A tall man in a short jacket opens his arms wide, committing to the perfect Alan Partridge impression. I don’t understand how Greg James is so chipper all the time. Nothing good happens this early in the morning, I respond blearily when I reach him. “I’m about to change your mind,” he winks.
I’m shadowing the multiple Sony award-winning Radio 1 Breakfast DJ for a day, mostly because I’m intrigued by what kind of person becomes a breakfast DJ. James, now 36, has hosted the flagship show since 2018, when he took over from Nick Grimshaw. Under James’s tenure, it has become even more widely known for its social media presence, off the wall features and huge guest stars. It also boasts the biggest audience of any on the station, reaching around 5 million people every day. I don’t understand how it’s possible to talk to that many people, at this time in the morning, five days a week, and maintain a good mood.
We walk through the trendily outfitted BBC building, passing a decor wall housing 20 vintage wireless sets. “This is where we make radio,” James says, a quip that makes me come straight out with it: is he compulsively upbeat? “I get tired and stressed,” he insists. “The world grinds you down.” The early starts are draining, staying constantly connected to the news and social media is exhausting. (His 1.5m Twitter followers expect him to be always on.) But his day isn’t harder than that of someone working on a building site, he says, or in a hospital reception. The difference is he can make their mornings more fun. “On the days I don’t want to do it,” he says, “I think about that.”
At morning briefing, producers discuss breaking news and pop culture stories and devise features. Newsreader Calum Leslie is ribbed about the Freudian slip-inducing return to politics of Jeremy Hunt. At 7am, James sits at a microphone and helps a country wake up. I count 10 screens in front of him, a dizzyingly complex console of buttons. “It’s like flying a plane,” he says. I’d assumed DJs simply yakked on about whatever was in their mind, then pressed “Next” on the CD-changer. In fact, it’s a spinning of plates. James’s long fingers flutter and dance on faders as he chats with callers, colour-coding texts, making notes, tweaking beds, scrolling through a soundboard. Being this relaxed takes a lot of work.
How is he able to focus under all the stress? “I am pathologically excited about being on the radio,” he explains. His audience figures will climb steadily to 8.30am, through school runs and shop openings. The pressure doesn’t let up. A huge star is coming in to the studio today, rolling deep with an entourage of 25, including a security detail and videographer. The studio can’t hold that many people, and doubt remains as to whether they will show up at all, A-listers being notoriously fickle. James asks: “Do you think he’ll be wearing sunglasses?”
Later, James and I sit down in the café, where he and his team debrief every day. I ask what of his career he’s most proud of, expecting the answer to be the £1m he’s raised for Sport Relief. Instead, he recalls his first show on Breakfast, back in 2018. The team had Red Arrows pilots riding smoke canister-equipped Bromptons in formation on the piazza, while Joe Lycett provided commentary. James’s first guest was a lion, and Calvin Harris gave advice on how to keep squirrels away from watermelons. A caller chose the first song they played (“a guy called Ben – he asked for Avicii”). It set the show’s stall out, putting humour and listener interaction at the heart, and to them he is impish but never rude. “This is a show about you,” James says, referring to the listener. “It’s your chance to be funny. You take the piss out of me, I’ll take the piss out of you. We can have a laugh with guests. They become part of a world we’re creating together.”
In the studio, a message comes through: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is in the building. When he arrives, he seems chiselled from stone, with a voice that is all bass. There are no sunglasses. He looks everybody in the eye and says charming things. He might be the biggest star in the world, but even he has to look up to James, who stands 6’4” tall. “Good to see you brother,” says the actor to the DJ, as they embrace. “It’s been too long.” (Someone will later comment under James’s Instagram video of this moment: “He has no idea who you are.”)
James keeps it funny and loose as they chat, despite the number of people in the small room, and the 20 or so more looking in through a window. The pair have chemistry, despite James being dismissive of media fawning over celebrities.
“Stardust is lovely, but we don’t have guests every week,” James says. More often than not, this irreverence creates gold. The Breakfast show attracts huge stars, whose eccentric spots go viral. On last Friday’s show, rapper Stormzy spontaneously phoned his neighbour Tom Holland to ask if he was standing up or sitting down. (Holland was playing golf.) Earlier in the week, Ainsley Harriott advised a listener on whether it was possible to cook an egg in the bath. (No, but you can poach a fish.) During the call, Harriott admitted he relieves himself in the tub; it was later revealed that Prince William was listening in. James laughed then. “The future king of England heard that you piss in the bath!”
Gregory James Alan Milward was born in Lewisham, southeast London. He nearly died in early childhood, due to a rare blood disorder for which he underwent three blood transfusions. “My mum’s blood was killing me,” he explains. “This is where you start playing the Adele instrumental.” The condition can now be cured with drugs, but James grew up a sickly child. He attended four schools, the family moving each time due to his father’s job as a headteacher, James forced to make new friends. The dislocation was the inspiration for Kid Normal, his first children’s book. The ability to connect with people has served him in more far-reaching ways, too.
His family was neither poor nor well off. And he wasn’t particularly special. “I was small and didn’t know what I was doing,” he recalls. He initially hated Bishop’s Stortford High School, where he finally settled. “I was a little Year 7 and I remember these towering, smelly sixth formers driving their cars into school.” He wasn’t classically cool, though he got on with cool kids and nerdy kids alike. It was there that he discovered a lifelong passion for cricket, noticing how “the respect I got in summer from the sporty kids would carry me through the autumn term”. He was a shrewd observer of people. He could do impressions of teachers that made everyone laugh.
He proved himself a natural on student radio while studying drama at the University of East Anglia and he joined Radio 1 at the age of 21, the day after graduating. (He missed the ceremony to travel to London to cover an Early Breakfast Show, but managed to attend when the university awarded him an honorary degree in 2015.) Having the same workplace for 15 years has kept him grounded, he says. He can’t be a prima donna, “because Clare on reception, who has been here for 40 years, isn’t going to entertain that”. There are no runners opening doors for him, no hair and makeup. The office is very much an office, only “some of us go on the radio and talk to millions of people and do this extraordinary thing”.
He now lives with wife, the novelist Bella Mackie, and their dog Barney, the rescued chocolate lab, in Kentish Town, north London, a fairly gentrified part of north west London. Unlike journalists or commentators who speak for a population they rarely meet, James talks to it every day. “I feel clued up on the country,” he says. “When I see bits in the news, I get what a farming thing will mean for [regular caller] Farmer Tom, or how a tipper trucker will be affected by energy bills going up.”
The BBC’s most recently published figures put James’s salary at £394,000. Does he really see himself as an everyman? “I don’t know what every man is like,” he says. “But you need to be relatable, even if you’re not doing exactly the same things as everyone else.” He and producer Chris Sawyer have a running joke in which they identify celebrities who would study for a degree in relatability if it were an option. “Did you catch the bus to the O2? Why are you telling me that?” The common touch, something James seems to have, isn’t easily faked. “I have a very privileged life, but it’s not rarefied. I’m very much part of society, which is important.”
He has the looks for TV and worries he should do more. But it’s never been his priority. “You have less input and it’s not as fun.” He doesn’t need the money, and it’s hard to make his kind of show work on live TV. He fronted the music programme Sounds Like Friday Night on BBC One in 2017, which he found exhilarating. “But I didn’t finish each one thinking, ‘I can’t wait for the next one.’ I thought, ‘Thank goodness Jason Derulo didn’t fall over and Kylie Minogue didn’t die.’”
There’s a simplicity to turning on a radio, he says. Perhaps that makes it less onerous than the on-demand media choices that constantly surround us. For James, what makes radio special is a feeling of communality, which appeals to his egalitarian instincts. “Radio talks to people,” he says, “whereas I’ve always felt that TV talks at you.” He loves how close listeners are to becoming the star of the show. “You’re one phone call away from making millions of people laugh with your silly story. Imagine the production chats, rehearsals, release forms, logistics and flappy panics whenever a ‘member of the public’ speaks on TV.” He circles back to his earlier point. “The point is we’re all members of the public, it’s just that I’m the lucky prick who currently gets to ring-lead the whole thing.”
Why is Breakfast the most sought-after radio gig? “You’re given all the toys to play with,” he explains. “All the resources, a brilliant team, the most listeners. That’s what keeps you there.” Was it always his dream job? “I do understand how amazing it is to get this show,” he reflects. “But it would have been fine if I hadn’t and it’ll be fine when I don’t.” I realise with surprise he’s neither upbeat nor downbeat about the fact. “Part of that [attitude] was not getting the job when Grimmy got it. Because it wouldn’t have been right. I got it when I was ready.” Does he think he’s cool now? “The fact I’m thinking about the question means I’m not.”
He’s older now than Nick Grimshaw was when he stopped presenting the number one show for 15- to 29-year-olds. Does that worry him? “I don’t feel creaky or out of touch, or like it’s an effort. I can look at TikTok and not feel 100.” He worried more about being old when he was younger. “I thought being 36 was like being dead.” In any case, he’s better at his job now. US talkshow hosts are often in their 40s or 50s, he points out, and comedians get funnier with age. “Then they become bigots,” he laments, describing their crash trajectory on a graph. “‘I’m brilliant, I’m brilliant… I’m a transphobe.’ You gotta watch that.”
Dwayne Johnson has also improved with age. In the studio, he’s brilliantly game, singing along to a segment called Unpopular Opinions, listening to a woman from Wales explain why she hates eating sandwiches on the beach. He asks a listener called Darren: “What is it about the smell of asparagus wee-wee that you like?” I hadn’t anticipated hearing that earlier this morning. It’s testament to the gloriously unpredictable, non-travelling circus James creates. “I don’t take it too seriously, but I take it seriously enough,” he says. “I know what radio can mean to someone. It’s meant a lot to me.”
One day he will step away from the top job, but that doesn’t worry him either. “None of it’s that real. Getting my life sorted out is way more important.” This time, he credits the laissez-faire outlook to radio hero and great Stoic philosopher Terry Wogan. In his autobiography Mustn’t Grumble, Wogan explains how one day you’re doing something, the next day you’re not, and both are fine. “It’ll go one day,” James shrugs. “I just want to have a laugh while it’s going.” That’s enlightened, I venture. He laughs easily, imagining the headline. “I’ve found God. God is a DJ.”
Super Ghost by Greg James and Chris Smith, with illustrations by Amy Nguyen (Puffin, £12.99) is available at £11.30 from guardianbookshop.com Greg James presents the Radio 1 Breakfast show weekdays 7-10:30am.
Grooming by Lucy Wearing at A-Frame agency using Clarins Men; Shot on location at Park Village