Greg James on his Radio 1 breakfast show, Kid Normal and The Bishop's Stortford High School
Former Bishop’s Stortford High School student Greg James is a household name, face and voice.
Since taking over the BBC Radio 1 Breakfast Show from Nick Grimshaw last August, the station’s morning listeners have swelled to well over six million.
As well as presenting TV's The One Show and fronting Children In Need and Sounds Like Friday Night, Greg has raised millions for Sport Relief through his Gregathlon and Pedal to the Peaks charity challenges.
He has also penned a series of children’s books with BBC colleague Chris Smith called Kid Normal. The books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies and the third instalment is out in March.
Tom Ryder, a fellow TBSHS old boy, caught up with Greg, now 33, when he returned to his old school to adjudicate the house drama competition...
Why was it important for you to return to TBSHS to judge house drama?
I feel very comfortable in that hall and I have very fond memories of the school.
I remember how important extracurricular activities were in my own life and eventually my career. They were the highlights of me being at school: doing drama, being in shows, putting together a comedy night or showcase... I really loved all of that.
And that’s what I still do. I still work in a team to put on events or shows. Being at Boys High has shaped everything I’ve done since. To go back and see that it is still thriving is brilliant.
What do you remember about your time there?
I loved staying late at school and messing around with my mates, rehearsing a show, fiddling with the lights and coming up with things or even sorting out the smoke machine.
Mr [David] Hows and Mr [Simon] Etheridge have been really important people in my life, some of my biggest champions. They told me that I could do stuff, and that's what a truly great teacher does.
I feel very thankful to them, and I also value the connection we have when I come back. It’s nice to have those people in the world.
Just because I've moved to London, it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t pop back and say hello, and say ‘You’re great, let’s have a pint’. They're very important to me.
What other roles did Bishop’s Stortford play in your development?
I did hospital radio when I was 15 – Radio Stortford at the Herts & Essex Hospital as it was then. I know there have been a few changes, but it still goes on.
I was involved in a lot of drama at school too. When Mr Hows told me to get on stage and be Jeeves from Jeeves and Wooster by P.G. Wodehouse, it was a transformative moment. The show went well and that was it really. I was hooked and didn’t get off the stage after that at all. Mr Hows introducing me to P.G. Wodehouse informed my writing, my sense of humour and the comedy that I enjoy. I owe him in particular a lot.
Your Kid Normal children’s novels have been tremendously successful… why do you think the books have resonated so powerfully with readers?
Kid Normal is a pretty universal story about Murph Cooper, our main character, feeling out of place at school. I guess that's what I felt like and what Chris [Smith] felt like when he was at school: we knew we were good at something but didn’t know where we fitted in.
We weren't the obvious ‘football guy’ or ‘funny guy’ or musician or whatever. It took us a while to unlock our talents, and that’s quite a common story, because a lot of people feel like that.
Can you describe the writing process?
We took a lot of time over writing the stories to make them good, sweet and funny. I think it's paid off that we didn’t just churn them out.
We properly planned them, brainstorming and thinking ‘What can we add to the world?’ We didn’t want to rush it and move on to the next thing.
We wanted to create a world. I think that kids in particular love to dive into that world and see elements of themselves in the characters, and familiarity in certain teachers too!
On to the Radio 1 breakfast show… how have you found it?
Doing the breakfast show has totally exceeded my expectations. I'm having the most amazing time of my life.
I got to the point where I was really happy anyway and I thought that if I got the breakfast show it would be amazing, but if I didn’t get it, I wasn’t going to kick myself forever. The minute I relaxed and thought ‘D'you know what? I’m ready for this. If they want to give it to me I’ll go for it and put everything into it’, they got in touch and that’s what happened.
It was a lesson to me in not just wanting, wanting, wanting. Forcing anything doesn’t tend to work. Sometimes you need to take your foot off the gas a bit and focus.
I asked myself why I got into this in the first place. What was the reason I actually wanted to do this very strange job? And it was because I love it – I love doing a radio show. I was looking to rediscover that love rather than worrying about where it might take me. The minute I stopped worrying about it, I got better, I improved and became a more attractive proposition for the management.
I was ready for it six months ago in a way that I wasn’t three or four years prior. It’s been really fun, but at the same time I've taken it very seriously. It’s been stressful at times and is high pressure.
What was your approach to the first show?
I was very nervous before the launch, but on the morning of the first show, all of us looked at each other and we thought ‘We’ve got this’. I’ve got an amazing team of people that I work with. We knew that we just needed a bit of luck. We had a really good show that is about the listeners and celebrates them. We just needed people to get it, and luckily, so far, touch wood, they have.
People seem to be loving it, and you have added 230,000 listeners!
The ratings thing is nice, because it keeps the wolves at bay. Getting involved with the tabloid press in a negative way is not my bag, so it’s really good from that point of view. It enables us to just get on with it and do a really fun show for the listeners.
What motivates you to become even better?
I genuinely love getting up and doing it, and I really love the listeners, they're amazing.
There was a huge turning point for me, maybe four or five years ago, when I realised that the most interesting thing about the show is the listeners. Yes, I might have a half-funny anecdote about something. But there are literally six million people out there with other stories. Radio presenters that might go ‘I’m the best thing about this show’ are a bit mad, because how could you be?
You have such a mine of stuff available, and it’s my job to be the ringleader and bring on a funny listener, and then someone comes in and tells an entertaining story, and then we’ve got a guest who might pop in for a bit, or we get a pasty involved… so making the show about the listeners is the most important thing. Not just doing a show with them, but actually about them.
What new elements have you brought in?
Sometimes a show can feel like it’s done ‘to’ the listeners – ‘Welcome to the show, here’s the show’. But there are a few changes that I've made in my language and the way I talk to the listeners, by trying not to say ‘Good morning, everybody’.
It’s quite a small thing, but can be a good habit, because you're actually just talking to one person who is on their commute or getting up in their house when it’s cold and dark. So instead it's ‘Hello, good morning to you’.
Radio is a medium where you do a show to one listener, and each of them experiences it individually. This makes it feel more intimate, which is a good trick to pull off. Radio 1 Breakfast is bigger than any show I’ve done before, but I think it’s possible to personalise it.
* Greg James’ third children’s book, Kid Normal and The Shadow Machine, is out on March 21. You can listen to him Monday to Thursday morning on BBC Radio 1 between 6.30am and 10am. Follow him on Instagram @greg_james.