Big mouth strikes again

Thanks to his radio show, Christian O'Connell's 'spiky irreverence' is more in demand than ever. But, he tells Ian Burrell, he won't be moving to television any time soon
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Listening to the stream of consciousness that pours forth from the mouth of Christian O'Connell, the rising star of British radio, it's not always easy to distinguish autobiographical anecdote from flight of fantasy. Which is why press cuttings on O'Connell record that he is an enthusiastic gardener who swaps notes with his mother-in-law about the state of the clematis that grows around his Victorian home outside London.

Listening to the stream of consciousness that pours forth from the mouth of Christian O'Connell, the rising star of British radio, it's not always easy to distinguish autobiographical anecdote from flight of fantasy. Which is why press cuttings on O'Connell record that he is an enthusiastic gardener who swaps notes with his mother-in-law about the state of the clematis that grows around his Victorian home outside London.

"I'm not interested in gardening whatsoever - I was joking," he says. " The Mail on Sunday didn't take it that way; they thought I was an avid gardener. Someone from a gardening company read it and I got sent all these trowels and free stuff."

O'Connell has a habit of seizing on a thought and embellishing it with fanciful detail that can be very funny. With this note of caution, it can be related that the holder of the Sony DJ of the Year award, arguably the most sought-after individual prize in British radio, had a less-than-auspicious start in broadcasting. As a teenager growing up in Winchester, he joined a hospital radio station in the hope of emulating the BBC presenter Steve Wright, whose show he ran home from school to listen to and record.

"Naively, I thought you could be as irreverent as Steve Wright. But this was hospital radio. You are speaking to two old dears and they're probably in intensive care," he recalls.

Things came to a head when he was asked to play a Frank Sinatra request for a woman called Elsie who was recovering from a heart bypass. "I just thought, 'No one is listening to this shit', and I stopped the record and went, 'That one was for Elsie who has died, so there's no point playing that record anymore, we might as well play something for someone who hasn't died.'" Unfortunately for the young O'Connell, the station boss was listening and he was promptly fired. "He was like, 'Get out. How's Elsie meant to feel? She could have had a cardiac arrest.'"

The gaffe wasn't enough to fatally damage O'Connell's broadcasting career, though he did spent much of his twenties selling advertising space.

These days, the 31-year-old presenter is on the receiving end of the hard sell, as he is being bombarded with offers to add to a work schedule that includes the breakfast show for the indie music station Xfm, Fighting Talk, a new Saturday sports-based programme for BBC Radio Five Live, and a pilot television project for BBC2.

He says he receives offers "every week" to inject new television projects with his "spiky irreverence". But O'Connell - whose previous TV excursion spectac- ularly crashed after he agreed to replace Chris Moyles on a talk show for Channel Five - is deeply unimpressed.

"The reason I'm reluctant to do more TV is that most of the stuff I get offered is utter rubbish. I couldn't look at myself in the mornings," he says.

O'Connell, it is sometimes remarked, sounds and looks like Steve Coogan, and as he recounts pitiful ideas for television shows that he has been offered, he appears to morph into Alan Partridge pacing his room in the Travelodge, dictaphone in hand. "There's six members of the public and they all need a life-saving operation. 'This is How Gay Are You?, coming live from the Gay centre.'"

O'Connell's criticisms of British television go wider than just the poor formats that he is offered. He says: "TV is becoming increasingly formulaic, derivative rubbish. If an alien landed and watched a couple of hours of the output of the main terrestrial channels, it would think this country is obsessed with homes, gardens and reality TV. Radio treats its audience with a bit more intelligence."

He has kept an eye on the career paths of similarly quick-witted motormouth presenters who have been burnt by television and noted that Jonathan Ross has revived his career by "getting back to basics, talking" on radio and now has the "best thing on television" with his interview show.

"I've looked at people who are brilliant presenters who have had their ups and downs, and at how TV eats you up and spits you out," he says. "It eats people up such as Johnny Vaughan, who is a hugely talented broadcaster. The same with Danny Baker."

Of the Channel Five flop, he says he should never have taken on the job but was flattered by an approach from Chris Evans. "I had never done a TV show. After doing a four-hour radio show, it became a bit of a drudge. I was getting home at 11pm and had to get up at 4am. I became sick of the sound of my own voice," he says.

Married for six years to Sarah and with a six-week-old baby, he deliberately chooses to live in Kingston-upon-Thames, away from both the media village and the London indie music scene.

Chris Evans once told him that the stability in his private life would help his career. The one film premiere that he attended he hated. "It was awful and I went home halfway through the film. I couldn't think of a worst place to be," O'Connell says. "I'm a complete showbiz outsider."

He regularly celebrates the end of a working day by going to a midday movie and was recently deeply embarrassed to be recognised by fans sat in the back row, on his own, at an early showing of Spider-Man 2.

O'Connell could hardly blame people who come up and approach him in public. The most successful feature on his Xfm show has been "Bounty Hunter", in which he encourages listeners to spot celebrities and badger them to call the show, there and then.

"For the first three days, no one called," remembers O'Connell. "But then John Inman was literally sat on in Starbucks and not allowed to leave until he had called me. Des Lynam was looking for some kitchen work surfaces at 9am..."

The real coup was when a listener with a relative on the television show 24 persuaded Kiefer Sutherland to call in to O'Connell's. For his trouble, the Hollywood star was subjected to a long series of security questions by O'Connell's disbelieving producer, who feared a hoax. At the end of two weeks, O'Connell had landed interviews with 60 celebrities (including some, such as an impecunious John Leslie, who rang in of their own accord, hoping to win a cash prize).

O'Connell has no need for such desperate measures but says he does have an eye on the future.

"I went to the doctor's the other day because I thought I had a hernia," he reveals. "Is it right that a man with a suspected hernia should be doing a wild, crazy, rock'n'roll show? Maybe it's time for me to move on to Radio 2." It's another joke - I think.

Comments