Interview

Greg James: ‘I’ve never enjoyed celebrity interviews – they have a weird power dynamic’

The Radio 1 presenter’s new Sky documentary series explores the strange case of Robert Allen Stanford, the mysterious Texan-born Antiguan billionaire who wanted to reinvigorate West Indian cricket. He talks to Ed Cumming about true crime, cricket and how he almost quit the show that made his name

Sunday 02 January 2022 08:06
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<p>‘There’s no greater place to do live radio,’ says James. ‘I get to do pretty much what I want’ </p>

‘There’s no greater place to do live radio,’ says James. ‘I get to do pretty much what I want’

In February last year, with the pandemic raging and the country back in lockdown, Greg James did something he hadn’t done before: he thought about quitting the BBC Radio 1 Breakfast Show.

“I had a conversation with my boss and I was just like ‘I can’t do it any more,’” he says over Zoom from his home in Kentish Town, north London. “I can’t pretend to be happy when I’m sad and everyone else is sad.”

He didn’t have another plan, he adds. “But the team and I were just like, ‘How do we keep this going while we’re worrying about all the other things in our lives?’”

In the end, he was talked down from quitting. His producer pointed out that everyone was anxious and fed up; it wasn’t just him. “You’re a long time not on the Breakfast Show,” he says. “It’s a privilege to get to do it. And it’s going well. So, I’m just going to keep going until I don’t like it any more.”

Besides, the key downside of presenting a breakfast show, namely that it starts at 6.30am, is also its great advantage: you are done by late morning, with plenty of time left in the day for fringe pursuits. Although he is best known as a radio presenter, and it pays the bills – between £310,000 and £314,999 per year, per the latest BBC figures – the Breakfast Show is only part of the increasingly sprawling James portfolio.

With Chris Smith, he is the co-author of the best-selling Kid Normal series of children’s books, which have been translated into 19 languages. Then there’s the cricket. A lifelong lover of the game, James hosts the BBC Tailenders podcast with the England fast bowler James Anderson and the musician Felix White, late of The Maccabees. They cut a slightly surprising trio, but their mixture of irreverence, enthusiasm and – in the case of England’s all-time leading wicket taker – genuine expertise, has found a wide audience and spawned several live tours since it began in 2017. Whatever else might be said of Chris Moyles and Nick Grimshaw, James’s forebears in the Radio 1 Breakfast chair, they were not evangelical about the crack of leather on willow, but he says the audiences are not as discrete as they might seem.

“Over the past few years, I have noticed a huge – well, I say huge – at least a crossover between Tailenders and the Breakfast Show,” he says. “By now people know that I like cricket, so they will either take the piss out of me for wanging on about it, or they’ll join in. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a niche Tailenders reference pop up on the Radio 1 number.”

Greg James at the second Ashes Test at Lord’s, 2015

James, born Gregory James Alan Milward, was a Radio 1 prodigy, joining in 2007 fresh out of the University of East Anglia. He started on the early breakfast show before moving around the afternoon, then back to the mornings for the main breakfast show in 2018. The Jamesian style is a kind of non-stick affability, with which he is able to convey diverse enthusiasms without even the faintest stirrings of provocation. He does not court cancellation, or fall out of nightclubs, or punch down. It’s a rare gift, even more so in fraught times for the BBC. You get the impression he would – and could – chat merrily about everything, but cricket is why we are here.

His latest project is a three-part documentary for Sky, starting tonight, about the strange case of Allen Stanford, the mysterious moustachioed Texan-born Antiguan billionaire who arrived in 2008, seemingly out of nowhere, with a grand plan to reinvigorate West Indian cricket and give the English game a leg-up in the process. He landed his helicopter on the nursery ground at Lord’s and become steadily less subtle from there. His big tournament, the Stanford Twenty20, between England and the West Indies, promised $1m to every player on the winning team, with nothing to the losers. Desperate to compete with the new T20 leagues cropping in India and elsewhere, the gatekeepers of English cricket bit his hand off. It all seemed too good to be true, and so it proved: in 2009, Stanford was arrested on suspicion of fraud, and in 2012, he was convicted of running a massive Ponzi scheme. He is currently serving a 110-year prison sentence.

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“I’d always been interested in the story,” James says. “Then two years ago I came up with this plan to make a documentary about it, presented by me, basically as an excuse to go to Antigua and tell the story. Then the pandemic hit and nobody wanted it, so it became a podcast instead. There are so many of those [narrative] podcasts, but I think lots of the time the production is terrible. I wanted to do one properly, using my Liam Neeson specific set of skills that I’ve been honing since I was about 12. Grant me the confidence of the white man who is hosting the Radio 1 Breakfast Show, I guess.” The podcast came out on the BBC in the autumn, and found a surprisingly enthusiastic audience, whereupon Sky decided they wanted three hour-long episodes for TV. James planned to be in front of the camera, or at least do the voiceover, but in the end, he took a rare upstairs role as executive producer, assembling the interviews, archive footage and reconstructions that tell the Stanford story.

Allen Stanford talking to the press for the Stanford Twenty20 tournament at Lord’s, June 2008

“I really found it thrilling to make something that I’m not on,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed putting it all together. I thought cricket fans would like it, but we underestimated people’s love for true crime.” By the end of the documentary, the cricket is almost a side-show, secondary to Stanford’s extraordinary fraud, which saw thousands of middle-class Americans throw away their savings. The interviews with the victims make a moving contrast with the nonsense around the cricket. “I do wonder if part of the reason Stanford didn’t get as much pick up [as the Bernie Madoff case, the highest profile fraud of the financial crisis] was because the victims were working people, rather than shiny Wall Street types,” James says. “That was his genius. He preyed on people who were vulnerable, not just greedy.”

I lived in Antigua briefly between 2005-2006, when Stanford already presided over the island like a feudal lord. He had a newspaper, a bank, part of the airport, a health club, a restaurant. Nobody knew exactly where the money had come from, but who cared? He was the biggest private employer on an island that needed the money.

The whole episode was so weird and embarrassing that it makes sense the English authorities would prefer to pretend that it hadn’t happened. Despite the roster of famous interviewees – Stuart Broad, Jonathan Agnew, Viv Richards, Antiguan politicians, FBI agents, former Stanford employees – the head honchos of English cricket who presided over this farrago are strangely absent from James’s films. “It was only 2008, which is not that long ago,” he says. “But my sense is that the people who were involved don’t really give a s*** any more and they didn’t want to talk about it.” He and his producers contacted Stanford himself, and got a reply, but ultimately didn’t interview him.

Another notable absence is Anderson, to whose daughter James is a godfather. Jimmy was a firebrand newcomer to the England team in 2008, although he didn’t play in the controversial final match, where England lost to the West Indies. “We did try to talk to him,” James says, “but he does what he likes. He’s Jimmy Anderson.” As we speak, Anderson is in Australia, where the England team have recently been thrashed in the second test of the Ashes. By the time this piece comes out, they have been thrashed in the third test, too. To future historians reading this, it is safe to assume that England have been thrashed by Australia in all subsequent matches.

“Jimmy’s hungover today, I think,” James says. “We’ve sent him a care package: a Sandra Bullock poster, some Monster Munch, some cheese and biscuits, a bottle of gin. It’s a funny thing [when England are losing]. Felix and I have struggled a bit with that. He has amazing resolve, but we worry about him, like we’re his parents. But we know when not to poke the bear. We don’t tend to get on the WhatsApp Group and go ‘Oh my god, pitch it up.’ It’s like I don’t want him meddling with my show, going, ‘Oh that was a s*** link; bit tired today are you?’”

From right: Greg James, Adam Collins, Felix White and Matt Horan at the England vs New Zealand Test at Lord’s, June 2021

Tiredness comes up a lot when you discuss the Breakfast Show. It’s not just the antisocial alarm clock but the endless churn of new music and Ed Sheeran interviews and the need for features that keep an audience who at any moment might wander off to their phones. Hosting the Radio 1 Breakfast Show is a strange job in that as soon as you have started it people start asking when you’ll stop. Burnout is implied. At 36, after three years in the job, James is already older than his predecessor Nick Grimshaw was when he stepped down.

“It’s relentless,” he says. “There are lots of days when I want to spend my time on other things. But there’s no greater place to do live radio: I get to do pretty much what I want. I imagine the people who’ve stepped down, or been made to step down, have found it quite a wrench. Because it takes a long time to get there, and in some ways it’s even better than you think.”

If you want to be on our show, you’ve got to play by our rules

Greg James

The world James has created is guided by a kind of anarchic silliness, where the gags never have victims and some of the most famous people in the world will offer an unpopular opinion or muck in with some other surreal game. “I’ve never enjoyed celebrity interviews that much because they always have a weird power dynamic which butts against the spirit of my shows,” he says. “I find it much funnier trying to get Daniel Craig to sing or whatever rather than talk earnestly about his process. It’s a privileged position to have those guests and say, if you want to be on our show, you’ve got to play by our rules. I’ve got better at interviews, I think, because I’ve got more confident about saying, ‘If you want to play with us in this silly world, we’re going to have a nice time. Nobody’s going to have a go at you, we’re not going to dig up old tweets.’”

Coronavirus, for all it exhausted him, has also been the professional challenge of a lifetime. “Although the pandemic has been harrowing to live through, it’s been incredibly challenging and draining to work on the show during this time. How can you be funny when there have been 100,000 dead people, and we’re all grieving this loss of life, and loss of our lives? There’s no manual. I think I’ll look back on what the team did with a lot of pride.”

While he says he is happy with his mix, there are plans afoot. He is developing a scripted comedy. There are more books in the pipeline. He vaguely mentions getting back into performing. “When I was doing student radio, I thought getting to Radio 1 would be great, and then I thought the breakfast show would be great. But I did a drama degree and when I was a student I did stand-up with my mates. So all that stuff is still in there somewhere. I can imagine a career in the future where I’m just making things. I find that as rewarding as presenting and showing off.

“But those are just my hopes and dreams,” he adds. “There’s no rush.”

‘The Man Who Bought Cricket’ airs tonight at 9pm on Sky Documentaries and NOW

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