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Finding light in the darkness

Comedians Elis James and John Robins are shining the way for men to start conversations about mental health 

Emma Ledger
Monday 14 May 2018 15:34 BST
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(Radio X)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Men have never been so off trend. Blame Weinstein, Trump, pay gaps, or a culture bathed in misogyny, but the past 18 months have exposed the need for an urgent upgrade of modern masculinity. Step forward Elis James and John Robins, comedians who co-host an eponymous Radio X radio show and podcast.

What started four years ago as a few hours of hungover Saturday badinage quickly evolved into a hugely successful show, and its one that’s broadening the conversation around what it is to be a man in 2018.

Not that spearheading cultural change was Elis and John’s intention. They landed the weekly Radio X slot after making a pilot - which they admit was the first and last time they’ve had a planning meeting - and put the show’s success down to the fact that they are genuinely friends.

“For us its just like we’re having a chat in the pub,” says Elis, 37, who is the embodiment of Welsh bonhomie. And John agrees: “rather than us thinking ‘right, how are we going to engage listeners?’ it was a 10 year friendship that suddenly started being recorded,” he says. “As a result it’s much more unintentionally honest than other shows because we know each other so well”.

He’s not exaggerating. As well as all the usual terrain you’d expect two blokes on commercial radio to cover - beer, music, football, relationships - Elis and John discuss shame, periods, death, and their own (very often frayed) emotional states.

John explains that they simply “never thought not to talk about” anything on air. And while its fair to say he brings the melancholy to the partnership, it thrives because of their differences. Together, Elis and John strike a winning balance - treating serious topics seriously, while being free to find comedy in them, or to segue into something lighthearted

It proves incredibly popular. “There’s a community of thousands who all feel like the third friend in our conversation,” says John. And as well as the weekly show, the podcast recently passed 12 million downloads, there’s a merchandise range, dedicated fan sites, and a book - The Holy Vible - will follow this October.

While there’s nothing groundbreaking about a Radio X show presented by men reaching cult status - think Adam and Joe, and Ricky Gervais’s show before now - what is new is the culture of openness that Elis and John espouse. Their willingness to be seen as fallible is light years away from the lads’ mags bravado of the very recent past. It's an approach that's also reflected in new digital platform The Book of Man, created by former Shortlist Editor Martin Robinson, for men feeling frustrated with old school ideals of masculinity.

“I hadn’t realised that talking honestly to your male friend could resonate in this way,” says Elis, who openly marvels at the show’s success. “I’ve always felt able to talk about anything with my friends, but there are plenty of men who listen who might not have close relationships.

“I think radio and podcasts are very powerful platforms for friendship, and that’s not the vision of masculinity that is most often portrayed in the media.”

For John, 36, the weekly show has been a turning point in his ability to talk about the mental health issues he has experienced for much of his life.

“Doing it has allowed me to feel much more comfortable discussing that sort of stuff,” says John, who refers to his experiences as ‘the darkness’ - a term coined by Elis - which he says “much better defines my outlook on the world than depression”.

“I’ve found the best way to deal with slightly taboo topics is to give very subjective examples,” John says. “Mental health is as varied as physical health. If you try and be too absolute about what depression is, people might think ‘that's not me, maybe I’m weird or different’”.

Fans of the radio show and podcast (called PCDs - or ‘podcast devotees’ - who are a pretty even split of men and women) regularly refer to their own experiences of ‘the darkness’ in emails to the show.

Part of Elis and John's merchandise range, available at elisandjohnmerch.com
Part of Elis and John's merchandise range, available at elisandjohnmerch.com

Such is the quantity of correspondence that Elis and John admit they can’t reply to everyone, though you do actually believe their stock showbiz line that they “read every single one”.

And while it is first and foremost a comedy radio show, their discussion of mental illness is especially powerful when you consider that a key Radio X audience is men aged under 45 - the very demographic least likely to seek help for mental health issues. Men account for over three out of four suicides (76%), and suicide remains the biggest cause of death for men under 35.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (14 - 20 May), a nationwide initiative to educate, reduce stigma, and encourage people in need to seek help. Despite extensive, expensive charity campaigns, it is still very difficult to reach men. There is untold good in what Elis and John are doing to normalise discussion of mental illness, helping listeners to find light in the dark.

“We’re just talking about being sad some of the time, and happy some of the time,” says John. “It’s important to keep on [talking about mental illness] accidentally, because as soon as you think ‘right, we’re a show that promotes supportive mental health amongst men’ you’d probably switch off.”

He adds: “I actually realised this very obvious thing recently while writing our book - that any recovery from any mental health problem starts with a conversation. Whether it’s with a friend, a GP, or a stranger on a helpline, it begins with speech.

“I think I’m very lucky that with whatever problems I have I can talk about them every week in the show. But if there’s one huge banner I’d like to show to all men it’s that they’re only going to solve this problem by talking. Just open your mouth to someone with that thought that’s been banging around your head for 10 years. That’s how it starts. That’s how it’ll stop.”

The smart thing to do is to ask for help, because mental illness is always best attacked in numbers. And John is leading by example, taking his excavation of ‘the darkness’ from the airwaves into comedy venues across Britain.

John’s latest show, The Darkness of Robins, is about his despair following the breakdown of his four-year relationship with comedian Sara Pascoe, and includes stuff he “couldn’t even say on the radio”. Naturally it’s rammed with zingers, but there are also long, laugh-free descriptions of the loneliness, terror, and overwhelm that form part of a life unravelling. Or as John puts it “it’s a man yelling at himself for an hour.”

From the crucible of personal distress John has forged art that stays with you. It won him 2017's Edinburgh Comedy Award, and the subsequent UK tour of The Darkness of Robins culminated last month in a sell-out gig at the Hammersmith Apollo, with a support slot from Elis.

The crowd that night - many, if not most, fans of the radio show - were rapt. Chances are there wasn’t one person in that room whose life hasn’t been touched by ‘the darkness’ in some capacity. And as well as big laughs John filled the air with palpable and affecting emotional charge.

“One of the things I’ve learnt about comedy is that nothing succeeds like authenticity,” says Elis, who could not be prouder of his friend. “I think it means more to people than a well created artifice.”

In modern living’s quest for authenticity, Elis and John are the real deal. Theirs is a reconstructed version of masculinity that includes self-awareness, fallibility, bravery, kindness, intelligence, compassion, and, not least, humour.

They’re just two mates chatting on the radio as if they’re down the pub. But they are also encouraging people to be unafraid of discussing their own moments of darkness, acknowledging that the darkness and light are indivisible, and - above all - simply saying that sometimes its ok to not feel ok.

The Holy Vible is out on 18 October 2018. You can preorder it here. Listen to Radio X The John Robins and Elis James Show on Saturdays 1 - 4pm on www.radiox.co.uk or download the podcast here

Need help? Call CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) on 0800 58 58 58 or visit their online support

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