Throughout two years of Covid, during lockdowns when radio was one of the few ways we could feel that sense of togetherness, James had to get his listeners ready to face the day. He takes that responsibility, at the heart of a 4.85 million-strong community of people like Gavin (though perhaps without the same towel habits), very seriously.
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“It’s all very well doing that show when everything’s great. But you’ve also got to be there when it’s not,” he says.
“It was definitely difficult [during the pandemic]. But there were way harder jobs that were happening at that time. All I had to do was try and be as happy as possible at seven o’clock in the morning. Even though I wasn’t feeling it for a lot of the time.”
In those moments, James says, “You remember the exact reason you got into radio, which is that it connects you directly with an audience. You’ve got a community. It’s live, it’s happening now, in that moment. There’s no other thing in the world, really, that is so accessible by the listeners.”
More recently, James had to deliver BBC Radio 1’s response to the death of Queen Elizabeth II – the only monarch the vast majority of his listeners will ever have known. “You gotta earn your money on days like that,” he admits.
The Queen’s death was announced on the evening of September 8. Early the next morning, the Breakfast team put their heads together to work out what their listeners needed. “Not everyone was feeling exactly the same. So we were very careful to have a place for everyone to come together,” remembers James. “The only true thing at that moment was it was undoubtedly a historic, seismic event that affected the global news cycle, every TV screen, every billboard.
“So our main thing was: OK, let’s reflect that. Let people have space to feel how they feel. You could feel very, very sad that you’ve lost this person that you thought was wonderful. It might remind you of a bereavement in your own family. Having that rolling coverage of a death is quite triggering for a lot of people. It’s anxiety-inducing.”
James’s speech, offering a slice of comfort and normality and telling everyone “whatever you’re feeling today, it’s OK to feel those ways” drew huge praise across social media. You’ve got to pay attention to the listeners, he says, “They help us through as much as we help them.”
Throughout his time waking the nation, James has also found time to become a bestselling author. Alongside his friend, award-winning journalist and broadcaster Chris Smith, James created the Kid Normal series, a slapstick spoof superhero epic centred around the one boy who doesn’t have powers. They were determined not to half-arse it like some celebs, he insists. “We really wanted to do it properly because a lot of people who have a name get book deals, and sometimes they’re terrible.”
The Kid Normal series has recently been followed by Super Ghost, another skewed take on the superhero genre from James and Smith. The tale begins with the death of Doctor Extraordinary, and the grief of his biggest fan Sonny Nelson. It gets weird when Doctor Ex returns as a ghost and only Sonny can see him.
As when he’s presenting his radio show, James says it’s important to him to treat his young audience with respect, even when talking about difficult subjects. “We wanted to make sure that we wrote about death in a very realistic way,” he explains.
“Not dancing around it, but also not being too morbid about it all. Death is a part of life, so it’s important to talk about.”
All James’s books are aimed at children aged eight to 12. It’s an age when it’s vital to fire their imaginations, like Roald Dahl’s Matilda did for a young Greg. The desire to power creativity is the same motivation that drew James in to becoming a judge for this year’s Christmas Kids Cover Competition. That, and the pull of The Big Issue itself.
“I just love The Big Issue. I love everything that you stand for,” he says.
“I buy the magazine from a guy called George at All Souls Church outside the BBC. I’ve known him for years. He’s an amazing bloke, we always have chats and he tells me about his life,” James adds.
“The Big Issue is undoubtedly a brilliant thing. And I’m just very honoured to get to talk to you. I definitely think everyone should be buying The Big Issue and supporting it.”
Super Ghost by Greg James and Chris Smith, with illustrations by Amy Nguyen, is out now (Puffin, £12.99)
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