Onion Talking: Greg James on Dead Air

Monday, 13th July sees the launch of the latest batch of BBC Comedy Feeds – taster pilots for potential new shows launched exclusively on BBC iPlayer.

© BBC / Ray Burmiston

Naturally, there’s a whole host of TVO talent involved on both sides of the camera, with the likes of Michael Smiley, Ellie White, Alice’s Wunderland producer Sam Bryant and House of Fools producer Lisa Clark involved in various productions across the set.

The biggest TVO conglomerate however, is in Dead Air – Tiger Aspect’s sitcom featuring Radio One DJ Greg James alongside TVO regulars Tom Davis and Nico Tatarowicz, and music by Waen Shepherd.

Intrigued by the project, TVO readily agreed to talk to one of the biggest names in broadcasting about his move into comedy. Here are the results.

Mick Jagger’s accent in Ned Kelly. David Bowie’s package in Labyrinth and Lily Allen’s ill-fated chat show – showbiz history is littered with moments a star tried to do something different, and faced derision evermore. Doing something different, when audiences know you as one thing, can be tricky, and only a select few make it out the other side in one piece. If there’s any justice in the world, Greg James will be one of them.

Best known for his work on Radio One since 2007 – he’s presented the Drive Time show since 2012, and recently took over the revamped Radio One Chart Show – James has fused his radio broadcasting with work presenting a string of BBC Three shows and last year’s Invictus Games closing ceremony. To the outside world, he’s following the path of a standard BBC radio presenter. You could almost smell a stint on The One Show lurking in his future.

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

Yet there’s a lot more to Greg James than first meets the eye, and this year has provided him with not one, but two opportunities to begin the second stage of his career. Following a guest appearance in BBC Three’s sublime Murder in Successville alongside Tom Davis, Colin Hoult and Cariad Lloyd earlier this year, James is about to unleash his debut as a writer: the sitcom pilot Dead Air, which launches as part of this Summer’s latest batch of Comedy Feeds, and reunites him with Davis and fellow Murder in Successville alumni Nico Tatarowicz and Waen Shepherd, the latter of whom scored both productions.

“For me, it’s not a shock,” Greg tells TVO as we catch up to talk about his first steps into alternative comedy. “The shock for me would be to not try it out. I’ve always been acting. I did a drama degree. I did the National Youth Theatre, and all that stuff. But I understand it will be to a lot of other people. It’s very difficult to not be put in a box, but I’m going to try my best.”

Dead Air is certainly an impressive starting point. The 17-minute taster features James, perhaps understandably as a cool, late-night DJ called Jake Cross, working for a commercial radio-station with a loyal fan-base and real credibility. But when the brash, loud-mouthed breakfast DJ dies on air, there’s an opportunity for Jake to take over his show, and he must battle the moral dilemma that potential fame and fortune in return for doing fart jokes, prank calls and silly voices first thing in the morning offers. Does he make the move and lose his credibility, but get to hang out in exclusive nightclubs and savour the massive boost to his public image?

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

“Obviously, the inspiration for it,” Greg explains, “comes from everything that I’ve experienced and been part of for the last eight years on Radio One. I heard an interview with Ricky Gervais, and he said you’ve got to write about what you know. I realised about two years ago that this industry is funny. The people in it are funny, the conversations are funny. The real jumping off point was when the breakfast show gig at Radio One did come up. I’d just been given the Drive Time show, and was incredibly happy, because things had gone better than I ever thought they would do. Everyone else was going: ‘Oh my god, you should do the breakfast show!’, and that made me go: Should I? Do I want it? I thought that dilemma, and that peer pressure was an amazing basis for a show, so I elaborated on it and took it to really strange places.”

It would, perhaps, have been easy for Dead Air to be a cheap bit of filler, but Greg’s passion for the project and determination to take it seriously has led to the assembly of an impressive team making his idea come to life. The production is being made by Psychobitches producer Ben Cavey’s new company Cave Bear Productions, produced by Arnold Widdowson (Crackanory, Grandma’s House) and directed by Simon Gibney (Horrible Histories, Watson & Oliver). On co-writing duties are Mark Chappell and Shaun Pye, who previously collaborated on Daniel Radcliffe and John Hamm vehicle A Young Doctor’s Notebook and before that, cult favourite The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret starring Sharon Horgan and David Cross. Even for a broadcaster as established as James, it could be very easy to be overwhelmed by the interest in his concept from the get-go.

“I was quite daunted to begin with,” he reveals. “I’d known their work, and they came highly recommended. I went to see [Chappell & Pye], fully expecting them to think I was just a radio knob who didn’t know what he was doing. It was really lovely, actually. They were very supportive of the idea, and realised quite quickly that I wasn’t just doing this for a laugh, and I wanted to take it very seriously. They were very generous letting me take the reins, offering support and helping me shape it into a story. That was what I didn’t have enough experience doing and needed help with. I could write jokes, and come up with character ideas, but actually coming up with a beginning, middle and end is, I suppose, what I was struggling with.”

“I found the whole thing absolutely the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever done,” he continues, full of genuine enthusiasm. “It was a pinch yourself moment when we sat in a room at the BBC for nights on end. One of us would stay at the computer, and the others would just walk around and say ideas and lines, and all the rest of it. It was a really brilliant, collaborative effort, and I was quite sad when it ended.”

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

It may come as a surprise to many, but James is a self-confessed comedy nerd, even down to choosing to base the writing sessions in the ‘Basil Fawlty Room’ at the BBC, due Fawlty Towers kick-starting his fascination with comedy at an early age.

“My first ever real obsession,” he explains, “to the point where I would get my mum to go and buy me the script book was Fawlty Towers, and it made me realise how incredible a story you have to create. As a kid, I just thought: Who is that funny tall man running around? I like this, and I like how he hits that man over the head with a spoon. As I grew up and read about John Cleese, and learnt about Monty Python and Michael Palin and all that, I realised I love the way they’d write things and the characters they created.”

Indeed, it was Palin who inspired Greg to take the plunge into making Dead Air a reality. “Really, Cleese and Palin are my real heroes,” he gushes, with the sense he could talk about Python for hours on end, “particularly Michael Palin, because what I learnt a few years ago after reading and then, nerdily re-reading his diaries – which I can’t really say much on Radio One because it’s not relevant to that audience – is that you don’t have to just stay doing one thing. I think he was a real idol of mine, because I saw him as the guy who did Around the World in 80 Days, but as I got older I realised he was also in Monty Python, he was a writer, an actor, a director, he’s also a playwright… he’s everything! Reading about people like him made me go: Okay, I’ve done one thing, but I don’t just want to be the Radio One guy forever.”

“To a certain extent,” he adds, “I’ve always loved performing. Radio One is an amazingly creative place, because they let you do stuff. I know I wouldn’t have wanted to do it as long as I have if I’d been on a station where it’s all about reading the travel news then playing the hits. For want to a better phrase, I’ve always liked arsing around. It really started out of student radio, where I’d get some mates in and we’d just do stuff. It was a dream of mine to be on Radio One, but now it’s happened, I feel it’s a good time to explore some of my other passions as well. I’m an absolute nerd on everything I’m passionate about, whether its comedy, or cricket, or the radio. Those are my passions and they’re the things that keep me going. But I love creating stuff that wasn’t there before. That’s what really drives me to carry on.”

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

Back to Dead Air, then, and another stand-out point is the impressive cast. Alongside James and Tom Davis as his disgusting agent Perry, are an impressive team: from The Thick of It’s Olivia Poulet as his neurotic producer to Ashes to Ashes star Montserrat Lombard as the widow of the late breakfast show host. Also along for the ride are Richard David-Caine (Skins) as Jake’s idiotic best friend; Nico Tartarowicz as an over-enthusiastic fan; and stand-up veteran Jared Christmas as a rival DJ from another station. Understandably, Greg is full of praise for the team.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have been surrounded by those people,” he affirms. “It was really helpful for me, because I needed people with experience around me. I had confidence I could do it, but I couldn’t possibly have been there worrying about the other cast members as well. I had to leave the writing at the door, and go and try and be this person. I got on really well with [Tom] on Murder in Successville, so to have him there as my co-star was great. And Jared is someone I’d watched doing stand-up over the last couple of years, and always thought he’d be great as a big brash Aussie, even though he’s from New Zealand. Then to get a touch of class with people like Olivia and Montserrat. When we got a yes from them, I thought: this is getting real now. I’m very happy, because they’re a talented bunch.”

“One of my favourite characters in the whole thing,” he continues, “who we’ll definitely revisit if he wants to do it, is Nico. He completely got it. He absolutely nailed that character, and if the full series comes about he’s the first name on the call sheet for me. The most amazing thing about the day we filmed with Nico was that we did it outside the BBC, and when we finished and walked through the main exit, there was a guy who was the spitting image of Nico, actually waiting for me outside the BBC. It was art imitating life with the most ridiculous thing ever.”

Programme Name: Comedy Feeds: Dead Air - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Perry (TOM DAVIS), Jake Cross (GREG JAMES) - (C) Tiger Aspect - Photographer: Ollie Upton

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

It’s also safe to say, TVO asserts, that following Murder in Successville earlier this year, Dead Air continues the rise of James and Davis, one of TV’s great power-couples, to which Greg is reduced to giggles.

“We get on very well,” he states when he calms down a bit. “We met when we did the taster tape for Murder in Successville, which was just as I was starting to write Dead Air. I always had the idea for Perry [Jake’s agent] to be an absolute shitbag. He’d be really nasty and gross, but the audience would love him and want to see more of him.” He stops and laughs again. “I think Tom is one of those people in real life. He looks very frightening. He’s very imposing, and quite scary when you first meet him, but then you realise he’s actually very soft, and very warm. And he’s a brilliant performer, which goes without saying. I had him in mind as we were writing. I really wanted him to say those lines. And genuinely, one of my favourite things I’ve ever done was doing Murder in Successville with him.”

For the uninitiated, Murder in Successville saw Tom Davis play a gruff, useless detective partnered with a different celebrity ‘rookie’ each week, as the two investigated a murder in the fictional titular town. The culprit was inevitably one of the various showbiz inhabitants they’d meet along the way, played by a variety of comedy legends – with Tony Way, Harry Peacock, Tom Meeten, Gemma Whelan and many more popping up throughout the run. In Greg’s episode, he would meet three potential suspects: local priest Gary Barlow (Colin Hoult), casino owner Justin Bieber (Cariad Lloyd) and strip-club baroness Mary Berry (Frances Barber): and the result is an experience Greg will never forget.

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

“It was the most enjoyable thing I’ve done in front of a camera really, until Dead Air¸because that’s my baby. I had no script, so I felt very liberated. I’d done [improv] at university, putting on sketches and shows and all that, so it was just amazing to go in and be the bumbling sidekick. They genuinely don’t let you know anything about it.”

It must be weird, TVO opines, to see familiar faces like Frances Barber never dropping character with you.

“That was the weirdest one,” Greg agrees. “All I knew was I was at the door of Mary Berry’s strip club. I walked in, and looked at this lady, and in my head I’m going: ‘I quite recognise… on my god, it’s Frances Barber.’ So for the first take, I was just sort of fascinated that Frances Barber was sat in a warehouse in Middlesex, dressed as Mary Berry and smoking, touching me up, talking about my cock like it was a Toblerone. I had to get over that quite quickly.”

“It was quite a brave thing for the BBC to commission,” he continues, “because it’s not an instant get. You have to invest in it. I imagine for every person who gets it and loves it, there’s a person who goes: What the hell is this? I think you have to really invest in it, and then you get a lot out of it.”

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

© Tiger Aspect / Ollie Upton

Such is the case with Dead Air. There will be those who dismiss it as the whims of a celebrity DJ, just as there will always be people who can’t see past Bowie’s tights in Labyrinth to find the delightful adventure all around them. As an iPlayer Comedy Feeds pilot, those who watch will have to make the effort to do so – there’s no accidentally stumbling upon it, unknowing, and realising its hilarious. People will have to leave their prejudices at the door when they hit ‘play’.

TVO urges you to do so. With the help of an impressive team of creative talents, Greg James has made a confident and assured debut, and hopefully we’ll be seeing more of Jake, Perry and the rest of the team again very soon. He’s got lots of ideas for the show, and says the book of them is being added to every time he walks into his day job. Perhaps the final word should rest with Greg, and the way he explained his pet project to the cast when he approached them: “This is not a whim. I’m very serious about it. We’d love you to come in and give it a go.”

Dead Air is available to view on iPlayer from Monday 13th July.

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  1. Comedy Feeds Return Tonight | The Velvet Onion

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