When Zoe Ball finished her final Radio 1 breakfast show in 2000, after two-and-a-half years of burning the candle at both ends, Greg Dyke, then director-general of the BBC, presented her with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and packed her off for a champagne breakfast.
The woman whose reputation for partying had given the tabloids reason enough – as if one were needed during the 90s heyday of lads-mag Britain – to coin the noun “ladette”, told the world she was off to have a family. No more would her driver John “have to literally bash the door in to get me up”, as she later confessed to her Radio 1 successor Sara Cox. Nor would she be late again: “The worst thing was being in the car and hearing someone else do your show. Three records in, ‘She’s still not here.’ Four records in, ‘She’s still not here.’ I did get told off a couple of times.” How things change.
Nineteen years on and it won’t be her BBC driver tasked with making sure Ball makes it out of bed – it’ll be her eight-year-old daughter Nelly. “I hope getting up will be much easier this time round,” she tells me, speaking before she takes over from Chris Evans on the Radio 2 breakfast show on Monday 14th January 2019. “It’s going to be just like my old school days, especially on a Sunday night. You remember when the Songs of Praise music came on and you’d feel forlorn because it was nearly time to go to bed? I was telling my daughter how our roles will be reversed at bedtime. She will have to read me a story and make sure I’m not going on the telephone or reading a book sneakily under the duvet. I am, in fact, going to sleep at nine o’clock in the evening. Nelly is well up for that!”
Zoe, 48, and Nelly live in Sussex, in a small village in the South Downs near Brighton, where Ball and her family – she also has an 18-year-old son, Woody – lived for many years, before she split up with her husband, the DJ Norman Cook, in 2016. Which begs the question: what time will she actually get out of bed to be in the Radio 2 studio – a good 50 miles away in central London – in time for the show’s 6.30am start? “Well, it depends,” she says tentatively, her voice betraying more than a little trepidation. “If I’m coming from Sussex then it will be half-past three…” She laughs nervously and protests, “I’ve done things when you get up early before!”
Indeed, she has. She may not have an unblemished record of starting work bang on time at Radio 1, but in 1997 she became the first woman to host the station’s breakfast show, and she made it her own, attracting seven million listeners a day. Her impact in the studio was matched only by her presence in the newspapers, where her rising stardom and reputation for a rock ’n’ roll lifestyle guaranteed column inches. On one occasion she said she’d been “high” during a live broadcast from Ibiza. On another, according to the Mail on Sunday, school bus drivers in Shropshire banned the show after she let slip a swear word on air. “I may be in denial about the hours, but the good thing is that I’m not the Zoe that I was 20 years ago, when I was at Radio 1,” she says. “I don’t really go out much now. It’s a miracle for me to still be up at 10pm, to be honest with you.”
She says that years of negotiating the organised chaos of the Ball family breakfast has been the perfect preparation for her new gig. “I think the first hour of the radio show might be easier than trying to get two children out of the house before 7.30 in the morning. I had to get up earlier and earlier to get myself organised: pets fed, homework packed, kids out. That was a military operation. It’s the perfect training for this.”
Will she be approaching her new morning routine with the same precision, as well as a clear head? “The key is the minute the alarm goes off, leap out of bed. Have your clothes ready at the side of the bed and your favourite little mug ready for a cuppa, and off you go. The worst bit is if you lie there thinking, ‘I’ll wait for another alarm.’ That’s when things start to go wrong.
Things have been going right for Ball in recent months, after a difficult couple of years. Following her split from Cook, she had a relationship with a BBC cameraman, Billy Yates, that ended traumatically when he took his own life. Ball was devastated. When we last met in March last year, she was about to embark on a 350-mile Sport Relief bike ride from Blackpool to Brighton in his memory, cycling into the teeth of the Siberian blast that was the Beast from the East. “I knew when I lost Billy that I wanted to do something,” she told me at the time. “The horror and the heartbreak never leaves you.”
A week later she triumphantly completed her ride, despite not having ridden a bike since she was a girl, raising £1,198,012 along the way. It was an emotional journey, in more ways than one, and it saw Ball splashed across the pages of the nation’s newspapers for all the right reasons. Then, in the autumn, came the shock news that Evans was quitting the breakfast show, and that Ball was to be his replacement.
The first woman to have her own daytime show on Radio 2 since Debbie Thrower departed the station in 1998, Ball beat her friend Sara Cox to the most coveted gig on radio. “We spoke a lot during the whole process,” Ball says. “We’re old buddies and we’ve always been really supportive of each other. Sometimes she gets jobs I’ve wanted. We always talk. It worked out.”
It must have been tricky, though, finding herself pitched into a head-to-head race with Cox for the top job. “We don’t see each other a huge amount any more,” she says. Cox, of course, has now landed Radio 2’s other plum job – the drivetime show – in the slot recently vacated as a result of bringing the ill-fated pairing of Simon Mayo and Jo Whiley to an end. “Lots of people have said to me, ‘I bet you wished you had waited a couple of months,’” Ball laughs. “You could have had the later show!”
Together Ball and Cox are spearheading a brand-new, female-led schedule that rips up the old Radio 2 daytime line-up that was very publicly dismissed by Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey as “extraordinarily male and entirely pale”.
How have Ball and Cox been approaching their new roles? “We were reminiscing about the first time round, when sometimes we didn’t sleep at all. It’s so different now. We need eight hours or we’re really grumpy. Or seven with an afternoon nap. But you know, she’s up there [Cox lives in London], I’m down here in Sussex. We don’t have a social life any more.
“But professionally, work-wise, we’ve always supported each other. We start on the same day, which is wonderful. We are going to ring each other before to try to keep calm. She’s an amazing broadcaster. She cracks me up. She has so much energy. It’s all turned out rather nice.”
And what of her other old friend, Evans? She may be moving into his still-warm seat on the breakfast show, just as she did in 1997 when he quit Radio 1 in an equally surprising move, but he will be turning up again as a rival attraction on Virgin Radio in a matter of weeks, in a show he has announced will be ad-free. Is she worried?
“He’s my hero. I worked on The Big Breakfast when he was presenting and I was a lowly researcher. He has always championed me and given me great advice. When we were up against each other last time he told me, ‘Come on Zo, it’s all good fun!’ He gave me more confidence in myself. I’m inheriting the biggest radio show in the land. I’m hoping we can keep it that way. I’ve got my work cut out. But I’m ready for it.”
In many ways, she’s getting back on her bike – except she hasn’t ridden her bicycle since she completed her Sport Relief challenge. “My bike was auctioned off. The guys who made it made me another, my tangerine dream, but it’s been sitting in my house ever since. I watch cyclists go past in the village and I look at them longingly. I’ve dug out all my stuff. But I’m not a fair weather cyclist,” she jokes. “I only ride in hail and rain.”
There will, of course, be plenty of time for an afternoon ride, now she will be finishing work just as the rest of the nation makes it into the office. “My plan is to finish the show, go to the gym, go home, get food for the kids, then pick my daughter up from school. She’s excited about having me home because we haven’t had that for a while. Come Friday morning, 10am, my weekend starts!”
Cue 48 hours of mother-daughter quality time. At least, until Nelly has to tell Mummy that it’s nearly time for bed.
Zoe Ball’s first Breakfast Show airs on Radio 2 on Monday 14th January 2019 at 6.30am
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