Greg James on embracing his "sinister" side for Rise and Fall, his Radio 1 future and whether he'll do Strictly
The TV presenter speaks to Lauren Morris on why he wants to do more work with Channel 4, why he nearly quit the Breakfast Show, and whether you'll catch him on the Strictly dance floor soon.
Greg James reckons that if you want to succeed in Rise and Fall – Channel 4's latest foray into reality TV that divides its cast into Rulers and Grafters – you have to be a bit of a monster. "The trick with this show is that you do have to be slightly monstrous to want to be a CEO or a ruler I think, because you want power and you want influence and all the rest of it."
Living in a penthouse suite, the Rulers decide just how long the Grafters have to endure their work shifts (the first of which involved a spot of electrocution) and whether their underlings are treated to extra food after a long day of building up a prize pot that only one Ruler will win.
That's exactly why the presenter, who returns to TV with this brand new competition, identifies more as a Grafter. "I think most people's answer would be a Grafter," he says over the phone ahead of Rise and Fall's Sunday night premiere. "I have always just preferred working and coming up with stuff and reporting it to somebody else. I think ultimately that pressure of being the one sole leader who has to sort of f**k everyone else over is not naturally where I'm best."
You could say that James aligns more with the Grafters for another reason: that he truly does graft. From waking up at a very antisocial hour to host BBC Radio 1's Breakfast Show for the last five years to hosting 5Live's cricket podcast Tailenders, writing a newspaper column and co-authoring a children's book series, the broadcaster was already busy when Channel 4 approached him – but now he's even busier.
James is getting ready for another voiceover session when we speak on 3pm on a Friday. For Rise and Fall? "Yeah, yeah," he laughs. "Not for Arial Active Pods. We're doing it because it's happening now, there's something to do every day. My life has been taken over by these people."
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The 37-year-old is just as warm and witty as his bright Breakfast Show persona, which is slightly at odds with the dystopian Apprentice-meets-Succession style of Rise and Fall – however, he's excited to embrace his darker side, which involves an exciting new wardrobe. "It's been a really fun thing to add to my day, really. We've had a lot of fun with, 'Okay, what's a powerful outfit? What's a sinister outfit? What's a mischievous outfit?' It's been great fun to play around with that role. It's just a real dream, a real dream gig for me."
Created by the makers of The Traitors, Rise and Fall sees 16 contestants attempt to win £100,000 by being voted up from the dingy basement to the champagne-filled penthouse, where Rulers are in with a chance of winning the prize money. With no sunlight, no hot water, uncomfortable beds and prison-esque uniforms, the Grafters' bottom floor digs truly are horrible – so much so that Essex businessman Ali quit the show in the first episode. "It's fair enough, isn't it? I'm telling you, it's really horrible in that basement. It's really cold," James says. "You're thrown together with a lot of people you don't know or whose personalities that clash with yours. I'm surprised that more people don't just walk out of shows like that."
While the broadcaster is a reality TV fan ("Below Deck: Med, I really love that show"), Rise and Fall marks his first presenting project of the sort and his first primetime TV gig since 2018's Sounds Like Friday Night on BBC One. "I think I've always taken [TV projects] if they've been good, if I've been excited by them. It's funny isn't it that people are a bit like, 'Are you moving into TV?' I've been doing TV since I've been doing radio – it's just radio has been a very loud part of my career."
"I love doing TV. I've been obsessed with it for longer probably than I have been with radio. I loved Live and Kicking, I loved Noel's House Party, I loved the Crystal Maze," he adds. "Oh my God, Big Brother – just hook this stuff into my veins. It just so happened that radio was the thing that really took off because I was able to do more of it in terms of student radio and community radio, then Radio 1 came knocking."
He's now working alongside some of the producers who worked on Big Brother's early series and hopes to do more with Channel 4 in the future. "What I love with Channel 4 is that they're just so confident, they go, 'Yeah, we're doing this.' Confidence is attractive in a person. It's also really attractive in a creative thing as well and when I chatted to them all I was like, 'Oh wow, you really all mean this. I'm on board.' So that's why I did it."
Will this mean his time on the Breakfast Show could be coming to an end? Thankfully, the answer is no. "I don't want to rush away any time soon. I've worked really hard to make that show good and I worked a long time to get to a place where I was in the running to take over that show – no one gets it just because they've been hanging around long enough. You have to show that you're able to do it and then keep making it good.
"It's still good and I'm still really proud of it and I don't really ever wake up and think, 'Oh god, how am I going to do this today?' Obviously, you have tired mornings but it doesn't feel like I've been doing it for five years."
After joining Radio 1 in 2007 to host the Early Breakfast show, James moved through the afternoon slot, the Official Chart Update and Drivetime before replacing Nick Grimshaw in August 2018 – although he nearly quit during the pandemic.
"I think during the pandemic, everyone got a bit, 'Oh God, what is my life? What do we do here?' So I think like everybody, I sort of went, 'How long do I do this for because actually I'm really tired and the world's not very fun. Should I be doing something else?' But that was just an extraordinary moment for everyone, wasn't it really? We were all questioning our existence. I was like, 'I did not sign up for the sad Breakfast Show.'"
But James had a word with himself and carried on, and half a decade later he still sees it as the biggest radio gig in the UK. "There are shows that have more listeners in terms of Radio 2 and everything but really in terms of prestige, that's the radio gig so I don't want to run away before I feel like I've done everything. I still feel like there's more things I can do."
The broadcaster is still yet to follow in the footsteps of his fellow Radio 1 presenters and bite the ballroom bullet on Strictly Come Dancing – although he did prank the press with a fake Instagram post last year, announcing that his dog Barney would be joining the 2022 line-up (spoiler alert: he did not). James starts giggling when I bring this up. "I forgot about that. I'm gonna do another one this year and I'm gonna confuse everybody else but I've got to think of another joke."
"I'm not doing it this year. They have always been very, very nice to me Strictly, and in the last few years they have always asked. I just really don't have the time to do it at the moment. I really want to focus on all these exciting hosting gigs and podcast things and writing things that I'm doing at the moment. I also need to balance that with having a life," he laughs.
"I'm really happy. If these amazing TV things come along and whoever knows what happens, I'd love to do some more work with Channel 4. I really love how they make things, the way that they think. I'm going to stick to what I'm good at for now and I'm not very good at dancing."
As for what's to come from the next few weeks of Rise and Fall, James says it's becoming a "real pressure cooker situation".
"You see them all getting on but they are all very, very ambitious to win so you get a lot of honesty when they're on their own," he adds. "There's lots of surprising things that happen and lots of very dramatic moments that you wouldn't normally expect.
"The horrible elephant in the room, apart from me, is that they're going to have to screw each other over at some point and no matter how close you get with these people in the show, they've got to at some point stick the knife in and go, 'Yeah, but I want to win the money,' because only one person can win so I'm always sort of watching proceedings going, 'Oh my God, you're all so nice to each other but I know this is gonna get bad.'"
While he's embracing this mischievous new persona on the show, the contestants haven't let him clock off completely from his radio role. "They try and ask me questions about the outside world. Connor the other day was like, 'I know you can't say anything, but can you just confirm that Miley Cyrus is still number 1 [in the charts].'
"I said, 'I can't tell you much about the outside world, but I can tell you that Miley is still number 1.'"
Rise and Fall continues on Channel 4 and airs on weeknights at 10pm from Sunday to Thursday.
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