Comedians John Robins and Elis James brought real wit and warmth to their Radio X show, airing out the station’s laddy atmosphere, talking openly about mental health, inviting listeners to deposit embarrassing memories in ‘The Shame Well’, a device that served as a kind of therapy. Their three-hour show ran at weekends between 2014 to this year, and proved that comedy can be kind while also being, y’know, funny as fuck. Like the best radio shows, it felt like you were eavesdropping on mates in the pub; after a while, you became part of the gang, too.
The duo have now moved to BBC Radio 5 Live – for whom they’ll also produce an upcoming podcast on mental health – so they told us about their new home (and Queen super-fan John’s strong thoughts on Bohemian Rhapsody…).
Tell us about your new show on Radio 5 Live…
Elis: “It’s a different challenge because it’s 25 minutes [slots] and then you go to news and sport, so if we end up going down a conversational rabbit hole, we can’t play emergency Kasabian any more. It’ll be interesting to see how we overcome that challenge. We’ve had some pretty ill-informed conversations over the years, but whenever it was a problem we’d just play Catfish And The Bottlemen.”
Where did ‘The Shame Well’ come from? It’s such a powerful device
John: “It came from my own harrowing memories, and then morphed into asking listeners for their own.”
Elis: “On the show, John was talking about being kept up at night by some tiny little indiscretion from when he was at school, and how he still thought of it when he couldn’t sleep. We got lots of messages from people saying that they were exactly the same. Suddenly you realise that this thing has really got legs; we’ve discovered over the last five years that shame is Britain’s number one currency.”
John: “I think it’s also quite unusual to hear people in the media admit weakness. And more unusual still to hear them say that they hate themselves. People expect you to put on a smile and a radio voice.”
— BBC Radio 5 Live (@bbc5live) June 12, 2019
Elis: “I think it probably comes from our stand-up – I never tried to exude a veneer of calm rational capability. I was always perfectly happy to admit my faults. And then you do that on the radio, and realise that very few other people do.”
With the Radio X show, it was quite bracing to hear men talking so openly about mental health
John: “I don’t think we do talk about mental health. We talk about ourselves, and for me that’s the way to talk about mental health. It’s about making it as much a part of your week as physical health or a gig that you’ve been to. We never set out be a ‘mental health programme’ because you don’t want to alienate people who doesn’t think they necessarily would identify as being interested in mental health, even though every single person in the world has mental health.”
Have you always found it easy to talk about these subjects?
Elis: “We’ve always been very open with each other. We’ve been friends for 15 years. Because I’d done more radio than John I was more aware of the unspoken rule that you pretend everything is fine [when broadcasting]. The first time John talked openly on air about being sad I unthinkingly told him to, ‘Keep it light’. And then I realised: why should we? And it came from there.
John: “I’ve been quite disturbed by how many men I know don’t actually have any kind of channel where they can talk in the way that I do with my friends and Elis. It blows my mind that you can meet someone who you know that their wife has left them and you say, ‘How are you and they go yeah fine. You’re like, ‘Come on mate – obviously you’re a complete fucking mess. You have to have someone you can say that to, otherwise you’ll just explode.”
— BBC Radio 5 Live (@bbc5live) June 7, 2019
John, you’re a massive Queen fan. What did you make of Bohemian Rhapsody?
John: “I loved it. I saw an early rough cut and as soon as the opening credits came on, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck come up. There were so many things that for 25 years were only for me, and the suddenly tens of millions of people were seeing them. I saw Rocketman last night and it’s a better film, but nothing could make me feel the way I feel watching four people who have been a huge part of my consciousness for nearly 30 years.”
What did you think of the criticism that the film toned down Freddie’s sexuality?
John: “I think some that’s some people saying, ‘Oh, he was gayer than that’. Behind that, I think, is a kind of homophobia where they’re saying that the film doesn’t show how ‘he got what he deserved’ [because he died of AIDS]. Also! On the practical side of things, it’s a fucking PG-13! You can’t have an erect cock coming out an anus on a PG-13 film – in the same way, you wouldn’t make a film full of straight sex and somebody spunking all over a face. I don’t know what people expect – there to be an end credit sequence where they go, ‘Oh, actually, by the way, erm, Freddie really liked having an erect penis in his anus.’”
Elis: “Yeah, if you wanna see that, just get a pad and draw it.”
You’ve moved to Radio 5 Live. What did you make of your predecessor Danny Baker’s sacking over his royal baby chimp tweet?
Elis: “I’ve been a huge fan of Danny Baker’s for many years, but the tweet was a serious error of judgment and it’s not in-keeping with the values of the BBC. So that is my opinion. I mean, I’ve been a big fan of Danny’s broadcasting and of his writing for as long as I can remember. But the tweet was an error.”
John: “I’m amazed he wasn’t sacked earlier for slagging Queen off on an almost weekly basis. That is totally un-in-keeping with the values of the BBC and due to the way that the BBC is funded, I would call on all broadcasters to be very careful about what they say about Queen.”
– Elis James and John Robins are on Radio 5 Live on Fridays from 1pm