Off air Chris Moyles, the headline-grabbing, over-paid Radio 1 DJ you love to hate, is reserved, likeable and – he says – worth every penny
Though the London sky is sagging with rain, Chris Moyles is sitting outside at a pavement table. He has just finished his breakfast show on Radio 1 and is in desperate need of a smoke. With his baseball cap pulled down and the collar of his adidas top zipped up, he looks more like a bouncer than one of the highest paid presenters at the BBC, but I suspect he tucks his neck in like this more out of self consciousness than an urge to present himself as a hard man.
For his is a friendly, ursine face, with big brown eyes that are slightly divergent and front teeth that have an uneven bite. His greying suggestion of a beard, meanwhile, makes him look older than his 35 years. But then he probably feels quite old, given that the target audience for Radio 1 is aged 15 to 29.
Half-an-hour ago, I’d been watching him at work in his studio, from behind the glass of the production booth and when he noticed me he went into one of his riffs, imagining what my opening line might be: something about a posh, broadsheet journalist slumming it for the day in the dingy hovel that is Radio 1. He stands at a console as he speaks into his microphone: doing his song parodies, interviewing his celebrity guests (Lewis Hamilton and Katy Perry today) and bantering with his team which includes ‘Comedy Dave’, producers Rachel and Aled, newsreader Dom, and sports correspondent Carrie. All part of the shouty, free-form, irreverent chatter with which Moyles entertains some 7.7 million listeners every morning between 6.30 and 10. In terms of ratings, Sir Terry Wogan over on Radio 2 is still The Daddy. But the gap appears to be narrowing.
This comes as a surprise to anyone – which is pretty much everyone – who dismissed Moyles as an uncouth, Northern yob when he took over the Breakfast Show in 2004. The previous incumbent, Sara Cox, had been haemorrhaging listeners at the rate of half-a-million a year. ‘I joined Radio 1 at a good time,’ Moyles admits. ‘It wasn’t completely on its a— but it was struggling.’
Not only did he not lose listeners, he started to pile them on, billing himself modestly as the saviour of Radio 1. ‘The saviour line was a gimmick,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to be like the Spice Girls where they genuinely started discussing girl power.’ This September he will have been doing the show for five years, beating Tony Blackburn’s record.
And it is telling that when the BBC recently announced that its stars would be taking pay cuts, Moyles wasn’t among them. He must have felt the repercussions of the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross affair though, like Ross, he was deemed to be extremely well paid and somewhat controversial. He rolls his eyes, ‘Oh, I get dragged into everything. I think if you look hard enough you will see I am responsible for the Tube strike.’
Presumably he was told to tone it down, though; curb his edginess? ‘That episode was very scary. I was sitting at home when Jonathan’s suspension was announced and I stood in the kitchen watching the television with my mouth open. Sophie [his girlfriend of seven years, a freelance television producer] just stared at me. The bottom line is that the rules have changed. It is similar to when Janet Jackson’s boob popped out accidentally on purpose – it changed the rules for the media in America.’
He thinks the episode demonstrated a loss of nerve by the BBC. ‘I would like the BBC to stick up for itself better. The one line that I get a lot is: “We pay your wages with our licence fee money.” Well, you know what? It’s my licence fee money as well, and I pay for it out of my wage, too. I don’t know how the BBC works but it just does. Leave it alone.’
But it was being left alone, I say, that’s what caused the problem, surely. The public couldn’t stomach the idea of an old person being bullied. ‘Look, not everything on the BBC is for everybody. I personally don’t watch Strictly Come Dancing. It’s not for me, so I don’t care what they do on that show. I don’t watch Country File but I love the fact that it is still on. So that is what the BBC is about. I imagine that 99 per cent of the people who complained about the Jonathan Ross thing didn’t hear it and would probably hate the show anyway. Russell Brand’s show is supposed to be outrageous, that is why it was on late at night on a Saturday. If it had been on Terry’s show it would be the end of the world.’
But is the Jonathan Ross incident not the price the BBC must pay for being subsidised by the public? There has to be more accountability. That is why we know what his salary is, for example. ‘You think you know. The BBC has never released that figure.’ £630,000? ‘That is what they say.’ So there is this feeling that we, the public, are funding radio and television stars like him, therefore we have a stake in what he does.
‘I can understand that. Look, I hate to break the news to everybody, but the entertainment industry is smoke and mirrors. It’s showbiz. Albert Square is not in the East End of London. The Queen Vic is not a real pub. I think a lot of that has been ruined now because there are certain ways of doing radio that I have done my entire career but now people are going, “You can’t do that. You can’t have competitions.” There is even paperwork for the competitions we do where we give away nothing. The next thing, there will be complaints about the number of people employed to monitor these things.’
Moyles may be the recipient of three Sony Radio Awards but his tenure has not been without its controversies. Like the occasion when he mocked the gay singer Will Young in a high-pitched, effeminate voice – prompting the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom to rule that Moyles had ‘promoted and condoned certain negative stereotypes based on sexual orientation’. Then there was the time when, on Charlotte Church’s 16th birthday, he offered to ‘lead her through the forest of her sexuality’ and the time he had to apologise for causing ‘unintentional offence’ after he said that ‘if you’re Polish, you’re very good at ironing and prostitution’. Then there was his use of the f-word.
‘Contrary to popular belief I don’t swear on the air,’ he says now, ‘certainly not deliberately. I said f— once. Whenever that story is dragged up, it always gets misquoted because what they don’t say is that I apologised profusely. Immediately.’ He has sworn several times in this interview; does he find it hard to check himself on air? ‘No, it’s easy to check yourself. It’s like meeting your girlfriend’s parents – you can stop yourself swearing in front of them. Honestly, I am not going to go on the air and say f— deliberately. I am not out of my mind. I love my job and I have a mortgage.’
He’s unsackable surely? ‘I think the BBC would accept that mistakes happen. I’ve been on Radio 1 for 12 years and have said f— once during a comedy rant. My hand flew up and covered my mouth like in a Carry On movie. I went white and felt extremely cold. I said, “I am sorry. I am so, so sorry.”’
The lobby group Stonewall, meanwhile, organised a march demanding his sacking after he described a ringtone as ‘gay’; the BBC governors subsequently ruled that in modern youth-speak, the word ‘gay’ could simply mean lame. Quite something that, I say, officially redefining a word. ‘I can reel off a list of TV shows that have used it in the same sense – The Simpsons, Coronation Street, Hollyoaks – as I used it once. Often there seems to be one rule for me and one for everyone else. One individual from Stonewall [Ben Summerskill] went to town on it. He called me homophobic but also called me fat and told me I should go down to the gym and I thought, hang on a second, so it’s OK to pick on me for being fat?’
What is his definition of a homophobe? ‘Someone who has a phobia about gay people. But the term is thrown around next to my name quite freely and it makes me very uncomfortable. It’s very awkward because what happens is that people say because I used the word gay therefore I must be homophobic. Then people start writing about “the homophobic Chris Moyles” and it is ridiculous.’ He rubs the back of his neck.
‘Look, I’m not homophobic. What does he want me to say? “Yes I am homophobic? I hate the gays?” Such a ludicrous thing. I made that point on air and next day Ben Summerskill writes in the Guardian that I had admitted on air that I was homophobic and I thought, What a scummy, low life thing to do. You little s—. You know I didn’t say it like that. That is very naughty to take it out of context. But I am a walking headline for lazy journalists.’
And the Halle Berry thing? (During a skit with the actress, Moyles said, ‘I’m a big fat American black guy,’ to explain who he was playing, because he is ‘rubbish at accents’.) ‘We still live in a society where when someone uses the word racist everyone goes quiet and gulps,’ he says now. ‘So a black woman says to a white man: “Are we having a racist moment here?” and I remember thinking, No. I said, “No!” Sadly, because it was my show and me it got picked up.’
This is a recurring theme of his, a slight victim mentality that he is being singled out for criticism. From his perspective it must look as if he is merely reflecting the values of his listeners. Politically, I would say he is right of centre. Possibly a Thatcherite. After all, he describes himself as being ‘rich working class’, is against the euro and is dismissive of the global warming lobby.
Yet his paranoia doesn’t seem entirely justified. Even some of Moyles’s harshest critics admit that he has an energy and a presence; that he is a natural broadcaster. Nevertheless, Moyles is twitchy about the press, which is why he rarely gives interviews. ‘There are people who profess to hate me who have never heard the show,’ he says at one point. ‘I find this hilarious and frustrating at the same time. What can I do?’
I ask him what it feels like to be hated. ‘It’s not personal. I read about myself in the papers and I don’t recognise that person they are talking about because what I do on the radio is an exaggerated version of who I am. I’m less gobby in real life. I get most words out between 6.30 and 10 and after that I don’t say much. I don’t have a lot to say. I am socially inept and awkward. I come out of my box on the radio. So when I read about this racist, sexist, homophobic man who is a disgrace to the airwaves, I just think, well, hang on, I am none of those things but what I am is a f—— brilliant broadcaster.’
A flower van drives past the café with a familiar name on its side. ‘Look!’ he says, pointing. ‘Moyles Flowers! By appointment to the Prince of Wales. Got to make the money up you know, there’s a recession on.’ He certainly made up the money with his best-selling autobiography, The Gospel According To Chris Moyles. It charts how he was born in Leeds to a postman father and an Irish housewife mother. School, it seems, failed to engage him. He enjoyed it until he got bored with it all and he has since said, ‘I’m pretty much thick as —-. But I’m very confident in my ignorance.’
As to his psychological landscape, his greatest fear is spiders and ‘flies that make the same noises wasps make. What is all that about? That’s not right. That’s evil’. In terms of his professional career, the memoir relates how he started volunteering on hospital radio in his early teens, then went to local radio upon leaving school. At 21, he joined Capital, before moving to Radio 1 a couple of years later. He has been single minded, if nothing else. And he has never tired of his favourite subject, himself.
His show is self-referential, to say the least, but presumably he has a cut off point about how much he will reveal about himself? ‘For a while it was every element of my life on air. Now I hold back on certain things because my privacy has become massively important to me. I think I’ve earned that right. I give enough five days a week and three-and-a-half hours a day on the show. It can be a pain. When I was house hunting I couldn’t mention it because I knew I would be followed by paparazzi and the price would go up. Where I used to live, opposite Kate Winslet, the paps were there all the time. Then she moved, which was great because I thought, no more disturbance. But then Gwyneth Paltrow moved in.’
That said, he finds it liberating being open about himself on air. ‘Sometimes it’s like being on the psychiatrist’s couch, because you get stuff out of your system. It’s liberating to say, “Hey, guess what, I’m fat”. No one knows how much I weigh. In the press it’s between 15 stone and 20 stone, so that’s great.’ Does he know? ‘Yes.’ How much then? ‘I‘m not saying. I’m trying to lose two stone.’ He has a personal trainer? ‘Yeah, and I’ve been running since just before Christmas.’
There seems to be an angry twist to some of his comedy; does he have an unresolved anger in him? ‘Not an angry man. Very relaxed and chilled. I think I’m fairly easy to work with. I don’t throw many tantrums and when I do I am generally right and the team would agree. I get angry when I know we are better than that.’ What makes him insecure? ‘Everything. When I look in the mirror. Everything. But on the radio I feel supremely confident because that is what I am good at. That is my canvas, my football pitch, my operating theatre.’
Tears fall more readily down the Moyles cheek than you would imagine. ‘The last time I cried was when I did that mountain climb [up Kilimanjaro for Comic Relief]. I was an emotional wreck for a week. I had one dark day where I couldn’t stop crying and it was almost a joke. I was like a heavily pregnant woman. I discovered I have great legs and I can’t control my emotions. I wasn’t sad, I was exhausted. I could hear Gary [Barlow] and Ronan [Keating] on the phone to their kids.’ He impersonates them both for me now. Most convincingly.
So did he come home to Sophie and say I think it’s time we had some children? ‘No, I came home and said to her I think it’s time we had a Chinese and lots of beer.’ He hasn’t made an honest woman of her yet? ‘I think I need to make an honest man of myself first.’ What does his Catholic mother think of that? ‘She’s happy. I bought her a house. She can pipe down. Gave my old car to my dad. He’s all right.’ He cried again when his ancestors were traced for an upcoming episode of Who Do You Think You Are? There is a moving scene in which he goes over to Ypres and cries when he is told the details of how his great grandfather died in the trenches. ‘And all I do for a living is play records and talk a lot,’ he reflects.
Needless to say he managed to cause a stir when he joked during filming that he was going off to Ireland to trace his ancestors rather than Auschwitz. ‘Pretty much everyone goes there whether or not they are Jewish. They just seem to pass through on their way to Florida.’ But actually his family history was a pretty grim story anyway, of the work house and early death from TB.
When he hears that his grandmother’s family of five lived in one room of a house they shared with five other families, and that that house had to share two outside lavatories with six other houses that were similarly overcrowded, he says with good timing, ‘Well, it could have been worse.’ He has come a long way from those humble origins. He even has his own BBC driver who picks him up at 5.30 every morning. ‘In a VW Passat. None of the licence fee gets wasted on luxurious cars for me.’
We say our goodbyes and I go in search of a taxi, but because of the Tube strike there are none. Ten minutes later I bump into Moyles again. He is leaning against a wall, shoulders hunched, having a last Marlboro Light before heading back to the smoke-free Radio 1. ‘Filming Who Do You Think You Are? was fascinating,’ he says between jabs. ‘The producers don’t tell you in advance what they have found because they want to film your reaction when you find out. The biggest surprise for me was that it turns out I’m black!’