Will the real Christian O’Connell stand up?
"I’m going to lose money, self-esteem, professional kudos… the more I think about it, this is a bad idea.”
Christian O’Connell is sitting in a London bar pouring a pot of tea, looking seriously nervous. The chatty, jokey tones that wake up 1.4 million people every morning on Absolute Radio sound the same as always, but right now his eyes tell a different story.
The source of his anxiety is the Edinburgh Fringe. This year, O’Connell is making his festival debut with a full-blown, hour-long solo stand-up show, This is 13. It’s a leap of faith for the radio presenter, and, basically, he’s bricking it.
“I went up to the fringe last year to have a sneaky look, and felt physically sick,” he says. “There are all these posters of shiny young guys who’ve been on TV and look good, and I had second thoughts about whether Edinburgh needed a 40-year-old DJ with a midlife crisis.”
It’s not the first time he will have tried his hand at stand-up. Before he became one of radio’s most successful stars, winning a record tenth Sony Gold award this year, O’Connell spent a year working London’s pub circuit, even reaching the finals of the Open Mic Awards in Edinburgh in 1995.
Unfortunately, that experience is now giving him sweaty flashbacks. “I thought I was going to win it, but in my heat was someone called Julian Barratt, and he was a fully formed, original, confident act,” says O’Connell.
“I had no money to stay anywhere that night, so I slept in a doorway at Waverley train station, got the first train back home crying, and thought, 'I’m never returning to this godforsaken city'. It’s been a ghost, a demon. The thought of going back there makes me physically sick. So here I am.”
His decision to sacrifice himself to the Edinburgh audiences and critics just when his radio career is hitting new heights is a risk he seems painfully aware of. “Yeah, four hours a day on the radio isn’t enough for you?”, he jokes. He says he’s not obsessed with reviews, but does accept that thinking he can “show the young punks in their skinny jeans a thing or two about comedy” could be akin to inviting the press to shoot fish in a barrel.
However, those nerves seem to be outweighed by the vitalising effect of eyeballing his audience. Get him talking about his preview shows, and that 4am start he’s just done melts away.
“I didn’t think it would be this addictive, even though it’s tiring for me,” he says. “Some gigs, I’m getting in at midnight and I’m still spending an hour going over my notes, thinking how I can improve the show. My wife wants me to go to bed, but I can’t. I’ve just played to 32 people, and it’s hard to come down from that buzz.”
There is, he says, an energy to the interaction of live comedy that radio just can’t equal.
“In the morning, I get people’s texts and tweets, and they call, and that’s brilliant. But it’s an amazing feeling when you’re up there and they’re all laughing. The similarity with radio is that connection with an audience when you can talk about something embarrassing or humiliating, and they love it. It’s incredible to share stories. If I had a bad experience yesterday, it’s like therapy.”
This is 13 should certainly give him ample opportunity to bare his most embarrassing shortcomings. The spine around which O’Connell will weave his patter is a list he wrote at the eponymous age detailing the 11 hopes and dreams he wished for himself come the time he turns 40.
The list was unearthed seven weeks before his 40th birthday when his mum was clearing stuff out the family loft. O’Connell knew instantly that trying to complete it would make a great feature for his radio show, but he soon realised that the idea could resonate much deeper and have potential for a stage show.
With entries ranging from "Have my own TV with remote and VCR" to "Kick in Darth Vader" and "Get married and be a cool dad", there’s a touching innocence to his list, swinging wildly from naive fantasy to simple, grounded aspirations. For the rest of us, it’s a fascinating chance to lift the lid on O’Connell’s teenage brain.
“Lists when you’re 13 are things of fantasy and hope,” he says. “The 13-year-old me was living in a council house, and most of my friends were pretty middle-class, so the first thing on there was just to have my own TV with remote control. To the 13-year-old me, a remote control was proper riches. Then it flips wildly into being married and being a cool dad.”
His mission to complete the list before his birthday also generated its fair share of stories, such as fighting the real Darth Vader, actor and bodybuilder David Prowse. “That was a bit odd, because he’s now a 72-year-old man with a double hip transplant and a buggered knee," says O'Connell. "But he’s still really big, and he’s still Darth Vader.
“We all have those things in life that you build up in your head, where the fantasy and reality have a jarring difference. That gap is where humour and comedy is.”
So, is he a nostalgic person? “Absolutely. Every year I get older and more maudlin. Every day I play songs from the 1980s and 1990s, and have moments of thinking what I was doing when they came out. It’s this mythical age, 40. You turn 21, but you hit 40, like it’s a car accident.”
[pullquote]On the radio, if you’re vaguely amusing, they think you’re a comedy god and give you awards. Tell the same stories in a comedy club and you realise they’re just nice stories you might tell at a dinner party. It's not funny enough[/pullquote]
Tucked away at the bottom of 13-year-old O’Connell’s list is "Have own radio show", and he confirms it was always a burning ambition. “I went to my careers teacher and said I thought I might like to be like Steve Wright in the Afternoon. He put all my details into his computer programme called Cascade, and it came out that I should be a quarry manager.”
Not tempted to follow the computer’s suggestion, the teenage O’Connell instead set about climbing the rock face of broadcasting, but the ascent wasn’t straightforward at first. Thrown off college radio at 18, then sacked from hospital radio soon after, that failed first shot at stand-up was followed by a few years in the telesales wilderness. Once he got behind the microphone full-time, however, his rise was rapid.
In 1999 he landed a show at 2CR in Bournemouth, graduating to Juice FM in Liverpool in 2000. Soon after, he was snapped up by XFM in 2001. After five years, he moved to Virgin Radio, and remained at the station as it morphed into Absolute.
So does he agree that radio is all about natural talent? “I don’t think there’s anything more damning to say to a man than that he was born with an innate skill to talk between songs and tell the time out loud, which is essentially what I do,” he says.
“When I first started, I felt like I needed to try to do an impression of a DJ, and I sucked. Bit by bit, as I dropped the impression of the DJ, and just became closer to how I was, that’s when things started to change for me.”
What seems to have set O’Connell apart from the off is his willingness to trust his instincts, and make radio he would want to listen to – even if that meant disobeying the boss. In one of his first radio jobs, he faced pressure to read out the time every five minutes, and simply refused. “I thought if I was going to have any chance of success I had to do it differently. It’s not like people don’t have clocks.”
As for what he did want to put into the show, he says his formula comes down to ploughing hours into preparation, relying on his own short attention span to tell him when things have got boring for his listeners, and avoiding celebrity events wherever possible.
“I think people still have this preconception that I finish the show then go and hang out with Noel Gallagher or someone. It isn’t like that, and, to be honest, I couldn’t think of anything worse. I don’t live in London, and I’m really glad I’m not impressed with any of that whatsoever.
“My show’s never been about someone talking about what amazing party they went to last night. I can just hear a million people turning off, thinking, 'Who cares?'.”
His dogged attention to honing radio material is proving useful for his return to the stage, but he admits it’s a much steeper learning curve than he expected.
“There have been huge growing pains," he say. "Comedy is content. In the morning, if you’re vaguely amusing occasionally, they think you’re a comedy god and give you awards. Tell the same hilarious stories in a comedy club and you realise, no, they’re just nice stories you might tell at a dinner party. It’s not funny enough.”
He cites his childhood comedy influences as Billy Connolly and Dave Allen, and says he currently gets inspired by stand-ups such as Louis CK and Dylan Moran. However, he says it’s “way too early” for him to know if he even has a style.
As for plans to do more stand-up beyond Edinburgh, O'Connell's not taking anything for granted, but he admits he’d like to do more. “I’d be lying if there wasn’t a part of me that had a dream it’s going to go amazingly, and I could do a 'tiny room above pubs' tour. That would be great fun,” he says.
He’s also warming to the idea of doing more TV, having had his fingers burnt. After successfully replacing Chris Moyles on Channel 5’s Live With… daily chat show in 2003, he says that on some subsequent TV projects he found it hard to keep up his usual strict quality control.
“On TV, quite quickly you just go along with the flow. You think, ‘They know about TV, their ideas must be funny’. Suddenly you are making compromises. So I stopped doing it.”
He’s keen to cook up a dirt-cheap chat show in which he interviews members of the public – “Celebrities don’t always have the best stories” – but this time, he’s not rushing into anything.
For now, he’s focused on keeping his radio fans happy, and taking on the challenge of tackling his first fringe at 40. “Stand-up is scary, and when you get those little moments of progress, it feels amazing, like acquiring a new skill and passion,” he says.
Whether O'Connell can pull it off will soon be clear, but at least he knows he’ll always have one-and-a-half million listeners at Absolute to share his joy, or pain. The daily banter with the public seems to be what makes the early mornings worth it. One particular text this morning has confirmed why he’s not about to give up the day job.
“Someone texted to say she was on her way to have her last bout of radiotherapy for cancer. That text I’ll remember for the rest of this year," he says.
"You can’t forget what a privileged job it is to be their friend in the morning for five or 10 minutes. That woman, Jo, on her way to radiotherapy, for a couple of minutes just wants some inane rubbish. And it’s a pleasure to be that dancing monkey for her.”
For more on the Edinburgh Fringe, including expert advice, interviews and our critics' picks, see this week's print edition of The Stage, available in newsagents, or download our digital edition from the App Store.