BBC Surrey's James Cannon on Woking life, the Green Belt battle and his radio career
PUBLISHED: 13:39 26 November 2013 | UPDATED: 14:10 03 July 2014
You'll know him best as the lively host of BBC Surrey's breakfast show. But now Woking-based presenter James Cannon has another string to his bow - as Surrey Life's latest columnist. As he reports for duty, here we chat to him about life behind the scenes at the radio station - and what he really thinks of our county...
Surrey Life has a new kid on the block. Broadcaster and journalist James Cannon, who brightens our mornings on BBC Surrey’s weekday breakfast show, will be writing a regular column from next month, and promises a lively mix of news, views and his unique take on life in our county.
“I’m delighted to be joining the team at Surrey Life, not least because we’ve always been loyal readers in our household and take it every month,” says James, 47, who started his career in magazine journalism. “It’s a great way to find out about people and events across the county. I only wish I could afford the luxury kitchens that are regularly advertised!”
His aim, he explains, is to write about Surrey from a slightly offbeat angle: “Behind-the-scenes gossip at the station, quirky things that happen during my week, issues that matter to listeners and readers, things that don’t necessarily get on air... these will all be staples of my column.”
James is the new boy in more ways than one because he joined BBC Surrey just seven months ago, taking over the morning slot from Nick Wallis. “I love the commute,” he quips, referring to his 15-minute drive to the Guildford studio from his home in Woking. “Previously, I was commuting to BBC Radio Oxford. I loved the people and the area, but I don’t miss the travelling.”
Mind you, he still has to tumble out of bed at 4.30 each morning and hits the airwaves at 6am. “The first hour is a mix of music and chat, then from 7am we explore the big stories locally and nationally, interviewing the people behind the headlines,” he says. “What I love about my job is the variety. One minute I could be chatting to the latest band topping the charts, the next, grilling the Home Secretary.”
Since taking over the show, he has made a point of getting out and about, and meeting listeners. “Over the summer, we did the show from a different part of the county every Friday for six weeks, visiting towns and villages large and small – from Cranleigh, Godalming and Godstone to Woking and Reigate. Not surprisingly, people are incredibly passionate about where they live.”
Planning issues never fail to ruffle feathers, he says, and moves to build on Surrey’s Green Belt have generated huge debate during his regular phone-ins. “I was chatting to a bloke from the local planning department recently who asked whether I’d heard the latest acronym – Banana. It stands for ‘Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone’. It’s the same story across Surrey. Towns and villages across the county need new houses, but nobody wants them built near them. Having listened to all the arguments, I really couldn’t draw any conclusions about the right way forward.”
Nevertheless, he admits it was the county’s green spaces that initially drew him to the area. “We moved here from London 11 years ago, mainly because we wanted to live nearer the countryside. I love the fact that within 10 minutes I can be standing in the middle of a wood. At first, we lived in Chobham, which we loved, but moved to Woking for easier access into London and to get into a good school catchment area.”
James, who is married to Sam, spends much of his leisure time ferrying their three boys, Tomas, 12, Matthew, nine and Will, seven, to football practice. “Football is a big thing in our family and all three boys play for local teams. At weekends, we also like to stretch our legs at Horsell Common in Woking and Alice Holt Forest in Farnham.”
Surrey’s wide open spaces are a distinct contrast to his own childhood surroundings in Forest Hill in Lewisham, though even then he was dreaming of a career in radio. “A neighbour took me along to hospital radio and I was hooked,” he says.
To get a foot in the door, he did a journalism course at East Surrey College in Redhill, before landing his first job on a trade magazine. Eventually, he worked his way up to business reporter on a financial newspaper, where one of his regular contacts was one Tony Blair, then a shadow Treasury spokesman. “I had 10 phone numbers for him – the constituency, home, mobile, Cherie’s mobile... the whole lot. Let’s just say he knew how to work the media.”
But James didn’t take to the world of high finance, so he began doing shifts as a diary columnist on Today, the UK’s first full-colour newspaper. “It was a horrible life. There was such pressure to deliver stories that you’d end up having to turn people over, which didn’t sit well with me.”
He didn’t turn his back on radio for long, however, and sent out audition tapes on the quiet until Chiltern Radio hired him for their early morning ‘graveyard’ shift. “I was probably awful,” he grimaces, though he can’t have been that bad because he was poached by GWR-FM in Bristol to host their breakfast show, gaining notoriety when he posed naked for an advert on the city’s buses. Only a strategically-placed briefcase and ghetto blaster protected his modesty. “The tagline was, ‘The only thing you need on in the morning’, which certainly attracted attention, though it was a bit embarrassing when I attracted strange looks in the pub,” he grins sheepishly.
Capital Radio days
From Bristol he landed a coveted job on Capital FM in London and went on to host the mid-morning slot for which he won a Sony award for Best Daily Music Show. One of his most popular features was his infamous dating item, Flirty at 9.30, which brought London to a standstill when he played Cupid, trying to unite the city’s singletons. “Its premise was simple – if you found somebody attractive but were too embarrassed to ask them out, I would ask them on your behalf. It led to three marriages and four babies – almost a movie title!” he quips.
He also interviewed countless celebrities and hosted live shows backstage at The Brits and Party in the Park. “One night, at the Mobo Awards, I was in the studio with Tina Turner, Lionel Richie and a load of Manchester United players, which was a surreal moment. But all too often I was in the sausage factory of interviews, and some celebrities were nicer than others. I mean, Jennifer Lopez spent an hour in make-up before doing a radio show. Life really is too short.”
There were sombre moments, too. James was one of the main anchors when the London 7/7 bombings unfolded, and remained on air for five hours, reporting live across the city. The station won the Sony award for Best Breaking News for its coverage.
He was also the brainchild behind an unprecedented plan to broadcast a day-long show across all UK commercial radio networks in an ambitious bid to raise money for victims of the Asian Tsunami. James was later invited to Buckingham Palace to receive a personal thank you from Prince Andrew. “My abiding impression was that the carpet was a bit shabby and the egg sandwiches contained just the right amount of filling. There was no way you were going to drop egg on that floor!”
But while the egg sandwiches may not be quite as good in the BBC Surrey canteen, he’s very content at his new home. “I know Surrey. It’s where I live. And local knowledge is invaluable,” he says. “Something I may have overheard at a dinner party or at the school gates is like gold dust now. Suddenly, that’s a story.”
So watch what you’re saying when you next drop your little cherubs off at school or it might end up on the airwaves... or even in Surrey Life!
You can catch James Cannon on weekdays on BBC Surrey between 6-9am on 104-104.6 FM. Look out for James’ new column starting from next month
My Favourite Surrey…
Restaurant: The Red Lion in Horsell. Good pub grub and a great atmosphere.
Shop: Cornwell’s Celebration Cakes in Cranleigh. The man who runs the bakery is a lovely bloke and they sell the most wonderful cheese straws.
View: The Devil’s Punch Bowl near Hindhead. The views are stunning and it’s a beautiful secluded spot teeming with wildlife.
Place to relax: My bed! Sleep is so important when you have to get up at 4.30am.
Place to visit: Polesden Lacey, the National Trust house and garden near Dorking. The gardens offer something for every season and the house with its rich collection of art and furnishings provides a fascinating insight into the Edwardian era.
From James Cannon's column...