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Christian O'Connell

Evening Standard (June 2001)

It's a scene that would make Alan Partridge blush with pride.
Christian O’Connell, XFM breakfast DJ and the man tipped to be the “new Chris Evans”, is enjoying a special moment with holistic masseuse Mo. She’s been summoned into the area O’Connell calls “the zone” and charged to gauge his aura by running her hands over his body. “Do I need to get naked?” he asks, hopefully. “I’ve got a condom on so it’s all safe”. Mo senses a lot of heat but thinks she can cure it with crystals. “How long will it take?” She says half an hour. “Yeah, well you’ve got five minutes.”

This isn’t the first time that the 28 year old O’Connell, rumoured to be picking up a Sony Radio Award nomination on March 18th, has been mistaken for Radio Norfolk’s finest. “When I had longer curly hair, I used to look like Steve Coogan,” O’Connell says, after the show. “When I was at university, I did trade off the fact that I was Steve Coogan. I won’t tell you any more because he might sue, but there are probably a couple of girls saying ‘I slept with Steve Coogan. He had a very small penis’.”

It’s taken O’Connell ten years, two sackings, one petition for his immediate dismissal, one national scandal and many broadcast hours of near-the-knuckle humour to reach his current position as helm of the “15th most popular breakfast show” in London. “When I got to XFM, we were London’s 18th biggest breakfast show. Now we’re 15th. In nine years’ time, I’ll be number one. You can’t argue with progress like that. Wogan had better look out. I’m going to put that guy into retirement.”

O’Connell started his career at college radio when he was 18, but was thrown out of the studio for insulting the deputy head’s wife. “I said she was so ugly the vibrator had to put a bag over its head. They had to hold him back from kicking the shit out of me”. He then moved to hospital radio, where he lasted for five months. “I’d say ‘this is for Elsie’ and play her heartbeat monitor and you’d hear it go up and then flatline. The station director said ‘don’t even finish the record, just get out’.”

A short spell as a stand up comedian followed but he was often too drunk to remember his punchlines (“Johnny Vegas must have seen it.”) His wife Sarah, a lawyer who now phones in to warn O’Connell when he’s being defamatory, persuaded him to get a sales position at a radio station and he soon talked himself into the job of breakfast DJ at Radio Bournemouth. One day, hearing that four OAPs had driven over a cliff, he asked listeners to suggest what they might have been playing on the car stereo. A petition was drawn up to dismiss him, but he clung on. “In the end, I was saying ‘ring in and I’ll add your name to it’.”

It wasn’t until O’Connell moved to Liverpool’s Juice FM, however, that his talent for troublemaking received national attention. He placed an advert in the Daily Star for matadors to work in Britain’s first bullring and interviewed applicants on his show. Radio Five were taken in and grilled O’Connell on air. “Alan Robb said ‘How can you defend bringing bullfighting to Britain?’ and I said ‘No, we’ve already sold the rights to Channel 5, Keith Chegwin is going to present. We’re using old, blind slow bulls so they’re easier to kill’. He went berserk, it was great. When Radio 5 found out the truth, they made it clear I’ll never work for them.”

Now happily settled at XFM, he’s been developing what he sees as a truly cutting edge show, with features like Battleship Bin Laden and Dead Famous, where he acts out a star’s dying moments. He dismisses most of his rivals as “contrived” and “formulaic”, going so far to declare that Virgin’s Steve Penk “dragged radio back to pre-Noel Edmonds days”. “A lot of breakfast radio is really outdated at the moment. Radio stations are frightened of taking risks, they don’t want to upset people or make them think. There was more inventive breakfast radio when people like Kenny Everett were around.”

The only other DJ O’Connell truly rates is Jonathan Ross and it appears the feeling is mutual. “Last year he started to endorse us and even phoned up to take part in a competition. He didn’t plug anything, he was just calling in to have a bit of fun. At Christmas we did a nativity play and Jonathan played Mary to my Joseph.”

O’Connell seems thrilled to have met one of his heroes and says the most nerve racking part of appearing on “Never Mind The Buzzcocks” was wanting to impress Sean Hughes and Phil Jupitus. “Chris Moyles died on his arse and I was having nightmares of Moyles and waking up in a sweat going ‘no, I do know the answer’. I didn’t want to look an idiot in front of Sean and Phil.” The man is a genuine comedy fanatic it transpires. He taped Chris Morris’ radio shows religiously and cried when Peter Cook died. “I had a dream that I’d meet him and have him on the show and he’d enjoy doing it. He’s so hugely missed.”

The only question now is, where next? O’Connell says he turned down approaches from both Virgin and “The Big Breakfast” because he was worried about losing creative freedom. He’d like to work in TV and jokes about a show based on “the natural comedy of monkeys”, but becomes serious when Mark and Lard’s rumoured retirement is mentioned.

“I couldn’t possibly comment on that. I have heard those rumours. That’s all I can say. Can I put my agent’s phone number in this? I could be there at a drop of a hat. I could start Monday. No, honestly, I’m really happy here at XFM. Please come and get me. Please help me.”

Alan Partridge, you’ve just been beaten at your own game.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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