[su_tabs][su_tab title=”Greg James”]It’s one of UEA’s most famous alumni, the one that everyone is quick to mention when defending our wonderful university – “Greg James went to UEA and he turned out alright!” After graduating from UEA, Greg James pursued his goal to be on the radio, and has become ever more successful as one of Radio 1’s most popular presenters: he now has the station’s coveted going-home slot from 16:00 until 19:00. More recently he has taken on the historic and revered role as presenter of the Chart Show on Fridays.
At first glance, James, in all his UEA finery, appeared relaxed, as typified by his on-air persona. However, after having the opportunity to speak with him, it was clear that he was not only humbled, but also somewhat taken aback by the whole situation. James was to shortly receive his honorary Doctorate of Letters from the UEA, but it was in fact his only graduation ceremony thus far.
“So if you need any help with letters, then I’m your man,” he asserted, following swift introductions and congratulations for receiving the honorary award.
Marking eight remarkably successful years at BBC Radio 1, the honorary graduation was James’s first official graduation ceremony – Radio 1 came first, he told me:
“I actually missed my graduation ceremony because I was doing a show on Radio 1… I only wore the hat and gown afterwards and sort of mocked up photos. So I don’t know anything about the ceremony at all!” He added that it was great that his parents could finally see a “return on their investment”, a sentiment undoubtedly shared by many other parents. I assured him that the photos usually involve a mock scroll anyway – more like an off cut of PVC piping and some strategically placed ribbon – so he wasn’t missing out on a great deal.
One key difference between the ceremonies was his speech. James’s speech, to be made at the ceremony, I was told, was to be about following passions, and that this would be his advice for any UEA graduate.
“That was probably one of the most important things I learned here – that you can you can do anything you like essentially… Even if it’s not to do with the degree you’ve done, that’s not necessarily a waste of time: it’s time spent learning something – and if nothing else you’ve learnt that that’s what you don’t want to do”.
He added: “So I think what was really important for me was just going for it when I left and just thinking, you only get one go at all this, so you might as well make the most of it and do as much as you possibly can and follow those dreams”.
James has not been a stranger to his old university. A familiar face, he has been involved in various events throughout the UEA calendar. This year, he was part of the effort that brought Radio 1’s Big Weekend to Norwich – a two-day extravaganza featuring the biggest and most hotlytipped acts in the world, that took place in Earlham Park. The event was not only a dramatic event for sleepy Norwich, but also UEA and its students, most of whom fell about in hysterics when Taylor Swift brought her squeaky-clean-but-still-just-abit-bitchy hits to the stage.
When asked about how he thought the festival-by-the-broads had been received, James seemed very positive: “Well the Big Weekend was the biggest weekend since I reopened the bakery… The Big Weekend I think was a triumph.”
However, it appeared that his time wasn’t entirely spent presenting and enjoying the acts. He said that it was “quite weird” having to share Norwich with presenters and staff from Radio 1.
“I became Radio 1’s tour guide which I really liked. But it was just very odd – really odd – like for everyone who came here or studies here. It’s just odd to have Taylor Swift on that lawn over there but I loved it”.
It was clear that his time at UEA was a defining and influential experience in his life. When asked about his memories of UEA he said: “There are so many: so many safe for work, so many not safe for work” – a view I’m sure would ring true for many UEA students. He emphasised his love for the lake on campus: “The lake I really loved. We had some amazing times, whether it be daytime rounders, drinking or night time hiding and… nocturnal activities…” (wink wink?).
He also talked of his fond memories of the drama studio. “I spent a lot of my time in there I think, putting on plays. And being with my best mates and rehearsing and stuff, and I think that was amazing”.
This attitude affirms the view that university is not just about the course you choose, it’s the whole package and the lifestyle and opportunities that arise from your studies. From time to time, you have to pull your head out of the course text once in a while and remember that it’s not the be all and end all: sit on the grass and do nothing once in a while – make like a UEA bunny.
He also found his extracurricular passion for radio was able to thrive at UEA. This provided some of his fondest memories. “So we used to literally throw a cable out of the window from Livewire into the Blue Bar – connect us to the computer and that would mean you were broadcasting live from the Blue Bar.” He recalled how “sort of brilliantly naff“ it was but that “at the time we just thought: this was the best thing ever – and it was the most fun three years that I’ve ever had”.
Even though the time I spent interviewing Greg was short, it was obvious that he valued his time at UEA and was humbled by the honorary degree he went on to receive.[/su_tab] [su_tab title=”Jenni Murray”]Jenni Murray, the long-time presenter of Woman’s Hour and one of radio’s most recognisable voices, is about to receive her honorary Doctorate of Civil Law – and she’s in an effusive mood. “It’s a great honour. It’s a lovely university as well. I’ve interviewed so many people who’ve learned to write novels here I feel as if I want to come as a student! It’s beautiful, actually, really beautiful…” We’re sat looking across at the Registry – the bus stop is just visible behind a bush – so I can only assume that she’s already been for a walk. Still, she has a point: UEA is wonderful and all that…
What about her time at university? Is there anything that’s stayed with her from her education that’s helped her in her career as a journalist and a broadcaster?
“The best compliment I was ever paid was that I had a well-stocked mind. I was incredibly lucky in going to a very traditional, northern girls’ high school” – she speaks those three adjectives very deliberately – “with teachers who were very serious and very demanding. And [they] never gave us the impression that we couldn’t do anything we wanted to do. So they were really encouraging: if you want to do it, do it.
“I wanted to study drama, and there were only four universities then that offered drama courses. Manchester and Birmingham were a little to close to my home in Barnsley, I felt! I applied to Bristol: they turned me down – and one of the most amusing moments in my life was when they offered me an honorary degree and I was able to stand up and say: ‘Thank you so much, what a pity you rejected my first time around!’ ”
She ended up doing drama and French at the University of Hull. “[It] was great because it was quite a new course… The group above us were the first group of graduates in drama there. I had to study it as a joint degree because there was no special drama school at all in the university. I greatly benefitted from the French: it’s been extremely useful!
“And the drama? It was just wonderful. We had a grandee called Benkins: he did lots of plays. But we were also constantly reminded that it was an academic subject and not just play time.
She’s still answering my original question, by the way. She talks softly and thoughtfully, but once she gets going she shows no signs of stopping. It’s a trait that must make you well suited to broadcasting.
“And again, [I had] really serious, intellectual teachers who were demanding, and difficult, and didn’t accept anything less than our best. That’s the really important thing.
“I think a lot of students think: ‘I’ve done this for three years, I’ve got a good degree: that’s it’. And it’s not, it’s just the beginning. The hard work starts here. A little bit of luck is involved, but it’s mostly hard work”.
I fancy she’s already half answered it, but I ask anyway: what is going to say to graduates in her acceptance speech by way of advice?
“It’s gonna be that: that this is not the end, it’s the beginning. Keep on keeping on is what my old elocution teacher” – Murray may have grown up in the North, but her accent gives no hint of her background – “used to say to me. And that was the best advice I’ve ever had: just keep on keeping on. Hard work will get you there”.[/su_tab] [su_tab title=”Graham Linehan”]“Do you want me to hold it in my lap?” Graham Linehan asks me. I’m faffing about with the voice recorder on my phone and trying to get the microphone up the right way. Linehan watches, bemused.
“I’d be happy to put it on the hat – that might be the best place”. I pass him the phone, which he places on his impressive black velvet hat; both hat and phone sit on his lap. Academic robes: both stylish and versatile.
Linehan, who was born in Dublin, has written an awful lot of very famous comedy shows. From the Fast Show and Father Ted in the 90S, to the IT Crowd via Black Books: these are some of the best-known and bestloved TV programmes of the last 20 years. But they’re all different, and each has it’s own distinct themes and identity: where do the ideas comes from?
“It’s usually just a series of conversations and note-taking”. He’s talking slowly, casting around for thoughts. “It’s a very gradual process, kind of like [building] a coral reef. You get a strong central idea and it attracts all these little ideas to it.
“So it’s very hard to say exactly where it all comes form but the hardest thing, and the most important thing, is that central strong idea… You’re in a good place if they’re coming from your subconscious. Your subconscious is where the best stuff comes from: stuff that you can’t really explain why it’s funny or why it works”.
Does he find that writing is an easy process?
“Not really no. I mean, it becomes easier – once you’ve done a first series for example and you know who’s playing the different parts it becomes easier to write for those parts. But in the first series when you don’t know who’s in it, and you don’t know whether you’re on the right track, it’s pretty hard. And it goes through a lot of re-writes; it’s never finished, so we rewrite right up until the very last moment”.
“God they’ve put us in a strange place for this interview!” He breaks off suddenly, apparently fully aware of our surroundings for the first time. We’re on Founders’ Green, just opposite the Registry. Graduates and their families are wandering this way and that while, behind us, various spendidly dressed dignitaries stand around waiting for the official photos.
I suggest that it’s like sitting in a glass box, but Linehan goes one better: “It’s really weird. It’s like being interviewed at the zoo”, he chuckles. “I’ll throw my poo at you in a second!” Surely that’s a line worthy of one of Linehan’s more puerile comic creations?
Linehan remebers my question: “So, yeah, it becomes easier, but it’s tough at first – very tough at first. It’s like…” – he spends a moment finding his analogy – “It’s like a car that takes a very long time to get warmed up. It’s hard to explain. [It’s got] a huge engine, but once it gets going it kinda takes care of itself”.
I change tack: what are his thoughts on getting his honorary degree? “[I’m] just very, very flattered. [I have] huge admiration for Malcolm Bradbury and Ian McEwan and all the people who’ve come out of here. So even if I had to get in through nefarious means, I’m proud that I did!”
And finally, does he have any inspiring words for soon-to-be graduates in his acceptance speech?
“Oh, God! I don’t know! I’m worried [my speech] doesn’t strike the right tone. I think the theme is gonna be: it goes in the blink of an eye, so get to work”.[/su_tab][/su_tabs]