“Basically,” says Greg James, “we had run out of things to talk about.”
The jovial host of Radio 1’s breakfast show is explaining why he and his wife, Bella Mackie, decided to start a podcast. Although it’s hard to believe that James and Mackie, an author and former Guardian journalist, would struggle for conversation, their lockdown ennui has been a boon for the nation’s podcast listeners. Their show, Teach Me a Lesson, quickly rose to the top of the iTunes charts when it was released last month, piggybacking on the trend for lifelong learning that has flourished during the pandemic.
“There was that slightly annoying trend in March last year,” says James, “of people going: ‘Hey, learn a language, learn the cello.’ But we need some help with that. We wanted to get some actual teachers to put stuff into our brains and give people some little bits to talk about when we’re allowed to go into pubs again.” And so, across the 12 episodes, a different teacher is invited in each week to give their favourite lesson to the pair – from whether love at first sight is real, to how to win an argument (with judicious use of examples from RuPaul’s Drag Race).
Mackie describes it as “a re-do of school but more interesting. What would happen if you asked teachers to teach a lesson unencumbered by the official curriculum and unencumbered by the fact that their students are 15.” Both of James’s parents are teachers, and he has always featured the profession on his radio shows – but he stresses it was Mackie’s podcast “obsession” that sparked the idea, and his belief that she could rise above the podcast surfeit.
Full of wit and warmth and with plenty of nuggets of information from the teachers, the series has chimed with listeners. “We’re quite invested in it,” Mackie says of their return to the classroom. “The teachers just can’t help giving you marks, even though you’re an adult. And more often than not, I get more points than Greg.”
If Mackie slips into the role of teacher’s pet with ease, it is a far cry from her school years. “I never got anything right, I just didn’t care,” she says. “Now, I get to be a swotty 13-year-old. I put my hand up on a podcast. The producer has to tell me nobody is watching. I’m a huge, horrible know-it-all, and I think the teachers appreciate that.”
The first episode asks the question, “Are people born evil?”, the couple ribbing each other about their own dark sides. “I love how terrified people are of Bella, it’s one of my favourite things,” says James. “She’s way more sappy in real life. When I leave her in the morning, she’s got a sleep hat on …”
“It’s not a hat!”
“A little hat to protect her hair. This drowsy thing, she’s sort of going like this,” James stops to do an impression of her smacking her lips in her sleep. “With terrible night sweats. I call her the night terrorist.”
“This is not part of the interview!” says Mackie, laughing.
“Not so terrifying now, are you … she’s much softer and sweeter when the microphone’s not there.”
It’s this gentle teasing between the two that makes their podcast such an entertaining listen. While both are most comfortable crediting the show’s success to their “really excellent producer” and the guests – “we want the teacher to be the main voice” – there’s no denying that fans of James’s radio show will tune in for a chance to get a glimpse at his usually publicity-averse wife and their personal life.
“People are interested in other people’s relationships, definitely,” says James. “And people are really interested in Bella, because they follow her online, but she’s mysterious to a certain extent. They didn’t know what she sounds like, for example.”
“They do,” says Mackie. “Because you’re always making fun of my voice on the radio.”
James slips into his impression of her north London drawl – before returning to the subject at hand. “People seem to quite like us chatting, so that’s good. The comments that I get on the photographs that I put up of me and Bella say: ‘Just to let you know, Greg, I like Bella much more than you now.’ And I’m really OK with that. I think that’s great. If we get to the position where Bella sells 10m books, and I never have to do anything ever again, I’m fine with that.”
Despite the occasional barbs, the pair’s affection for each other is clear, both on the podcast and when talking to them. Were they worried about the extra pressure working together would put on their relationship – especially at a time when they literally can’t see anybody else?
“I didn’t think I wanted to do anything with you, no offence,” says Mackie. “But I didn’t have anything else to do. I finished a book, so I was like: ‘Well, we can give it a go, it’s just a lockdown project.’ It’s not a long-term career plan. We’re not the next Richard and Judy.”
“I mean, I’ve got the hair,” says James.
“Lots of people don’t know who I am,” says Mackie, more seriously. “And Greg is a very well-known figure. And I would be ‘wife’, rather than writer. I haven’t even released my first novel yet [How to Kill Your Family is due out in June, while her first book was the memoir Jog On], and I definitely don’t want that to be a situation where people go: ‘Oh, that’s Greg James’s wife’s book.’ I’ve never wanted to work with you because of that. And I probably didn’t think about that when we were recording it and just having a nice time. Perhaps I’ve made a rod for my own back. But this is not a springboard. When the book comes out, I’ll start writing book two, and that’s my main focus. You won’t see us on Celebrity Gogglebox or anything.”
Besides, James still has his Radio 1 gig to think about; he has been in the studio each week throughout the pandemic. “Not to be a supportive wife about it, but he really had to dig deep,” says Mackie. “Trying to figure out what listeners wanted, what was the right balance between jolly and serious, so that when people wake up there’s a slice of normality – some kind of routine. You’ve been doing that even when you felt scared or slightly hopeless,” she says to James. “He’s in the office, on his own at 5am trying to get this going. You work really hard to keep it afloat.”
“Well, I really give a shit about it,” James says. “I think the listeners are brilliant. You can’t be there when it’s all fun and happy, and then desert them when it gets a bit tricky. And, selfishly, I think I would have gone properly mad without that connection. I can’t wait for it to go back to being purely fun. I don’t want my breakfast tenure to be the person that held the fort during a pandemic. I want some clear water, for everyone, so that we can all just have a nice time together.”
If and when that happens, the period of unparalleled closeness brought about by lockdown will abruptly come to an end for the couple – as will any thoughts of another podcast. “It’s been quite a nice time to get to know each other even more,” says James.
“Yeah, it’s been great,” says Mackie. “But if in six months time Greg says he’s going on holiday with his mates, then that would also be really nice.”
It seems Richard and Judy will definitely be holding on to their crown for a while longer yet.
Teach Me a Lesson is available on BBC Sounds, with new episodes released on Mondays