We caught up with the acclaimed broadcaster and BBC Radio 5 Live presenter to talk about his musical and style influences and to discover how he has been wiling away his time during the lockdown.
Great to see you again Nihal. I know you’ve been busy broadcasting throughout this quarantine, but other than getting yourself to the studio for your show, how have you been keeping your brain busy during quarantine?
I have been revisiting two books that I’ve been meaning to dive into again. One is called Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James (who won the Booker Prize in 2015 for his novel A Brief History Of Seven Killings). It has been described as an African Game Of Thrones but I don't think that does justice to the hallucinatory scenarios that the young warrior at the heart of the story battles through. The pages explode with leopards that morph into men, dark creatures that spring from the ceilings and attack, and merges brutality with magic in an unsettling way. The other book is non fiction and by Dan Gretton. It is called I You We Them and over its thousand pages forensically investigates the academics, lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers and managers who in the 19th and 20th centuries facilitated genocides. It is an extraordinary piece of work that looks beyond the dictators, soldiers and sadists who carry out appalling crimes against their fellow humans and focuses on the "desk killers" who make sure that the machine of death keeps moving. It is part travelogue, diary and personal mission to seek out and shine a light on the seemingly ordinary men who industrialised hate, and gave it an academic and legal foundation.
Nothing like a bit of light reading to keep boredom at bay! Stories are intrinsic to who we are as humans. For nearly four years you have been on BBC Radio 5 Live interviewing many people with amazing tales to tell. What are some of the stories that have resonated with you in that time?
I went to a refuge for people who were victims of human trafficking and interviewed a man called Sanu who had been forced to work in a shop for years, and given no days off. He was only given money when he was hungry and even then he could only buy the food from the shop he worked in, at full price. What shocked me was that this man wasn't shackled in a basement but working in broad daylight serving customers. In the end, a member of the public had noticed that he was in a state of distress and smuggled him a mobile phone wrapped in a Christmas jumper. He then managed to use that and call for help. I interviewed Sanu just six months after being freed and he broke down during the interview. Many of our listeners got in contact to say how appalled they were with how Sanu had been treated, but also their shock that it could be happening right in front of our eyes. There have been countless stories that have amazed and inspired me, from both everyday people and celebrities alike. Sir Billy Connolly was incredible, as was the Oscar-winning actor Sally Field and the author Elif Shafak. President Obama's Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power was a fascinating interviewee and Liam Gallagher and Thom Yorke were also great guests, although in very different ways.
Tell us about an interview you’ve done that changed the way you think or challenged you to make a change in your own life?
It sounds quite pompous to say it but radio matters. This was brought home to me when a man, who was about to take his own life, got into his car and the radio came on. It was BBC5Live and it happened to be my show. I was interviewing the singer/songwriter Sam Fender about a song of his called ‘Dead Boys’ which deals with male suicide. The live performance of that track coupled with the conversation Sam and I had afterwards changed the course of that man's life. He burst into tears sitting in his car and decided at that moment that living was the better option. I know this because he reached out to me a few months later and I managed to connect Sam and him together face to face. It is, without doubt, the most life-affirming moment of my career as a broadcaster. Another, not unrelated, moment was when interviewing the controversial clinical psychologist and author Jordan B Peterson about the plight of young men. He burst into tears as he articulated why he was so emotional about their condition in society. This led us to recording a show with him in a boxing gym called Moss Side Fire Station Boxing Club in Manchester. It was like an intimate therapy session with nine men and him, a celebration of vulnerability and fortitude.
As someone for whom music has had a significant role to play in their life, what genre influenced how you looked when you were growing up?
Hip Hop Culture. No question. I was always making sure things matched. Jacket and trainers. NEVER mixing sportswear brands. I liked that baggy and low-slung (but not too low) look and still do if I’m honest, hence why Oli's judo pant is a perfect trouser for me. I’ve also always loved 80s synth music and 80s electro, and I’m into rappers rhyming over electronic sounds like Boogie Down Bronx by Man Parrish, which blew my mind. I was 12 when it came out and I remember taping it and listening to it over and over again. Then Public Enemy came along. A band has never affected me like Chuck D and Flava Flav did.
How has your personal style evolved over the years?
I make fewer mistakes and think about what suits me rather than what is in fashion. I still want to wear what I want and won't let my age dictate to me what I should and shouldn't be wearing. I like to buy things that I can see myself still wanting to wear in 10 years' time. I don't read fashion magazines so feel no need to be on top of the latest trends. It really doesn't matter to me. I have a Moncler ski jacket that I have worn for the last 13 winters and Levis Red denim which is probably 15 years old. I hate the wearing of giant branded logos emblazoned across clothes. Spending £300 to advertise a brand across a tee does not appeal to me. My mates take the piss out of me for the amount of camo I own. I guess that is another hip hop reference. I really like varsity jackets and bombers and that very English workwear vibe. I am blessed that Oli has made a number of suits for me over the years and he really gets who I am. So much so that for the Brits this year I wore the Bermondsey Bomber in Italian velvet, the full suit. Matched it with a Neil Barrett tee and some black Grenson boots and I was good to go. For the Brits in 2019 he made me a one-off suit in wax cotton camo, that is a beast.
Everyone has been overdosing on the internet since hunkering down at home. Which corners of the web have you been rummaging in?
Andrew Cotter's youtube videos and twitter posts of him commentating on his two dogs Mabel and Olive have been a revelation. He is a professional sports commentator and the way he uses his professional skills to describe the routine silliness of dogs is a pleasure to behold. I interviewed the World Champion Heptathlete Katarina Johnson Thompson and she made a mock video of attempting to do a heptathlon inside which was hilarious. The comedian Sarah Cooper lip-syncing President Trump's COVID briefings are also comedy gold on TikTok. In February I had never heard of Zoom, now it's the only way I communicate with friends. In a professional context, Zoom interviews now give us all a chance to peer into a room of a famous person's house. I spoke to Paloma Faith in her basement and there was an armless and headless shiny red mannequin behind her. The comedian Russell Kane had a beautiful office with a 1930s desk in it, and the singer Fleur East had this incredibly vibrant mural behind her. The bookshelves in the background thing is played out.
To learn more about Nihal's BBC Radio 5 Live show, head here, and to shop his Oliver Spencer edit, see below.