Vox in the Box: Elis James

The comedian and broadcaster on the return of Fantasy Football League, becoming the voice of the authentic Wales fan in the mainstream media and getting paid for doing what he used to do in the pub when he was 17

First off, didn’t you injure your knee playing five-a-side a few months ago? How is it?

Well, I just did a bit of light running. Put some pressure on it and it felt okay actually.

Am I right in thinking you injured yourself just after the Guardian published your article about how your New Year’s Resolution was to play more football?

Yeah! It was as if the football Gods were saying, ‘think again!’

Maybe you should stick to talking football… far safer. You’ve talked to quite a few current Wales players on the Elis James’ Feast of Football podcast. Who’s stood out as someone you’ve really enjoyed chatting to?

Because he’s from up the road and because my school used to play his school – Ysgol Gyfun Ystalyfera – at rugby, I really felt like I knew Ben Davies. When he spoke, I instantly thought, ‘I know you’. I got that to an extent with Joe Allen as well [Allen grew up in Narbeth, Pembrokeshire, just a few miles down the road from Elis] and I’ve known Joe Allens in the past. Like, if I interviewed Zlatan Ibrahimovic, I don’t think I’d come away from that thinking he’s a potential soulmate.

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I think he probably thinks of himself as his own soulmate…

Yes, Zlatan’s his own soulmate!

You seem incredibly busy, what with the podcasts, the radio show, the TV work, stand-up work etc. What is a typical week like for you?

Lockdown changed things. Rather than go into the studio, I started recording a lot from home and I’ve just carried on doing that. Because Isy [Suttie – the comedian, actress, writer and Elis’ partner] is preparing for a stand-up tour at the moment there’s a lot of juggling. But it’s sort of settled down really. I do the Socially Distant Sports Bar alongside Steffan Garrero and Mike Bubbins, Feast of Football with Danny Gabbidon and Iwan Roberts, and the Five Live show on Fridays alongside John Robins. Those are the things I do every week and I fit everything else around that. Fantasy Football League is the next big thing.

Yes, a lot of people are excited about this. Tell us some more about it…

Well, it’s been commisioned, me and Matt Lucas… we’re writing for it three days a week at the moment. I don’t know when it’s going to begin but its definitely happening. It’s fun because it’s being in a writing room with other comedy writers, which is something I haven’t done for years and I really enjoy it.

Did you have to get Frank Skinner and David Baddiel’s permission to bring Fantasy Football League back?

I think that came first. They’ve given it their blessing and David’s tweeted about it a few times.  Presumably those two didn’t want to do it. I absolutely jumped at the chance because it was a show I used to tape off the telly.

How is working with Matt Lucas?

Matt, as I’m sure you can imagine, is an absolute sketch machine. We just wrote a sketch together on zoom, it took about an hour and I thought ‘God, you’re good’. But then I thought, of course he’s good, he’s Matt Lucas – he’s been on the telly since I was 11 or something. He’s a really talented guy and is obsessed with Arsenal – I mean, really obsessed with Arsenal. He was a ball boy at Highbury in the 80s and has been going since he was very young, so there’s no doubt about his football credentials.

Are you going to try and get in as many Wales and Swansea references as possible?

Of course!

One of the features most people remember from the original Fantasy Football League was Phoenix from the Flames. Have you dared do one of Paul Bodin’s penalty miss for Wales against Romania that could have sent the Dragons to the 1994 World Cup?

No, I think that would be too depressing!

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The Socially Distant Sports Bar podcast has been a big success. How did that come about?

That came from a text message at the start of lockdown. I’d seen Steff [former BBC Wales journalist, Steffan Garrero] sharing YouTube clips and he said ‘I’m thinking of doing a show, do you fancy it?’. I did it because I really love Bubbs [fellow Welsh comedian/actor Mike Bubbins] and Steff, and I thought it would be a laugh. Now it’s my job!

I mean, you have to be very grateful because a lot of comics struggled during lockdown because there were no gigs, so I count myself lucky because I was able to find something new. I read sports books and watch documentaries all the time for Socially Distant Sports Bar – the kind of thing I was told I would never make a living from is how I’m actually making a living. I can’t quite believe it. Isy will sometimes say ‘Oh, you’re working hard’ and I’ll say ‘sort of..’ Watching a documentary about Francesco Totti doesn’t really feel like work.

Tell me about the Socially Distant Sports Bar tour

That was an amazing marriage of my interests. Oh my God, every gig was like Wales away.  We had messages saying, ‘can I bring my big flag?’. Having dipped my toe into lots of different areas of comedy – comic acting, stand up, sketch shows – there’s something very specific about the relationship listeners have with their favourite podcasts. It feels like a very intimate one-on-one relationship. The listeners are so loyal. When we did the Elis and John show, the London show at the Sheperd’s Bush Empire broke the record for the bar take for a seated show. And then with Socially Distant Sports bar, we broke the record everywhere we went. We had to delay the start of some shows because the bar queues were 15 people deep. Victorian theatres are not built for football-style binge drinking.

The theatres must love you…

My Mum went to one of the Cardiff gigs, she said there were people buying 20-pint rounds. Those gigs were great fun. When we went to Salford, it was full of north Walians, all in bucket hats. We got to meet the listeners… it’s a format that means a lot to people. Seeing two thirds of the audience in bucket hats was amazing. Hilarious. They felt like my people, people I’d want to go for a drink with.

You’ve mentioned the connection with the audience, but there’s also a real chemistry between the three of you.

Mike is more of a rugby man but also, he was a PE teacher so he can confidently talk about coaching all sports. And Steff was a sports journalist so he can talk about boxing, for instance, because he’s commentated on boxing. Steff plays it down, but he’s got some amazing anecdotes because he was at the BBC for 20 years. He’s done some really cool stuff and met some amazing people. It just feels like all the time that I spent in pubs, talking about sport, from the age of 17 onwards felt like training for the thing that at the age of 41 is now my job. I can’t believe it.

You also appear sporadically on the Guardian Football Weekly podcast where you’ve basically become the voice of the authentic Wales fan.

I think the advantage that podcast has over other football podcasts is that they realised you’ve got to be funny and a lot of pods are very dry. I realise that football is about more than the game itself and if you have 25,000 fans at the ground for a big game, then that’s 25,000 different stories. All of those stories are valid and that’s something that fascinates me.

Does football reach parts that other pastimes can’t as well?

Yeah, I mean, I love reading but I’ve never taken my top off in ecstasy in my local library. I love music and probably the best gig I’ve ever seen was Radiohead in Cardiff on the OK Computer tour, where they were just world class. It felt like a real moment. I was 17. As spine-tingling an experience as that was, they played London the next night and the set list was exactly the same. When you go and see a band you know roughly what you’re going to get. But with football, the Hal Robson-Kanu goal against Belgium in the Euro 2016 quarter-final will never, ever be repeated. That’s not to take away from the power of music, but live sport does have something unique in that regard – especially football because of the rarity value of goals. I honestly feel grateful that sport has given me the moments it has given me.

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Was there a particular moment where you fell in love with football as a kid?

I was already a football fan, but the whole of Italia 90 was hugely significant and then straight after the tournament we beat Belgium 3-1 at Cardiff Arms Park. It was a very good Belgium team, who I recognised from the World Cup and Wales had a great Umbro kit, so we looked the part. Ian Rush, Dean Saunders and Mark Hughes all scored, players I knew. I remember watching that on telly and thinking, yeah, this is me now. I got that Umbro kit for my 10th birthday. I loved the badge, I loved the feel of it. I loved Southall, Rush, Hughes, Ratcliffe, Saunders… and I got to know and love the others too. I became quite obsessed with Eric Young’s headband. And then there was Paul Bodin, who looked like an RAF spitfire pilot. And Peter Nicholas, who looked like a deputy headmaster.

We had a clutch of world-class stars and a decent support cast but it seemed that Wales side lacked a playmaker, an Aaron Ramsey type…

Oh yeah. I think that’s why Ramsey means so much to Wales fans because if you’re looking for a Welsh string-puller previous to him, you’re going back as far as Ivor Allchurch. If you’re picking an all-time Wales XI, we’ve got a winger mountain, a striker mountain… but there’s not enough string pullers. I mean, put Ramsey into that 85/86 team, providing assists to Hughes and Rush in their pomp… it doesn’t bear thinking about. Aaron would probably have won about 25 caps for England and that’s about it, so we’d have never seen that fantastic performance against Turkey at the Euros because he wouldn’t have been picked. Had Bale been English or French he probably wouldn’t have gone to the Euros (in 2021) either.

Let’s talk a bit about Swansea City. Steve Cooper just got Nottingham Forest back to the Premier league after 23 years. In his two seasons at Swansea, he reached the play-offs both times. Yet it seems Swansea fans never really took to him. Why?

Because Swans fans, not all, obviously, but some – and this has been the case for years – love to watch an attractive, possession-based style of football and Cooper’s teams didn’t play that way. It’s been that way for decades for Swansea fans. And to be honest, him coming from Pontypridd and his dad [ex-referee Keith Cooper] being a Cardiff City fan didn’t help. I mean, I thought he worked wonders with the resources he had at his disposal, but I would say Russell Martin is more popular among Swansea fans because of the style of play. Fans of other clubs don’t care, as along as the team is winning, but for a large numbers of Swansea fans the style is important. I quite admire that.

Where do you think Swansea are at now?

I don’t make predictions anymore. I remember an interview with [then-manager] Brian Flynn around 2003 after we’d just stayed in the Football League and he said he’d love to establish the Swans as a Championship team and I just thought ‘mate, you’re dreaming’. But just recently we’ve seen some amazing comebacks in the Champions League, Leicester win the Premier League, Swansea win the League Cup and spend seven years in the top flight… so things can change so quickly. As a football fan of more than 30 years, the thing I’ve learned to accept and find very comforting is that football doesn’t end. So you have a bad season, but you have the summer to get over it and you go again. Bands split up, great writers and actors die, but football teams don’t die. Players and managers go but the team will always be there. If you keep going, the chances are something good will happen.

Vox in the Box: Elis James
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