James Whale on cancer: ‘I’m terminally ill and now you can vouch for that’

James Whale? He’s that gobby, finger-pointing, shock-jock who cuts off his live guests with a Golden Buzzer, isn’t he? This pretty much sums up what I’ve always thought. And what’s more, it appears his wife, Nadine Lamont-Brown, agrees with me. “He’s not my cup of tea,” she smiles. “If I’d Googled him, I’d have thought, ‘He doesn’t seem like a very nice man’ and we wouldn’t have got together.”

Luckily for James, his wife of 18 months had never heard of him, much less been tempted to Google him, when they first met at their Kent village pub.

“When I finally watched him at work, he was so harsh on people,” Nadine continues. “After a few minutes, I thought, ‘This is just horrible’.” But, whisper it, the pioneering broadcaster and Daily Express columnist is actually lovely: generous, funny, smart, self-aware and modest. In short, a great big softie.

“Aw,” says James, bashfully, looking from Nadine to me and then down to their three dogs, Lulu, Daisy and Muttley, sprawled out between them on the sofa.

“I’m not allowed to tell anyone, but you’re actually really nice and kind,” says Nadine, 57, turning her twinkly blue eyes to her husband.

“When you watch him at work, it’s a persona. He can sometimes go into ‘work mode’ at home, and I’ll have to say, ‘You’re not at work now, you can’t cut me off’. No, he’s very kind and thoughtful – no one’s ever been nicer to me.”

“You’re ruining my reputation,” shoots back the TalkRadio and TalkTV late night host. And so it continues, three hours of back-and-forth banter, so touching, funny and loving I pray James, 71, is telling the truth when he says he and Nadine are thinking of doing a podcast.

Opposites Attract might be a good title for it, for it’s clear that, despite being madly in love, they disagree on just about everything: religion, university, climate change, even Meghan Markle.

They may only have been together for three years – following the deaths of James’s first wife, Melinda, and Nadine’s husband, Simon, both from cancer – but it’s clearly a relationship full of poignancy and laughter.

It’s all the more affecting, given their time together will be cruelly cut short by the recurrence of kidney cancer which James first beat 23 years ago but which, tragically, has now spread to his brain, lung and spine. He told the annual British Curry Awards last November he probably wouldn’t be around in a year’s time.

“I feel absolutely s*** today,” he admits suddenly and we stop laughing. With his positivity, their light, jocular manner and funny anecdotes, for a time I’d forgotten his prognosis.Yet he insists he doesn’t want sympathy. “He’s been amazingly brave,” says Nadine quietly.

“I’ve not been brave, darling,” says James. “There’s no alternative but to go on. Sometimes I have gone out and screamed in the garden, ‘For God’s sake, just finish me off’.

“I was going to cancel this interview because I felt so bad this morning but I wanted you to see me because people accuse me on social media of using it as a ploy to improve my ratings. But I’m terminally ill and now you can vouch for the fact.”

He sighs: “I don’t want to go on forever if I feel as bad as I do today.” Does he ever forget his diagnosis, I wonder? “No, it’s been my constant buddy for the past 20-odd years. You don’t ever not think about it.”

“We had bereavement in common,” says Nadine, whose father also died of cancer when she was 29. “So we started going out, doing nice things together.”

Yet after an all-too brief dash of happiness, James was diagnosed with cancer in 2020, on his remaining kidney, the other one having been removed when a tumour was found on it in 2000. First time round, he made a full recovery – and set up the James Whale Fund for Kidney Cancer – but this time there would be no cure.

It had already spread to his brain, lungs and spine.

“It was so unfair on her,” says James. “So I said, ‘I think we should cool it and not see each other’, and she replied, ‘Oh that’s nice, so if I’d just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, you wouldn’t come and see me any more’. So we carried on.”

That “carrying on” culminated in a fairy-tale white wedding at Tenterden Town Hall, Kent, surrounded by family and friends, in October 2021. “We didn’t have the luxury of time,” says Nadine, who completed a degree in biology and biochemistry while raising a two-year-old daughter, Holly, and is now a successful tax accountant, advising premier league footballers.

“No, I bought you the engagement ring by mistake,” quips James.

Cue giggling from Nadine: “That was so funny. We went to Tiffany’s, and he didn’t have his glasses so he didn’t see the extra nought on the end.”

“I thought Tiffany’s was a chain shop, like Woolworth’s,” James admits.

“To be fair, Nadine was saying, ‘Oh, no, you can’t’. When the sales assistant put it on the credit card, I said, ‘I think you’ve made a mistake with the, er, price’.” After a glass of champagne and some reflection, James bought the ring anyway.

The broadcaster was born in Ewell, Surrey, in 1951. Severely dyslexic, he failed his 11-plus exam and went to the local Church of England school.

His Welsh mother, Anne, gave up professional ballet dancing when James and his younger brother, Keith, now a lay preacher, were born.

After a brief spell as Surrey junior archery champion – his bow hangs in pride of place in the hallway – James joined his parents in the King’s Cross area of London where they had relocated to run another Watney pub.

Unable to go to college due to his dyslexia – which was finally diagnosed live on ITV 25 years later – he began work on a building site, much to the disappointment of his mother. Through a friend, she got him an interview for a trainee buyer’s job at Harrods.

“I got it too,” declares James proudly. “A talent the Whale family has is being able to speak authoritatively about things they know nothing about.”

James turns to Nadine, asking: “And that is a talent really, isn’t it? But I don’t ever say anything that’s completely wrong. Do I?” Silence.

“Tell me one thing I’m wrong about,” he smiles. Suddenly the nausea that has plagued James all morning overwhelms him. Nadine, ever tender and reassuringly patient, tells him: “Don’t go getting yourself all excited.”

By the age of 20, James, then married to Melinda and with two sons, James Jnr and Peter, was working as a DJ at pub discos. Listening one day to the pounding music in Top Shop’s new flagship store in Oxford Circus, in London’s West End, he decided what was needed was an in-house DJ, complete with pretend radio studio.

After much persuasion, the chain’s founder, Sir Ralph Halpern, agreed and James took up residency in a mocked-up radio booth underneath the escalators. “I thought, Radio One is just up the road, their producers are bound to pop in during their lunch hours and beg me to go and work for them,” says James.

“That didn’t happen.” A single shift on a Radio 4 arts’ programme was never repeated, so he set about wooing commercial radio stations. He got offers from Radio Hallam in Sheffield, Piccadilly Radio in Manchester and a nighttime show on Metro Radio in Newcastle, plumping for the latter, where he lived for 10 years and where his boys grew up.

Still obsessed with joining the BBC, he later took a 50 percent pay cut to join BBC Radio Derby’s mid-morning show. Was there a lot of snobbery?

“Yep. I didn’t fit in. The BBC needs a good kick up the a**e. They were really bad then, they’re still really bad. But I put up the listener figures on Radio Derby.”

James believes he was the first so-called “shock-jock” – before the infamous American DJ Howard Stern, who is credited with inventing the abrasive, argumentative style of presenting. New equipment in the Seventies meant listeners could phone in and be broadcast live. “I realised disagreeing with people on air, sometimes even cutting them off, was far more entertaining than playing records,” James explains.

The morning after the first time he cut someone off for spouting vile insults and racism James was called in to see the station’s managing editor.

“He was a retired headteacher and he didn’t like me. Problem was, I’d made the front page of the newspapers and everyone was talking about it so he couldn’t sack me. It was 10 or so years before Howard Stern but, while he became a big rich celebrity, nobody here liked what I was doing. I should have gone to America, I think I’d have been more successful.”

In the late 1980s, James joined Radio Aire in Leeds and his show was broadcast simultaneously on Yorkshire Television. A ratings success, it soon transferred to ITV.

The Nineties made him a household name, in a number of TV and radio shows including LBC and Talk Radio. He hosted several shows and, in 2016, appeared in Celebrity Big Brother.

While there have been controversies along the way – he was sacked in 2008 for urging listeners to vote for Boris Johnson as London mayor – his late night show remains a staple of TalkRadio.

Though recently, his illness has kept him off air. At one point, the steroids he was taking made him think he was God.

“He was striding around the garden with a big wooden staff,” says Nadine.

“I rang his consultant and said, ‘I’ve got God in the garden’. He said, ‘Righto, I’ll cut down his dose’.”

After his 2020 diagnosis, James thought seriously about going to the assisted dying clinic, Dignitas, in Switzerland.

“I am terminally ill,” he says, “It would have been easier all round. But you didn’t like that idea, did you?” “No, I’d rather go somewhere else for a holiday,” says Nadine, smiling as their eyes meet.

Since then, the couple have made happy memories: with fabulous holidays in Antigua and Cornwall; with family, including James’s grandson, Oscar, who’s training to be a marine in Exeter, and Nadine’s youngest daughter, Cami, who’s at university in the city.

When we meet, Nadine is preparing to return home to the neighbouring village, where she lives from Monday to Thursday. “That was the deal when we married; I kept my name and my home,” she says.

“I really recommend it as a way to be married. You don’t get into the drudgery, the boring bits. It’s great.”

Returning to the subject of our interview, James adds: “I’m not scared of dying. I want to be buried in the churchyard at the top of the hill. It’s a great view. The reason I wanted to go to Dignitas was because I was thinking of others, not me.

“But,” he adds, looking at Nadine, “I’m glad now I didn’t because we’ve had two great years.”

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