clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

From the Press Box to the Stage, James McNicholas Never Breaks Character

Even in an age when sportswriters are hyphenates (reporter-podcaster-whatever pays the bills), The Athletic’s McNicholas leads an odd and fascinating double life

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last September, soccer writers from The Athletic met at the site’s London headquarters. It was the final day of the Premier League’s summer transfer window, the sport’s answer to the NBA trade deadline. James McNicholas was playing the role of league insider. He hardly needed to ask, “What’s my motivation?”

McNicholas has two careers. For The Athletic, he covers Arsenal, the club at the top of the Premier League standings. For the children of the U.K., McNicholas is a star of Horrible Histories, a beloved BBC television series which calls on him to play historical figures like Alexander the Great and Michelangelo. If sportswriters wear many hats, McNicholas’s tend toward the bowler, the crown, and the helmet of a Roman centurion.

Before he swooped into The Athletic newsroom, McNicholas spent August on the set of Horrible Histories memorizing dialogue and sitting still while makeup artists disguised him in wigs, beards, and prosthetic noses. He went before the cameras and played (among many other eminences) the privateer Sir Francis Drake and the codebreaker Alan Turing.

McNicholas got released from the Horrible Histories set for a single day—a stipulation negotiated by his agents. At The Athletic’s office, he joined his colleagues in “making calls, breaking news, and being a journalist with a J.” When the transfer window closed, McNicholas bade goodbye to his ink-stained pals and raced to a location in Buckinghamshire. There, he donned a bicorn hat to play the Duke of Wellington.

Even in an age when sportswriters are hyphenates (reporter-podcaster-whatever pays the bills), McNicholas leads an odd and fascinating double life. He spent the fall doing two jobs at the same time. “I was having conversations with contacts in the sports world on the phone while wearing Renaissance dress and a fake beard,” McNicholas said from London.

Actors are like sportswriters in that the price of becoming one is often years of low-paid drudgery. McNicholas, who is 36, had a lean decade in both professions. Now, his diary is full. Today: write a think piece. Tomorrow: play Charles Darwin.

“Sometimes, like all people, I catch myself complaining about work or being stressed about work,” he said. “Then I think, well, I’ve got two people’s dream jobs, so I shouldn’t get too hot.”

McNicholas comes from a famous sporting lineage. His grandfather, the late Terry Downes, was the middleweight boxing champion of the world. But McNicholas wasn’t much of an athlete. In 2008, when he graduated from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, his goal was to play the grand stages of the West End. “In my final production at drama school, I played Macbeth in Macbeth,” he said. “I was 22. I took myself incredibly seriously. I had long hair and a trench coat and really thought I was it.”

McNicholas acted in regional theaters across the U.K. He sold coach holidays to the elderly over the phone. Later, he made a commercial for a Belgian cracker company.

“I was an actor and that was my life,” he said. “But it’s a life where you don’t have a great deal of control.” Comedy offered a little autonomy. McNicholas could write his own material and book himself in clubs. In his mid-20s, McNicholas and two actors formed a sketch group called Beasts. “It was three lads being very big, naughty boys,” McNicholas’s friend Brett Goldstein, who plays Roy Kent in Ted Lasso, wrote in an email.

McNicholas’s round face and piercing blue eyes turned out to be perfect comic instruments. McNicholas can look serious when he’s doing comedy, which is funnier than mugging.

Beasts became regular players at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In 2019, McNicholas brought a funny and moving one-man show to the Fringe called The Boxer. He played himself (in glasses) and his grandfather (bare-chested in boxing trunks). The show contrasted Downes’s trials in the ring to McNicholas’s own bout with Mal de Debarquement Syndrome, which makes people feel like they’re on a rocking boat at sea even when they’re on land. McNicholas was diagnosed five years ago, after returning from his honeymoon. A car or elevator ride can still give him blurred vision and headaches. McNicholas grappled with his condition through comedy.

“He is so incredibly charming and wise and passionate and also one of the few people who seems to really be ‘who he is,’” wrote Goldstein. “He’s comfortable with himself and his world and he can be very funny about it.”

In the 1990s, McNicholas was one of a horde of British kids who fell for the Horrible Histories books. The series took forbidding history and, like Monty Python, made it funny and lurid. Sample titles included The Rotten Romans and The Vile Victorians. Horrible Histories and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps were the fun books to check out of the school library.

In 2009, Horrible Histories became a television show on the CBBC, the Beeb’s children’s channel, with the soul of Python and the metabolism of Saturday Night Live. In 2016, producers brought in McNicholas to play a succession of bit parts. He got a spot in the main cast two years later.

“Edward I died of dysentery,” said Simon Welton, Horrible Histories’ executive producer. “We had his deathbed scene because there’s some particularly good history around there. James was in that sketch playing a priest. Because it’s all about dysentery, it’s basically a sketch that has a lot of fart noises and fart jokes in it.”

Other sketches are just as screwy. In “Viking Eye for a Saxon Guy,” McNicholas played an invading Norseman who gives a resident of the British Isles a glow-up. (A graphic assured the audience that Vikings took hygiene seriously.) In another sketch, McNicholas played Joseph Stalin offering a web tutorial for Instagrammers on Photoshopping—or photo-“chopping.”

When Horrible Histories began shooting last fall, a car picked up McNicholas at his London flat every morning at 5 a.m. An actor in an adult comedy might play one character for years. McNicholas plays as many as three or four different historical figures each day: a Hun warrior, a proper Victorian gent, Heracles, Nikola Tesla. He estimated that he played more than 100 roles this fall, when the show filmed its 10th and 11th series.

McNicholas is required to be funny immediately and constantly. Horrible Histories can shoot 15 pages per day (the norm for an adult scripted show is more like five) and many scenes are polished off in one or two takes. After a day of shooting, a car dropped off McNicholas at his flat at 8:30 p.m. He did this every weekday for more than four months.

Horrible Histories is mostly watched by 6-to-12-year-olds and their parents. Away from the prying eyes of the press box, McNicholas became perhaps the first sportswriter in history to play Darwin or Stalin on television. He’s surely the first to play both.

As he was making a career as an actor, McNicholas was also writing sports. He is a lifelong Arsenal fan. In 2004, when McNicholas was 18 years old, he created the site Gunnerblog and filled it with writing that was as unfiltered as the best early-2000s sports blogging. “I was writing completely devoid of responsibility,” said McNicholas.

McNicholas’s voice, and his good timing, made him a big figure in the corner of the internet devoted to Arsenal. McNicholas no longer updates Gunnerblog. But the site’s Twitter account has more than 375,000 followers.

McNicholas’s writing got him freelance assignments for outlets like ESPN and The Mirror. “It was the first time I was invited into the press box for a Premier League game,” he said. “I went in, and there was a journalist there who I really respected and liked and admired, and he knew of me a little bit. He came up to me and he said, ‘What are you doing here?’”

“I remember shrinking inside. I had this huge imposter syndrome made real, where I was like, ‘I don’t belong here. He’s right. I’m an amateur and I’ve been invited in with these professionals.’ I guess out of that grew this desire to be respected and taken seriously.”

There’s a path for highly-partisan bloggers to be taken seriously. They become highly-partisan bloggers with big jobs. But when The Athletic’s U.K. branch hired McNicholas in 2019—the site launched while he was performing The Boxer at the Fringe—he switched roles.

“They thought they were getting someone who could maybe provide some kind of fan color and commentary and the occasional opinion piece,” said McNicholas. “What they didn’t anticipate was me quite quickly building a very useful network of contacts and being able to provide genuine insight and a high quality of writing.”

“He’s one of our best writers in terms of finding out information and sharing it in a way that’s easy to understand,” said Alex Kay-Jelski, the editor-in-chief of The Athletic in the U.K. and Europe. Kay-Jelski added: “He was one of the biggest surprises I’ve had since starting this company, in a very positive way.”

Working alongside Arsenal reporters like Amy Lawrence and Art de Roché, McNicholas has written many different types of stories. He broke transfer news. He interviewed Arsenal’s sporting director, Edu, and performed a close reading of his answers. He sought out a grade-school teacher of Bukayo Saka for a profile of Arsenal’s 21-year-old star.

McNicholas’s reporting trip to France for a feature about Zinedine Zidane and Eric Cantona inspired this headline in The Sun: “Arsenal blogger ‘flees for his life’ from tough Marseille council estate…” (It wasn’t quite that dramatic.) In November, McNicholas and Stuart James co-bylined a smart story about Arsenal center back Rob Holding. The piece showed that a soccer or rugby “finisher,” like baseball’s closer, was a role created partly for tactical advantage, partly as a morale-boost for benchwarmers.

With Arsenal having a big year and an active transfer window, McNicholas finds himself being waved on to more podcasts and radio shows. The Athletic’s subscriber model demands a steady stream of stories. McNicholas attends nearly every Arsenal home game, recording an “on the whistle” video at the end.

As to how he performs two jobs at once, McNicholas said his trick is being able to “put down one professional demeanor and assume another. But I guess I’m an actor, right? So I should be able to do that.”

When Horrible Histories was shooting, McNicholas’s Athletic bosses reduced his hours and allowed him to file a feature a week. McNicholas would peck away at a story in his trailer. Then he’d walk to, say, a location in the Tower of London to perform a song parody as a beefeater. Then he might pop back into his trailer for a FaceTime chat with his editor, Kevin Coulson, in full costume. “I’ve never felt like he’s absent, even when he’s absent,” said Kay-Jelski.

“When I’m on set,” said McNicholas, “people will say things like, ‘You’re like a football person or something?’ I sort of downplay it. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I do bits and pieces.’”

Yet sometimes McNicholas finds his careers converging in strange ways. Last February, when he was performing The Boxer in London, an audience member walked onto the stage. McNicholas wondered if he was about to be attacked. Instead, the man whispered to McNicholas, “Arsenal won, 2-1. Lacazette, 95th-minute winner.”

There are odd things about having a professional double life. When McNicholas is a journalist, he’s a critic: of the club, of tactics. When McNicholas is an actor, he’s the one who is being critiqued. “I read every review that’s ever been written about me,” he said. “Most of them are really nice. But the ones that aren’t, I will remember forever.”

“A Premier League footballer said that they wouldn’t want to be interviewed by me,” McNicholas continued, “because they were unhappy with something that I’d written about them. It was just an interesting reminder that these people that I still think of as gladiators and gods are just not. They’re the same as me. They are sensitive and human and prickly. And they remember.”

Now that McNicholas has a choice writing gig, his acting career has grown beyond Horrible Histories. He will make an appearance in this spring’s third season of Ted Lasso. He scored small parts in Michael Winterbottom’s series, This England, with Kenneth Branagh; the Hulu series The Great; and the upcoming movie The Critic with Ian McKellen. His agents have tried to build out his IMDb page so he can get a bigger role in a movie or TV series, even as he continues to churn out copy for The Athletic.

“Sometimes I worry that by hedging my bets creatively, I’m never going to fulfill my potential in one or the other,” said McNicholas. “I wrestle with that.”

“I’ve always thought at some point there’ll be an epiphany or I just won’t have a choice,” he continued. “There’ll be a practical reality that means it’s got to be one or the other. Whereas in truth, that day hasn’t come, and I don’t feel ready to step away from either.”

On Tuesday, the Premier League’s winter transfer window will close. McNicholas planned to once again appear at The Athletic’s London office to try to break news. He declined the offer of a voice acting gig to make time. The role of sportswriter needed his full attention.