Me, a sex symbol? I don't think so

THE atmosphere in the studio is a kind of laid-back professionalism. John Beattie and James MacPherson like to sing along to the tracks they play, pausing just long enough to decide who's going to do the next link. From the amount of laughter both on and off the air, one thing is clear - they're having a huge amount of fun.

This is James and John in the Afternoon, which replaces Tom Morton's afternoon show on Radio Scotland until his return next week. Not only have they had a whale of a time in the past month, the former Scotland rugby player and the Taggart actor have made quite a splash. Particularly with the ladies.

They get between 50 and 100 texts and e-mails per show, many of them from women, a claim certainly supported by the birthday requests and competition phone-ins which come through while I'm in the studio. "It's not really that surprising, is it?" said one (female) BBC staffer who asked not to be named. "Two nice men on the radio."

When I suggest to Beattie, 48, that he might have become a radio heart-throb, he shifts uncomfortably in his seat, looking mildly embarrassed. "I am? I'm not aware of that. I think I would be a highly unlikely sex symbol." As he is 6ft 4in with broad shoulders, an angular jaw, friendly eyes and dark hair flecked with grey, I think some women might disagree.

Beattie apologises for "squirming". It's just that he prefers to be the one asking the questions. He began working for radio in 1995 and now contributes regularly to radio, TV and print media, mainly on sporting subjects. He has a Saturday morning show, Sports Weekly, on Radio Scotland, a rugby column and his own production company, Ruck'n'Roll. James and John in the Afternoon represents a move into general-interest programmes, which he will follow with a four-part series, What Mid-Life Crisis?, which starts on Radio Scotland on Monday morning.

He is self-effacing about his suggested popularity among female listeners. "I don't think we're very macho men, maybe that's it. I'm more comfortable talking to women than men. My idea of hell would be a golfing weekend with six blokes; I'm much more comfortable talking with couples.

"I think if women ruled the world we wouldn't have half the problems we have. You don't see them in crowd violence, they don't generally [inflict terror]. The female bosses I've had have generally been more sensible than most of the blokes." If he didn't have a female fanbase before, he's well on the way to getting one now.

With the afternoon show, he says, "the key is the music". "For every song we play I know there will be someone out there in their car, thinking, 'I love this song'. You're the target audience," he flashes me that winning smile. "You'll love it." Sure enough, when we get to the studio, half the playlist could be drawn from my shamefully dated record collection: Madonna, Travis, the Pet Shop Boys, The Eagles. Before long, we're all silently singing along inside our heads.

"I love music," says Beattie. "I've played the guitar since I was a wee boy. Jim (MacPherson) and I play in a band, with (TV presenter) Jackie Bird on vocals and Graham Forbes of the Incredible String Band on bass. We play rock songs and ballads from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, big songs that people know."

The making of What Mid-Life Crisis? has taken him into another area again, interviewing both celebrities and ordinary people about their experience of being fortysomething. "I've really enjoyed it, it's so totally different from the sport, talking to people about how they feel about things. I guess I'm a touchy-feely kind of guy!"

What did he learn? "That people feel they haven't said what they should have said to their parents before they died. That when their parents died, they realised that they were next. That they want someone to hold and cuddle, and when marriages break up there is a bravado about it, but it's not really true. That you look at your hands and think, 'They're my father's hands.' That you never really grow up. That men and women are the same. That people cry a lot. Several people cry on the broadcast."

It's not hard to see why people open up their hearts to this gentle, well-spoken hulk of a man. He is ceaselessly considerate, holding doors open for me, sending assistants to fetch me coffee and sandwiches, fitting in time to give me a quick tour of the TV studios when I say I haven't been there before.

"The programme has been fascinating because I am that age, and I'm thinking, 'What the heck's the purpose of my life?' In your forties you do generally think, 'My life is worthless.' I don't think I've done anything worthwhile. Writing the odd article, doing the odd radio programme, what is that contributing?"

But surely an international sporting career counts for something? "I've been lucky, but..." he hesitates. "I'm not like a politician who actually makes laws. When I try to analyse sport, which I do all the time, it's as a means of bringing people together, it's not about winning or losing.

"When you think of the poverty in a place like South Africa, children who literally have nothing. What's worthwhile is to spread the wealth about a bit more fairly. There are too many cliches, but life is about helping other people."

Spending time with Beattie you quickly learn his two guiding principles: fun and fairness. "I coach rugby [West of Scotland, whom he took to a cup final last year at Murrayfield], and I say to them, 'Tonight you have to smile the whole night, realise how lucky you are, running around with people in the fresh air.' You have to appreciate your fun, have to recognise when you're having a good time."

He's given to doing the same with his wife, Jill, and children, Johnnie, 20, a professional rugby player, Julie, 17 and Jennifer, 15, who is currently on tour with the Scotland girls' football team. "I force my family to hold hands round the table every now and again," he says with a grin.

Beattie was born in Borneo and grew up in Malaysia, where his father was a rubber planter. The family returned to Scotland when he was 12, where he attended Glasgow Academy. "In some ways I feel guilty. Why should some kid in Govan have a terrible education and I should have a fantastic one? The world is really unfair."

He studied civil engineering and started playing rugby professionally, touring with the British Lions in South Africa at 22 in 1980. Over the next seven years, he would collect 25 caps for Scotland, playing with the Lions in South Africa and New Zealand in 1983, and on Scotland's Grand-Slam winning side of 1984. All this despite a shattered knee-cap in 1981 which nearly lost him his leg. "It got infected. I was threatened with all kinds of things - including amputation. I was in the Royal for three weeks, alongside all these guys with really bad injuries and cancer, and there I was, a posh public schoolboy with a self-inflicted accident because of my sport. I remember coming out of hospital and seeing a green tree and thinking, 'The world is good.'"

"This is it," he says, pulling up the left leg of his trousers to reveal a pale horizontal scar. Then he does the same with the right, where there is a longer vertical slash down the inside of his knee. "This is the one that finished the rugby."

In 1987 he was injured in a match against England at Twickenham, a month before the Rugby World Cup. Two days later he had retired from the sport. He was 29. "It was horrendous, I thought my world was destroyed. When you're a young rugby player all you want to do is play."

Determined to "make some money for my family", he started training as a chartered accountant. "I had to rebuild a life. I spoke to a friend, who gave me a job for [a salary of] 7,000. So, in 1987, I was on 7,000 a year with a wife, a young son and a flat in Broomhill."

He had already got a taste for broadcasting, after a short spell of commentating during the summer of his injury. But it was only after the death of his father in the mid 1990s that he decided to make it his career. "My dad said to me a week before he died, 'Don't make the same mistake I did, don't work away all your life at something you don't enjoy.'" Two things have galvanised big changes in my life. My injury was one; this was the other. I decided to go and do what I wanted to do, which was broadcasting."

He returned to South Africa in 1995, this time as a commentator, and had soon found a niche as a sports journalist and columnist. His regular rugby column in The Scotsman will resume shortly, at the start of the new season.

He has arrived at a sense of peace about the unfairly thwarted sporting ambitions. "I was really lucky, I don't think I was that good. I was strong, quite capable, but I was never world-class. When I interview great sports people, often I find out that they've achieved it by making their wives upset. When you want to make it, most people have forsaken something, and the ones who tried to do it all don't make it.

"I would never swap it: to run out once for your country."

• What Mid-Life Crisis? is on Radio Scotland every Monday from 4 September at 11.30am