Sara Cox

There was a time, a few years ago, when Sara Cox was worried she’d lost her confidence.

‘I think a lot of women do when they go away and have kids,’ the presenter tells Weekend. ‘Your focus shifts a little bit, and you’re not quite sure what you’re about.’

Having reigned over the Radio 1 Breakfast Show in the early noughties, the once ubiquitous ‘Coxy’ was now reduced to one or two shifts a week, plus odd bits of holiday and maternity cover.

‘I did get asked if I’d timed it so I could be at home with my kids more, and I thought: we can pretend that if you want,’ she says, with a chuckle. ‘Basically, work was just a bit quiet, for whatever reason. Every career goes through peaks and troughs, and I just had a few trough-y years.’

Her friend Davina McCall put her in touch with a life coach specialising in, as Cox puts it, ‘people who’ve lost their mojo a little bit’. Encouraged by him, she also sought advice from showbiz chums Jonathan Ross and Richard Madeley.

Fast forward to 2019, and whether it’s down to renewed confidence, good timing or sheer luck of the draw, the 44-year-old is back on top of the world – busier than ever with the coveted Radio 2 drivetime slot, a weekend morning show on ITV, and TV hits Back in Time… (a new series, Back in Time for the Shop, is in production) and a second run of last year’s BBC2 hit Love in the Countryside.

‘I’ve never had such a reaction to a show I’ve done before,’ she says of the latter, in which she plays Cupid to farming folk and other rural lonely hearts. ‘It’s just a really genuine, lovely show.’

Presumably she’s hoping, like Cilla, to be buying a wedding hat at some point?

‘I did drop the hat quote in a few times during the show,’ she says. ‘I do quite like a buffet. That would be the dream – a big wedding, or a child named after me. So hopefully… But the last series ended up reflecting real life, really – there were some people who fell head over heels, and then it burned out quite quickly.’

This year’s crop of singletons include Katie, a sheepdog trainer who’s always chosen man’s best friend over actual men (‘She’s such a force of nature – we just need someone who isn’t going to be intimidated by that’) and David, a gay farmer from Cumbria. ‘It’s not actually about the fact he’s gay,’ she says. ‘Whatever your sexuality, it’s all about fitting in with the farm. The farm is going to come first.’

This is something Cox knows all about, having spent her early years on her father’s 40-acre farm near Bolton, before moving to the nearby village when her parents separated. ‘I was kind of half living in the country,’ she says. ‘One one side, my dad’s farm was all fields, on the other, it was a housing estate, so I was never really isolated. It was never an issue for me to meet people.’

Have her childhood skills stayed with her? ‘Definitely,’ she confirms. ‘I can put my wellies on at the drop of a hat and round something up – escaped cows, or whatever. If I could, I’d definitely buy 20 acres outside of London, have horses, maybe a couple of Herefords...’

Sadly, she’s not sure her husband, advertising executive Ben Cyzer, is ready to leave the city. ‘I’d like to say he’d follow me to the ends of the earth – but Totteridge might be too far.’

And besides, her current schedule doesn’t exactly leave much time for animal husbandry. ‘I’m trying to find the right work-life balance,’ she admits. ‘But I’ve had times in my career where it’s been really quiet, so I’m making hay while the sun shines, to stick with the farming analogy.’

The Radio 2 drivetime show, in particular, is her ‘dream’ job. ‘It feels like I’m at the top of a career mountain. I’m still pinching myself. When you come back [after a career dip], I think you’ve learned a bit of humility. You’ve realised there’s always someone after your job, and you’re only ever as good as your last show. Which is why I love doing a daily show, because if it’s ever a bit iffy – and I’m my own worst critic – I know that I’ll be back on the next day, to give it more welly. I keep accidentally coming up with farming analogies.’

It took her a while, she admits, to find her ‘Radio 2 voice’. ‘It’s like a panda breeding programme,’ she explains. ‘I had to let the listeners gradually get used to this northern woman. The first year [covering for the likes of Vanessa Feltz at 5am], I was very nervous, watching my Ps and Qs. But now, because I’m the same age as a lot of the listeners, I’m 100% myself, and I think people quite like that. It’s always going to be warm and friendly at Radio 2, but it doesn’t need to be overly cosy. Our listeners like a bit of an edge.’

Her gift of the gab, she says, comes at least partly from her mother. ‘She was a landlady for many years, and when you’re behind the bar, you’re on show. She used to say, whatever’s going on in life, she’d put on her lippy and get out there. You can throw Mum into any situation, and she’ll just thrive. And she’s naturally nosey, so I think I get all that from her.’

Recently, Cox said she’d spent the second decade of her career being asked to explain the first decade – aka ‘the Met bar years’, when she and Zoe Ball led the vodka-fuelled charge of the hard-partying ‘ladettes’ (the word still makes her toes curl). ‘It was basically people still being fascinated by somebody in their 20s having the occasional night out,’ she sighs. ‘There will always be a hook, a shorthand, to describe you, and that was mine for a long time, and still is, to an extent. So I think I’ve just got to get over it.’

Cementing her party credentials, in 2001 Cox married DJ Jon Carter (aka Monkey Mafia), the father of her 15-year-old daughter Lola. After they divorced, she hooked up with Ben, dad to 11-year-old Isaac and nine-year-old Renee, adding to the sense that, personally as well as professionally, she’s very much in the midst of her second act.

‘It does feel like that, yeah,’ she says. ‘I’m really good friends with [Radio 1 DJ] Annie Mac, and she’s always telling me to stop saying I’m lucky, or I’m grateful, because you never hear a man saying he’s lucky. And I do feel that I’ve worked for it: I’ve kept going, I’ve done all the early mornings, the half-terms and holidays, kept working towards the goal. And when I meet people in Ikea and stuff, they’re like “Good on you, Coxy!” I’ve not just sashayed back into it. I’ve been grafting a bit for it, and it’s paid off. So I’m not allowed to say I’m grateful…’ A pause. ‘But I am grateful.’

An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend, 19 September, 2019

(c) Waitrose Weekend