Reggie Yates on his surreal career, and the “changing of the guard” in British television

The former youth TV star discusses his transition from entertainment to factual programming, and his new documentary, Reggie Yates: Life and Death in Chicago.

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Reggie Yates is in a swamp, in the middle of in Australia, surrounded by wild alligators. They swim in two lines either side of him, going back and forth, menacingly. Fortunately, Yates is armed. With an oar.

“Apparently that’s the most effective thing. Like, even a gun wouldn’t save you. You need to have something to keep them at a distance, and keep their mouth away from you. I’m stood here with a fucking oar! That’s when you think to yourself, ‘What is this?! What am I doing?!’ It’s ludicrous when you find yourself in those situations.”

But these kinds of situations are no longer a rarity for Yates, who has, over the last six years, become BBC Three’s chosen explorer of the world’s curiosities and extremes. Since 2010, Yates has presented several documentaries for the channel, and has found himself in a whole host of bizarre circumstances, from having to insist to a men’s rights activist that no, he hasn’t ever had sex with a sleeping or unconscious woman, to finding himself “in a crack den with somebody smoking ice in front of me, while someone else is getting their stab wounds washed out in a dirty bath”.

I’ve wondered before if Yates has had one of the weirdest career trajectories in British television. A child star of Disney Club, he was a young face of Saturday morning TV, where he spent most mornings chatting happily to a puppet, before he went on to be a Radio 1 DJ. He’s the voice of Rastamouse, and still presents one of the oddest entertainment shows on screen: Release the Hounds (an ITV2 gameshow that sees contestants attempt to outrun huge dogs in order to win a cash prize). But for Yates, reality has proved stranger than fiction – his transition from entertainment to factual programming has led to the most surreal moments of his working life.

“In South Africa, I had my hand in someone’s brain at one point. The first day we walked in a nurse said, ‘Hello, welcome, great to have you here... by the way, we just got this,’ and holds up a foot in a bag. I’ve seen some things. I’ve seen some weird stuff.

“So, no, the weirdest moment is not voicing a mouse in a West Indian accent, it’s not watching people run from a pack of wild dogs in Lithuania on a Wednesday night.”

We meet in a pleasantly fancy London hotel, accompanied by Yates’ PR, a situation he likens to being on “an awkward, chaperoned date” (as we leave the PR behind to go to a quieter room, he calls over his shoulder, “Don’t worry, we promise we won’t snog!”). Warm and charming in person, his conversation style mirrors his work; he jumps easily from funny on-set anecdotes to serious discussions of race, youth and masculinity.

He grew up in Holloway, north London, and thanks the Anna Scher Theatre for gearing him up to appear on screen. The theatre, “run by this amazing, incredible, bonkers old Jewish lady” (Anna Scher), allowed Yates to get out of the house for a few hours a week for £2 a lesson, and it soon began sending Yates to castings. He landed the first role he auditioned for, in a sitcom called Desmond’s. An eight-year-old Yates enjoyed it so much, it didn’t occur to him to think he was also being paid for his time.

“I didn’t even know that I was being paid, until, you know, my mum spoke about us going to the bank and setting up an account because we had these cheques that we needed to put somewhere. And I was like, ‘They’re paying me for this?!’

“For someone like me who grew up around people who hated work – hated having to break their backs just to put food on the table – finding out that there were people having a laugh all day and getting paid, I was like, ‘I wanna do that!’”

After his first presenting gig at age 11 (“a London Underground safety video that they still show now, which is horrible”), Yates went on to host youth TV for most of his teens – in Disney Club and Diggit, before securing a contract with CBBC at just 18 years old. To have such a public career at such a young age must have been daunting.

“It was me, Fearne [Cotton, Yates’ co-host on most of his early gigs], Holly [Willoughby], Jake [Humphrey], Caroline [Flack] – loads of us who are still doing stuff for TV now. We were all just a bit like, ‘Oh, God, this is weird. This is all, sort of, happening.’

“It’s always going to be more difficult for women in television. Especially when profile gets involved, because the level of judgement is just the next tier. So when one woman who I was working with began to get scrutinised for her wardrobe or boyfriend choices, it was like, ‘What is this?!’”

None of this put Yates off presenting, and when he finished school and a foundation art course at Camberwell Arts College, he convinced his parents to let him work full-time for a year. By this point, Yates had been working in TV for over a decade, and he soon landed a year’s contract to BBC Radio 1 and a job hosting Top of the Pops with Cotton. “It was like, wow, I’m earning more than my parents.”

It means that a generation of young people have grown up with Yates on their screens. “The amount of people who say to me, ‘Oh my God, I’ve grown up with you!’ It took me a while for the penny to drop, but when it did, I was like, ‘Oh my God, yeah!’ If you’re between the ages of 18 and 25, I’ve been on TV your whole life.”

It’s no coincidence that 18-25 is the perfect demographic for BBC Three programming. “Now it’s factual, and the majority of the audience that have come up with me are now questioning the world. So these factual programmes that I make are right on their radar and right in the pocket of being inquisitive, and being interested in the world that you live in.”

Yates’ latest documentary, Reggie Yates: Life and Death in Chicago, is by far his most ambitious yet. It explores the issue of gun violence in Chicago, and controversially posits that “the spotlight in Chicago is police brutality, but there is a much bigger problem” – shootings in which young black men are both the victims and the perpetrators. The documentary tells us that, “last year, 23 people were shot by police in Chicago, nine fatally”, and that at the same time, “there were more than 25,000 black-on-black shootings, of which over 350 were fatal”.

Such comparisons run the risk of taking on the tone of an All Lives Matter supporter trying to shift the focus away from the structural racism of America’s police – “the real issue is black-on-black crime!” But Yates’ documentary attempts to handle both issues sensitively. “I was like, don’t fuck this one up. Trust me, black guy!” He says, pointing to himself. “It’s important to me that it’s done right.”

Yates’ status as one of the only young British black men making such mainstream factual programming becomes invaluable when tackling subjects like these, especially as his presenting style is deeply personal. At times during the film, Yates becomes overwhelmed by the extent of the suffering in the community he investigates. At one point, Yates walks into the back room of a funeral home, where a black woman, who we learn is also a mother to a young son, is embalming corpses. The room is full of the bodies of young black men.

“That sequence was difficult,” he recalls. “I wasn’t prepared for what was around the corner. I’ve never been around that much death before, and you could smell and taste the death in the room. I’ve never experienced that. And for that to be her normality was crazy, a mother of a young black man in that environment, being the person that patches these boys up so their parents can look at them in an open casket... it’s just crazy. That was shot around the time that I’d lost a friend of my own, quite a young man too. It was a really shocking moment for me.”

It’s a bleak documentary, without a particularly hopeful ending. “I don’t think you can tie things up in a neat little parcel all the time. I think it’s really important that some films leave a bad taste in your mouth.”

Yates’ transition to factual programming makes sense in retrospect, but it wasn’t an obvious move at the time. “I think it’s important to say that, with there being no examples of people like me doing factual, I just couldn’t see it. I thought I was gonna stay Mr Entertainment.”

His success in the arena (comparisons to Louis Theroux abound) has surprised him – last month, he beat The Great British Bake Off to pick up one of the top awards at the Edinburgh TV Festival. “I got up on stage and said, ‘You’re not supposed to beat Mary Berry. I don’t have a speech, I’m sorry, because this wasn’t supposed to happen.’ And it was amazing, but, I think people are starting to not only see me as a filmmaker now, but see me as a competing filmmaker.”

The next step for Yates is another change in direction – writing and directing drama. He cites Aziz Ansari as a major influence, singing the praises of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum, and Donald Glover’s Atlanta. “It’s a really interesting time for young new voices, because it feels like there’s a changing of the guard at the moment. We are, as a viewing public, done with our parents’ stories.”

Of course, Yates plans on continuing his documentary-making, as well as occasionally putting on his Rastamouse hat, and releasing the hounds every now and then.

“I want to ensure that whatever I do, it’s a show that wouldn’t be the same if anyone else did it.”

Reggie Yates: Life and Death in Chicago will air on BBC Three from tomorrow, and on BBC One on Monday 10 October at 9pm.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

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