Is there a television persona with a more eclectic career than Reggie Yates? He’s woken kids up on Saturday mornings, counted down the biggest chart bangers for Radio 1, presented alongside a puppet, voiced the lead singer of an all-mouse reggae band, and set snarling dogs on cash-hungry members of the public. With over twenty years of light and fluffy jobs behind him, now, he’s forging a successful career as a documentary presenter via youth-oriented social programming for BBC Three. How on earth did he get here?
As is so often the case, Yates began his career in TV at an extremely young age. At eight years old he appeared in sitcom The Desmonds as a particularly safety-aware child, producing perhaps the cutest Green Cross Code reference of the Nineties. This sparked a string of roles in minor programmes like Between the Lines, and Agent Z & The Penguin from Mars as well as Grange Hill and The Bill. After that, his career in kids’ Saturday Morning TV and his partnership with Fearne Cotton began: first on Diggit (at 15 years old), then Smile.
Clockwise from top left: The Desmonds, with Fearne Cotton on Diggit, Nev from Smile, Crucial Tales, Grange Hill and Agent Z & The Penguin from Mars.
He was charming, peppy, teasing – his presenting style, and experience interviewing teen pop stars on these programmes, made him a strong candidate for youth music radio, and he landed a job at BBC Radio 1’s black music counterpart 1Xtra at just 18, going on to present Top of the Pops with Cotton in 2003. After TOTP finished airing in 2005, Yates and Cotton took on a co-presenting slot at Radio 1 – Yates would stay at the station until 2012 – to attempt a move into factual programming.
The transition from youth culture presenter to television journalist is not an easy one, but that’s not for a lack of people trying. After Big Brother, Davina McCall struggled with her own chat show, which was cancelled after awful reviews, and social documentaries like He’s Having a Baby and Let’s Talk Sex before finding her niche in filming herself doing extreme physical challenges for charity. Rick Edwards attempted to move into politics coverage with BBC Three show Free Speech and book None of the Above, but is now back presenting lighter fare, including ITV comedy gameshow Safeword and Sky’s comics fanshow DC Fancast.
Mid-Noughties pop presenters like Miquita Oliver and Jameela Jamil have all tried a hand at a “serious” BBC Three documentary, but only produced one-offs. Even Yates’s co-presenter of over a decade, Fearne Cotton, had a stab at documentary programming with 2009’s The Truth about Online Anorexia (now she’s releasing a “wellness” cookbook). The difficulties of a smooth transition between two worlds are perhaps best explored through Yates’s own career: just look at this stunning image produced as part of a political engagement campaign called “Hands up Who’s Bored?”.
It bears all the hallmarks of a clumsy crossover attempt, including a two-tonne metaphor and patronising tone (#makeuthink). But Yates managed to cross this awkward hurdle – even if he had to host Release the Hounds to get there. In an interview with the Guardian, he recalls why one BBC exec, Danny Cohen, thought he had the potential to make the switch:
[Cohen] said I should be doing docs, and asked me to front one on autism. I was adamant that I wasn’t right to do it, but all the reasons I gave Danny as to why I wasn’t a good fit were his reasons why I was. I said: ‘There are no young black guys presenting these shows, and I come from more of a music background; why is anyone going to listen to me?’ And he said: ‘It’s because there’s no one like you doing this that you have a point of difference.’
Yates’s transition began quietly with as the Noughties came to a close. While he continued to host entertainment programmes like The Voice, failed gameshows like Prized Apart, and kept a toe in kids’ TV with his voice role on Rastamouse, his filmography was also growing more factual. Cohen’s suggested autism documentary, Autistic Superstars aired in 2010. He featured in Rich, Famous and in the Slums (yes, that was the genuine title of the show) for Comic Relief the next year, visiting the slums of Kiberia. Despite the poverty porn tone of the title, here Yates did a much better job of integrating with the locals than his co-stars, and revealed a talent for talking sincerely to camera, without sentimentalising his surroundings.
In 2012, two more BBC Three shows made it to screens: Tourettes: Let Me Entertain You, which was praised for its human exploration of an oft-mocked condition and the documentary Reggie Yates: Teen Gangs. This was popular enough to secure several follow-ups: Reggie Yates: Extreme South Africa, Reggie Yates: Extreme Russia and a whole series of domestic episodes under the umbrella Reggie Yates: Extreme UK (exploring “modern masculinity” across topics like homophobia and Men’s Rights Activism). As these shows slowly built up a following on BBC Three, Yates continued to dip into more mainstream audiences over the same years, with a popular exploration into the ethics of the fur industry on BBC Two, and a surprisingly arresting turn on BBC One’s Who Do You Think You Are? that took in complex issues of abandonment, Ghanaian culture and the effects of British colonialism.
In all of these shows, Yates’s strength comes from a mix of non-judgemental curiosity, and a relatable impulse to intervene with his own opinion when his subjects veer into extremes: whether it’s an eyebrow raised to camera or a straight confrontation of someone’s beliefs. Comparisons with Louis Theroux abound, but Yates doesn’t go for a disguising non-threatening persona, quirky asides or spend much time lingering in the background. There is a calm directness to his style that means his shows often delve immediately into the heart of their subject matter.
If this results in a comparative lack of elasticity and colour, Yates’s own relatable personality makes up for it. He becomes a kind of everyman – every despairing headshake or expression of awe matches the audience’s reaction to what’s on screen. This can lead to what some would call problematic moments: Yates could be accused of, for example, being too lenient on some areas of Men’s Rights Activisim.
Yates’s latest round of BBC Three documentaries, under the umbrella The Insider, are more immersive than his previous work. In Reggie Yates in the Mexican Drug War, he takes a more traditionally investigative approach, with surprisingly nuanced results, while In Reggie Yates in a Texan Jail, Yates lives like a prisoner for a week, marvelling at the terrible conditions, the trivial crimes that place people there, and the oppressive atmosphere. Again, their accessibility can leave them vulnerable to criticism. His experiences are foregrounded, which risks confining the genuine, lived experiences of real prisoners to the background – at times, the programme risks becoming something akin to Rich, Famous and in the Slums. Yates rescues the show from its own format by sincerely socialising with seemingly every prisoner he meets.
But not being up to speed with all the most progressive stances of the minute ends up being crucial to his appeal – as Cohen notes, his lack of expertise can be a blessing in creating honest, accessible programming. It is this engaging mix that has and will continue to shape his success – at BBC Three and beyond.