Reggie Yates: “Nobody comes out of the womb racist”

Will Tilbrook 23 November 2016

At only 33 years old, it seems nearly impossible that Reggie Yates has been involved in television and radio for more than a quarter of a century – a fact which he jokingly describes as depressing. But with his more recent movement into documentary-making six years ago, it seems as though Yates is really getting into his stride.

“This wasn’t a pre-planned [decision]” he tells me as we sit down before his appearance at the Union on Monday. “I’ve always found a way to find out about the people that I’m speaking to. […] One of the things that I loved the most about kids’ TV was actually chatting to kids on the phone, or talking to them, really having a conversation and having fun with them and that for me is just another version of what it is I do now.

“I’m just having conversations that are just as revealing regardless of who I’m speaking to. It might be a racist in Russia, or a preacher in South Africa, I’ll speak to them in exactly the same way, and that tone of conversation is no different to the thing I used to do […] on CBBC.”

It is undoubtedly his way of talking to people equally and respectfully which won Yates a Royal Television Society Television Award for Best Presenter this year for Extreme Russia – a documentary which saw him interview fervently far-right groups whose opinions he clearly disagreed with. I asked him if he found it difficult to not react and argue back in these situations.

“To begin with I did. To begin with I really struggled with people saying offensive things to my face and for me to be expected to not react to that. But there was almost a penny-drop moment I had in South Africa which was when I realised that it’s not actually about me. I’m essentially the eyes and the ears of the audience so for me to blow up at something offensive – my conversation with someone who is pretty interesting or who has a unique point of view ends there and then.

“Everything […] I do is allowing them to reveal themselves to be exactly who they are, rather than me trying to catch them out. In my humble opinion, that’s terrible journalism […], whereas just having a chat with someone and giving them the rope to hang themselves, should they want to do that, is where the good stuff comes in.”

We turn to talking about his Insider series, which was broadcast earlier this year, and saw Yates spending five nights in a mental health ward of a Texan jail and joining a Mexican army battalion in the war on drugs. I suggested that it seemed like he was putting himself in some dangerous scenarios for some of his films but he light-heartedly corrects me: “Not to ruin the illusion, but it’s not that dangerous – it’s telly!

“In the Insider series, I am going out of my way to live and breathe in the same way as the people I’m talking about. And you can only ever really do that to a point – let’s not kid ourselves – me going to jail as an inmate is going to be me sleeping in a cell, yes, me wearing their clothes, yes, but I haven’t committed a crime and I know I’m going home.

“I was told that [the production company] wanted me to do one night minimum and the rest was up to me. But after spending a day there with this group of men, predominantly young men at that, I realised that if I were to go back to my hotel, put on a bit of Netflix, have a lovely, long bath, light a candle, it would be disrespectful to them because they were opening up and telling me their stories […].

This seems to be an important preoccupation with the filmmaker: giving people the chance to tell their stories from their perspective. During his discussion at the Union he summarises the reasoning behind his approach: “It’s not about me. It’s about them […]. Put the issue first. My emotions are not as important as the ‘whys’ and ‘what fors’.

“Nobody comes out of the womb racist” he remarks, “so why are they the way they are?” He uses the example of a man he spoke to in Russia, who was obsessed with knives, but Yates explains that the violence was an expression of this man’s anger at his absent father. “That doesn’t justify it”, Yates is quick to add, but says there are always reasons behind someone’s viewpoint; in terms of entrenched homophobia in Russia, he identifies “the Soviet hangover” as a factor.

An inevitable question from the audience about the impact of Brexit and Trump clearly did not phase Yates who seemed to have already given this some thought. “For a lot of people – liberal lefties in our bubble – it’s a wake-up call.” He recalls being in Los Angeles at the time of the US presidential election and his American friends disbelieving before the result that a Trump victory was possible. But as he warns, “you can be tricked into thinking everyone thinks like you do” when immediately surrounded by similar-minded people. Speaking at a university that refers to Cambridge life as ‘the Bubble’ perhaps makes his point even more pertinent.

I finish up my interview with Reggie Yates by asking what we can expect to see from him next, and he suggests there is a Comic Relief project in the making, and also a series in Australia: “One film [is] on the Aboriginal community and their relationship with white Australia, and the other film on a drug called ice […] it’s almost like crack to coke, so it’s a cheaper, more dangerous version of [meth], and we made a film on that in Melbourne. They’re coming out soon.”