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Documentary makers David Farrier and Reggie Yates meet in a hotel and eat breakfast

Tickled director David Farrier talks to Reggie Yates, the TV host turned documentary extraordinaire behind TVNZ documentaries Life and Death in Chicago and Extreme Russia, over breakfast in LA.

Reggie Yates wants to meet for breakfast at a trendy boutique hotel called The Palihouse. He’s staying somewhere quite close, doing LA things like taking meetings and doing interviews.

He is two minutes late and apologises profusely, which is ridiculous because no-one apologises for being two minutes late. He speaks quickly and enthusiastically about everything, his London accent a nice reprise from all things American. He’s ridiculously likable and very good looking and he orders a buckwheat pancake with two eggs.

Reggie has been making TV documentaries for the last six years, culminating with the one he says he’s most proud of so far, Life and Death in Chicago. But over the last six years he’s also hung out with pre-teen models in Russia and megachurch leaders in South Africa.

Making hard-hitting documentaries is quite a weird career turn for someone who started as a child actor before rising to fame as a kind of British Dominic Bowden, hosting shows like Top of the Pops and more recently, The VoiceHe’s achieved a chameleon act of sorts, acting in shows like Doctor Who while forging a new path into the factual genre.

When we meet we’re both a bit down about Trump winning the election, but also elated at how good Arrival was, even though Reggie isn’t a big fan of Amy Adams.

But mainly we were both a bit bummed about Trump.

DF: Oh God, what is happening.

RW: I think it will go one of two ways. It’s either him realising how completely out of depth he is and allowing the Senate to run things, and him just becoming a mouthpiece. Or, he’s going to say, “No! I’m in charge!” And he’s going to fuck up so badly there will be impeachment.

I think that seems reasonable.

He didn’t expect to win! There’s an amazing movie in it. Have you seen the footage of his wife and his whole team watching the screens as it starts to emerge he’ll win? He looks so scared.

He’s literally sat there with his head in his hands like, “what the fuck is going on?”

What a strange time to be in America.

It’s a strange time to be alive, period. Just in terms of what is going on with millennials becoming so active for social change, and then on top of that what is happening in this country. Because whether we like it or not, America is a superpower that has ripple effects in both of our lives, wherever we end up settling! Because in the UK with our “unique relationship” as they put it, and with bloody Theresa May, it’s really quite scary, because I can just see her making some really bad decisions in terms of the unique relationship the UK has with the US. It’s so scary.

Reggie Yates: Life and Death in Chicago

Here in LA it’s the bubble though, right?

It’s the weather. The minute policy starts to come through, the minute rumblings of that evangelical influence comes through…

Obama is about to look like a boss. He’s going to look soooo incredible in comparison. Just hearing him speak, it’s like “oh yeah!”

Good time for doco-maker types though eh.

Ha! Good for content creators. But going back to the activism thing, it is a really interesting time because the films that I make are primarily for younger audiences. The people we put in the centre of the films, they look like the audience that these films are made for, because they are made by BBC3 for BBC3. But because, for whatever reason, the films have gotten so much dramatically better over the last couple of years, they are getting aired on BBC1 now.

Where does Louis Theroux’s stuff sit?

He’s on BBC2. He’d have been on BBC3 if that existed when he started.

Do people compare you to him all the time?

There’s a lot of that. He’s the boss. Personally, I see it as being a massive compliment. For me, he’s the guy.

You are similar in some ways I think.

How so? I am fishing for compliments.

Well you get these people making little documentaries and they are sent into amazing situations, but they just have terrible questions, or just obvious questions, and they are not making good use of their time. Whereas you seem to have a genuine interest that gets people on side and you have these great conversations. That seems to come very naturally.

First of all, I am definitely not a journalist, and I don’t see myself as a presenter in the films I make. I see myself more as a complicit contributor. As a producer who has learned so much in six years, I feel like there has been a lot of growth. I really want you to see Chicago, because that feels like a tipping point for me.

There is another show I do called Insider, which is the most immersive of the films I make. I literally live and breathe in a certain world for five days. At the beginning of every show the voiceover says, “They say to understand how another man lives you have to walk a mile in his shoes.” So I go and do just that. In the first season, I joined the Mexican army and tried to take out a cartel. Then I went to jail in Texas and was living as an inmate for five days.

To answer your Louis question, he’s someone who I started watching when I was a teenager, and I found him fascinating because I was always interested in the world. I started in TV when I was eight, and quite quickly learned that I was operating in a world where no-one really looked like me, and no-one understood me. I had no other choice but to understand the people that I was around.

Having to learn a very white, middle-class industry became almost the building blocks of me learning everything beyond that. I would watch one of Louis’ Weird Weekends shows when I was a kid, and be like, “Wow, so you can make these kind of films and find out about the world and you don’t have to be in a suit and you don’t need to be a stiff and you don’t need to be a journalist to do it?” It was just fascinating to me that he could laugh and have fun, but also give you a gut punch.

To be compared to him is huge. I don’t think that I’m walking in Louis’ footsteps by any means, but I do think I am definitely operating in the clearing that he has created.

What was the one thing you did where you went, “Oh jeez, I don’t want to do this forever”.

All of them. I have had the most insane two years. My feet haven’t touched the ground. This year I have been in the UK I think, seven weeks, and we’re nearly at Christmas.  

As self-righteous as it sounds, I understand that the stuff I am doing is bigger than me. There is this amazing thing that has started to happen in the UK, I am starting to see lots of young people of colour making documentaries. Both on their own on YouTube.

Because this is something we haven’t really seen before.

I was the first one. I’m the first one. Internationally. I am the first one, on network TV fronting factual content, and becoming a name and a face in it. I am the first one. There have been people who have done bits and pieces on TV and on Vice, but on a platform like the BBC: it had never been done before.

Isn’t that mad?

No, it’s not. I think to speak from the perspective of a young person of colour, it’s not. Because I have had a hell of a lot of firsts in my career, and when you really think about it, it’s kind of embarrassing. When you think I am working in an arena like the BBC, or in the UK, where we believe we are as balanced and integrated as we’d like. But we’re not. We’re not. Unfortunately, a lot of the time people – and by people I mean commissioners, controllers, the audience at large – they need an example. Because I’ve been given the platform, and haven’t fucked it up, suddenly people are starting to say, “Hey, maybe we can employ people with more different opinions and backgrounds?”.

Because those commissioners need to be shown it can work, right?

I could very easily be the guy who sits there and goes, “Oh gosh, this is embarrassing” or I could be the guy that goes, “Hey, let’s do more. And do you know what? Come and work with me. Don’t work with them, come work with me, and I’ll make you look better.” For a long time, I haven’t understood the power that my voice has, because it is just a single voice. And thankfully it has had some influence to the point where I am not on my own. And that is a huge, huge thing. And so the next stage for me, in factual at least, is to create a platform for others to do the same thing as me, and hopefully better. I don’t wanna be on my own. That’s a sad, sad place.

It took several meetings of convincing before I made my first documentary six years ago, because I was adamant my audience would laugh me off the screen. Because why are they going to listen to a young black guy about autism who’s never lived with it, doesn’t know anyone with it, doesn’t have it? Why am I an important voice? That was exactly the reason I should be making that film.

Reggie Yates: Extreme Russia

I was curious about your transition from an actor, and doing presenter-driven stuff, into what you do now. That is an interesting thing to do. A lot of people stay in there forever, reading the autocue and so on.

It pays well! Really fucking well! To be really honest I think it’s so easy to coast, if you are earning money and reaping benefits of a certain level of fame and success then you can do that and it’s not a problem. I realised, whether I like it or not, the importance of the position that I play, the importance of the voice and the platform I have. To not take advantage of that, to not bring other people through or help others to push the needle… it’s a waste. I will never be referred to as that. Ever.

How do you feel then, with where we are in America right now, and the UK, and even talking about your Chicago documentary… you still seem really positive about it all. Are you?

You have to look at the positives and what will come from it. I saw the red and blue maps of America showing which way the country voted and the map for 16-30 year olds was 95% blue! That’s the next generation of parents, and that to me is exciting. The peaceful protests we saw after the election says a lot about this next generation of parents and leaders that are like, “No, I don’t want to live in a divided country. I like Drake too much!”

That speaks to the experience of a lot of people, kids growing up with an experience of black culture, with a worldview, with a desire to travel, to educate themselves on their own terms socially. That was not the case for our parents. Things are going to change. They have changed, just the people who have changed haven’t got the power yet to do anything about it.  


Reggie Yates: Extreme Russia premieres on TVNZ Duke at 9.30pm on Wednesday night, or watch Life and Death in Chicago and Race Riots USA, available now on TVNZ OnDemand.

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