TV

Reggie Yates: When someone says my film has changed their life, that is huge

From Desmond’s to Rastamouse, Reggie Yates has been on TV for 25 years. Now he's going behind bars for the inside story...

“For whatever reason, since I have been on TV people have always felt they can come up and talk to me,” says Yates. “But it has moved on from ‘I loved what you said on Top of the Pops’ or messages on social media saying ‘you look fit in your suit on The Voice’. That stuff is nice but someone saying ‘I watched your film about being black and gay and came out to my parents during the credits’? Wow. Holy shit. When someone is saying these films changed their life, that to me is huge.”

From his early acting role in Desmond’s aged eight, via Grange Hill, spells presenting kids’ show Smile, then Top of the Pops, The Voice, long-running shows on Radio 1, voicing CBeebies favourite Rastamouse and acting in Doctor Who, it’s extraordinary to think that at the age of just 33 Yates has been in showbiz for a quarter of a century.

The youngest celebrity to have appeared on Who Do You Think You Are?, his short film Shelter is now being made into a full feature film. With such energy, drive and ambition, there is an unshakeable confidence about Yates. And he has been required to pull on all of it in his recent documentary work, making films on autism, human rights in Russia, being gay in a minority community, and race relations in the US.

His films resonate with audiences who are not always well catered for.

His latest film, The Insider: Reggie Yates in a Texan Jail, is the first of two new documentaries he has made for BBC Three. On his first day of a week living immersed alongside inmates at Bexar County Jail in Texas he meets a young man named Alex, who hasn’t admitted to prison guards he has a mental health condition, which he was self-medicating with marijuana.

“It said a lot about the fears young men have when it comes to admitting ‘weakness’. It’s almost taboo to admit that you need help,” says Yates. “The official statistics are that 20 per cent of men in US jails suffer mental health issues, whereas everyone I asked had been diagnosed with ADHD, depression or had suicidal thoughts at some point. On face value, this is a film about jail, crime and punishment. In reality, it is actually about mental health and masculinity.

“It is ridiculous what people are being imprisoned for,” he adds. “And once you are part of the system, that is it. I am just thankful we are not imprisoning people here in the UK at the rate they are in America.”

On face value, this is a film about jail, crime and punishment. In reality, it is actually about mental health and masculinity

There is one point in the film when Yates’ implacable certainty appears misplaced. In the cell of vulnerable inmate Alex, who has had suicidal thoughts, Yates advises: “You need to pull yourself together, you need to get your head together.” Shouldn’t Yates have been prepared better for this kind of situation?

“Nope,” he says quickly. “I think the brilliant things about these docs I am making is that I am adamant I have to experience things on camera, for camera, as they happen. There is only so much info I can be given before going into a scenario because it is immersive. If I have too much information, those experiences and moments are taken away.

“I see myself as a normal guy speaking for the man on the couch or the street. I experience something and give my take on it. It is not the gospel. I am going in there to consider an issue, through the prism of the people. And what I think makes these films unique and resonate with people is that in no way am I preaching, I’m just trying to understand. And in that aspiration, I think some amazing things happen.”

Yates cites Louis Theroux as the main inspiration for the new documentaries he has made for BBC Three, the first of which, The Insider: Reggie Yates in a Texan Jail, airs online from June 28. “There is a hip hop term people use for [rapper] Rakim – ‘the God MC’. And Louis Theroux is the God MC, he delivers docs in a way nobody else has done.”

Just as Theroux’s Weird Weekends sparked his interest as a teenager, so Yates is proud of reaching and representing audiences that are too often ignored.

“There are not many young black people on TV full stop,” he says. “But I am the only one doing docs. It is not that there are not many – I am the only person. I am in a group of one at the moment.”

There are not many young black people on TV

He hopes his films will inspire more. Is he happy being a role model? “For a long time I hated the idea. But the reality is, if you are on TV for a decade or two and people grow up with you, you have no choice in the matter,” he says. “If I am in your front room with you every week being one person but in my personal life I am doing drugs, falling out of clubs drunk, beating people up and doing all kinds of crazy behaviour, I am letting people down.

“I hated the idea of being responsible for somebody out there. But had Will Smith gone to jail for murder when I was 12, I would have been devastated. Because I was looking at the Fresh Prince and thinking, I want to be just like you – I want to be likeable, accessible, I want to be fun but I also want to be smart. And if he showed himself to be something other than that, it would have broken my heart. There are kids who message me every day on social media who watch my every move and I can’t let them down. But is it pressure? Yes.”

As he heads into his second quarter century in the public eye, something about Reggie Yates suggests he’ll handle it.

The Insider: Reggie Yates in a Texan Jail is available now on BBC Three. The Insider: Reggie Yates In The Mexican Drug War is available from July 5 at 4pm on BBC Three

@REGYATES 

Reggie Yates profile picture: BBC/Ellis Parrinder

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