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Matt Baker: ‘When you grow up on a farm, you know all about hard work’

"I’ve never felt like I’ve left the farm. I love the place with a passion. It’s such a family thing is our farm. Farming is so difficult at the moment, it’s very difficult to make a living."
Matt Baker has returned to his roots. Photo: BBC Studios/Pete Dadds

TV’s Matt Baker has gone back to his roots.

In his latest series Our Farm in the Dales the country boy turned presenter moves back to his family’s farm in the Durham hills to help secure its future.

Here, speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter To My Younger Self, he explains just how much of a privilege growing up in that environment was.

I was 16 when the world of drama entered into my life. It was a pivotal moment for me. I was doing A-Levels at Durham Sixth Form centre and was asked to do some back flips and somersaults in a college production of Grease. I was like a stunt double for the guys taking the lead roles. Then one of the guys got laryngitis and I had to take over. They said, look, there’s no one else, will you have a go? I loved it. That was when the teacher who was running the production said I should change my A-levels. So I dropped classics and did theatre studies. My life changed direction with that decision. And I’m doing what I do now because of what I experienced at that time. I had to sing one really high-pitched song. I practised in the shower, on the farm, everywhere. And the first night I went out there the place went absolutely mad. I thought, there’s something in this. It was a big moment.

When you grow up on a farm, you know all about dedication and all about working hard. And I was also a British champion gymnast when I was younger, then switched to what is called sports acrobatics – which is where you climb on top of each other. It’s like a circus style of gymnastics. We became British champions. So when I wasn’t swinging from a high bar, I was swinging from trees, looking after sheep or driving tractors. I had a very practical existence – I’m dyslexic so I took solace in doing things.

Matt Baker: Our Farm In The Dales
Matt Baker: Our Farm In The Dales
With his mum, dad, wife and kids on their farm in the Dales Photo: Charlotte Graham/Channel 4

My parents have always been so supportive. I started doing a sports science degree with the idea of being a physiotherapist but came home to have that difficult conversation – I’m leaving university to try out for drama school. I remember it so clearly – the fire was on, we all sat around. But they both said how excited they were that I was going to give it a go. I had no idea how that conversation would go. Now the tables are turned, and that is what our new programme is about. You end up looking out for your parents the same way they’ve always looked out for you. How do you support them to make sure their hopes and dreams continue to keep happening in later life?

I’ve never felt like I’ve left the farm. I love the place with a passion. It’s such a family thing is our farm. Farming is so difficult at the moment, it’s very difficult to make a living. We all stick together. So I never ever felt like I’d left. We got a small version of the farm up in the Chiltern Hills where we have our sheep and chickens so I could go in and out for The One Show, because that world is something I need. I would clean off the mud then go in and interview the likes of George Clooney.

I would tell my younger self to be thankful for what mistakes teach you. There is no such thing as regrets, for me. I would say, do not be frightened by mistakes, see them as positive experiences and get confidence from them – because they’re going to teach you the right way to do things. I call it the mistake demon. When my kids mess up I say, OK – so what is the mistake demon showing you?

The farm gives you responsibility. You don’t realise at the time how useful it is for life going forward.

It would be great to whisper in my younger self’s ear that it is all going to work out. Because this was the moment I switched over to theatre studies. To know it’s going to be the right decision because you are going to end up with a seven o’clock primetime show, Countryfile on the weekends and all that – wow. He wouldn’t believe it. I guess the message is to absolutely, 100 per cent follow your instincts. Follow your gut and follow your heart. It would feel like all my dreams had come true to find out what lay in store.

I didn’t realise what a privilege it was to grow up on the farm until I left. It gives you responsibility – you have to work and feed the animals whatever the weather. You don’t realise at the time how useful it is for life going forward. All these things become ingrained in you, the practicality of problem-solving from when you’re out on your own up on the hills. I learnt an enormous amount.

My younger self would be so proud of the two Baftas I got for Blue Peter. But I also learned a lot about myself on that show. The travel was incredible – it was never on my radar, I never wanted to have a gap year and travel the world, but Blue Peter put me in the most extraordinary places.

I’ve never been starstruck – apart from Terry Wogan! People are only human, they’re other folks sitting there with a story to tell – and you should always be excited to hear the stories people have to tell. But when I watched Terry in his studio before interviewing him for Blue Peter and heard his voice coming over the speaker, it was the voice of my childhood. From the radio and watching Wogan before bedtime. We ended up becoming great friends and sat on the board of Children in Need together. My younger self wouldn’t believe it.

The way Countryfile gives a representation to the world and landscape I grew up in is all I could ever want. There was hardly any rural programming in primetime before and it built, built and built with myself, Julia Bradbury, John Craven and Adam Henson. We gathered this momentum, on our adventures in the countryside, representing the rural community, and giving a window into that world for people who weren’t part of it. Then viewing figures started to soar, which is lovely.

I made a bet with my one of my friends when I was younger that I would get to the Olympics.

We’re about to start reshaping the whole of the agricultural policy, post-Brexit. Let’s let people in on it and talk about and understand why decisions are being made about our food and agriculture going forward. Because 70 per cent of the UK is rural. There’s so many experienced landowners and farmers who understand the issues, and it is so important their voices are heard, because we’ve got this opportunity to reshape our agricultural policy. Let’s do it with the people who really understand it.

I made a bet with my one of my friends when I was younger that I would get to the Olympics. I didn’t end up competing but the first time I was presenting at my first Olympics in Beijing, I remember ringing him from the stadium. What a dream come true. All my coaches were still there training the British team, so it was unbelievable. Off the scale. I’m so happy I managed to continue with my love from before going into telly.

It was love at first sight with my wife, and I didn’t hold back. So I would tell my younger self you will be pretty pleased with the way it goes. Be intuitive to find your soul mate. It’s about listening to your heart, and then knowing you’re a partnership all the way. It’s about being there for each other, understanding the dreams of your partner – spending your time to make others’ dreams come true is a really good thing to do with your time.

If I could have one last conversation with someone it would be with a cameraman friend who died prematurely. I would have liked him to know how much I valued him, what he taught me and how much confidence he gave me in the career I was about to experience. He was a wonderful person, the first cameraman I worked with on Blue Peter on the first foreign trip I did. I still feel that heartbeat of the way we made things together back then.

My parents give me an enormous amount of confidence and I desperately try to do that with my children. I want to give them every opportunity. Again, it’s about not being afraid to fail. It’s a very rural upbringing, but I don’t shy away from helping them discover technology. That’s very important. It’s opened my eyes to stuff too – like with social media. I was never on that until a couple of years ago when I thought, right, I’ve got to get in tune with this because I can’t help them in a world I don’t understand. I joined Instagram for that reason.

Everything changes when you have kids. So if I could relive one day, it would be the day my son was born. For me, that day was when everything came together and you realise why you’re on the planet. I can’t put it into words, that feeling of love for someone in your arms is off the scale – and the feeling of excitement we had, what adventures will we all go on? That massive weight of responsibility mixed with that excitement and rush of love is the most epic feeling anyone can experience, I think.

Matt Baker: Our Farm in the Dales is on Wednesdays at 9pm on More4. Catch up now on All 4