Dan the Man
Dan Walker has one of the busiest lives on British television today. Stuart Weir finds out how he manages to juggle so much at once.
Dan Walker’s week is full. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, he is presenting Breakfast on BBC1. As well as the early morning shift, that can involve filming something for the show later in the day. Thursday is in principle a quieter day but then again can involve the filming of other programmes. By Friday, he’ll have changed his focus – to preparation for Football Focus, in the studio and then presenting the football programme on Saturday. The week might also include some corporate work, filming for another channel or writing an article. Alongside that there are three kids to look after and a dog to walk, as well as trying to find time to play golf – ‘still chasing the scratch handicap’.
How, I wondered, would he describe his profession: presenter, journalist, sports journalist? ‘That’s a good question’, he replied. ‘I think I see myself as a broadcaster and a very fortunate one because of the way I am able to straddle the different worlds of news and sport. People sometimes ask: “You’re the guy who does sport, can you do news?” But before that I did news and they asked: “Can the guy who does news on the radio go and do sport?” or “Can the guy who does sport on TV, do a chat show on Radio 5?” And “Can the guy who does sport on radio be the guy who wakes you up in the morning and interviews the Prime Minister? Can the guy from Breakfast host a daytime quiz show?” These are all questions people ask and I totally understand that because that’s the industry we’re in. But I have had some fantastic opportunities and I feel very thankful now to be presenting the number one breakfast show in the UK and the most popular football magazine programme. And I’m still getting away with it.’
He took a bit of persuading to join BBC Breakfast but now loves it. ‘It was offered to me one or two times before but I wasn’t sure, mainly because of the change in lifestyle. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood what a huge programme it was. From week one I realized how significant it was to sit on that sofa and in the significant slippers of Mr Bill Turnbull [his predecessor]. You have conversations on that sofa that then become national conversations. Sometimes they are difficult conversations, but still important ones to have.
‘If I look at the opportunities that I’ve been able to have since taking that job – the people interviewed and some other places I have been, and the stories I’ve been able to cover – I think it has been a wonderful opportunity. The other thing which attracted me to it is working with Louise Minchin. You don’t often get to work with someone who not only do you get on with, but they understand you and you understand them. There are so many interviews that we do where I start a sentence and she’ll finish it. We understand the cadence of the way we talk and the rhythm of our thoughts. It’s a lovely situation to be in, where we rarely talk over each other and rarely jump on each other. It’s a nice healthy relationship where we help each other. We want the programme to look great and it’s never a selfish show when I am on with Louise. It is a very loving and caring programme to be part of. It is an early start but it’s a lovely way to start the day.’
Walker is active on social media and welcomes comments on his performance – at times graciously replying to critics and explaining the background. He told me he is not bothered by accusations of political bias because the next comment will probably accuse him of bias in the opposite direction! ‘We live in a toxic time where people are concerned and upset or worried and don’t feel they’re getting answers to their questions and feel there are great injustices in society. A lot of that comes out on social media. I don’t think people mean everything they say and I like to take things with a pinch of salt. I’m not affected by that because, as a Christian, my value as a person does not come from what people think of me. I don’t allow the praise to lift me too high and I don’t allow the criticism to drive me too low. I listen to the people I care about and I listen to the people who have a real insight into whether I’ve done a good job or not. I know myself, most of the time, if I’ve done a great interview or an average interview.
‘I do like social media. It has made people on television more accessible. It has made programmes more immediate. The response is more accurate and quick these days. I did an interview the other day and there was one comment on social media: “What a terrible interview. I can’t believe he asked that question.” I went back to the person and explained why I asked the question. We had quite a nice conversation and all was sorted.’
He has some tasty exchanges on social media with Piers Morgan, presenter of ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘We get on all right’, he told me. ‘I have known him for a good few years, and we have a healthy relationship. I know he insults me quite a bit. That is his thing and it’s fine. I don’t think any of our discourse is ever unhealthy. I think it’s good for both programmes. We have a healthy competition. I know that it annoys him that despite everything they’ve done and everything they continue to do – and they do a really great programme – we still get twice the audience. I think that really grates on him. We have fun and I don’t think it ever goes outside of that.’
Walker is very open about his Christian faith, as he explains: ‘My faith plays a very significant part of my life. I don't take much seriously in life except for my faith and my family. I believe that if you have a strong faith in Jesus Christ, it has to make a difference to how you live your life. It informs who I am and who I would like to be, where I'm going, the way I talk, the way I act, hopes, dreams, aspirations etc. It is a significant part of every day I live. It is the most important thing about me and I can't imagine life without Jesus. If you are a Christian, that has an impact on your decisions, your language, the way you think and speak and go about your daily business. I would like to think that it reduces pride and self-obsession and makes you think more carefully about the people around you, and the impact you’re having on the community and society around you. For me, it’s been an overwhelmingly positive thing. I know people sometimes choose to see it as a negative and that’s fine. I never mind having a discussion about it. For me, it underpins everything I am and want to be. Being a Christian is a very big part of my life.’
Like the rest of us, Walker was looking forward to Euro 2020, curious to see how England could build on an excellent World Cup in Russia two years ago. ‘2018 was an amazing tournament. And being sat at the semi-final next to Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker and seeing how close England got to the World Cup final was a clear indication of how far England had come. I’m not getting carried away, thinking we’re a bunch of world-beaters. I think England are a top eight side in European football and the top twelve side when it comes to world football. And any team of that calibre can go far in a tournament.
‘I would love to see England win a tournament in my lifetime and for my children to be able to enjoy that as well but I don’t know if they will do at this time. Gareth Southgate is a remarkable manager because of his stature in the game. Because he played quite recently and because he has previously brought a number of the England players through the various age stages, I think there is a real respect for the manager and that he gets the best out of those England players. I’m really looking forward to seeing how England progress next year.
‘This season there has been a lot of speculation about Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund). Hopefully he is going to be one of the stars of the tournament next year. I think you are going to see him move somewhere this summer for an awful lot of money. He is a player who is attracting a lot of attention at the moment and rightly so. Gareth Southgate loves to bring through young and talented players and players who can deal with the big occasion and he has proven that already. Sancho is already on the scene but I see him as someone who can really stand front and centre. I rate Mason Greenwood (Manchester United) incredibly highly. He is a bright young talent and I think we are going to see a lot more of him for Manchester United and for England.’ With the Euros postponed to 2021, the extra year will give Greenwood a chance to establish himself in the England squad.
In 2019 Walker climbed Kilimanjaro for Comic Relief in the company of Shirley Ballas, Ed Balls, Jade Thirlwall, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Anita Rani, Dani Dyer, Alexander Armstrong and Osi Umenyiora. It was a life highlight: ‘Climbing Kilimanjaro is not the sort of thing you do often in your life. It was an amazing opportunity to be part of it. When you see the vast expanse of that mountain, it’s just a reminder of how a small you are. Climbing up there with a bunch of people I didn’t know at all before we got there… yet within 24 hours of meeting each other, we are climbing Kilimanjaro! It was great and it’s something that all the people who did it will always have together. Right at the start, we were told there was no way that the nine of us would reach the top together – and there was 30-40 years of age difference from the youngest to the oldest. We were told that we were all very different in our physical capabilities and that we would not be able to reach the top together because it would hurt us in different ways. But when we heard that we all thought “Right” and we were all joined by the idea that we would do it and that it was going to be nine of us are at the top together or none of us. That drove us on.
‘We were doing this for various reasons – Shirley Ballas’ friend had taken his own life, others were inspired by different things to be there and had different reasons for supporting Comic Relief. And when you achieve something like that as a group and you’re not relying on yourself but relying on others and the team around you, that is something pretty special to be part of. We regularly meet up and have a little reunion now and again and message each other. It’s a lovely thing to look back on.'
Dan Walker lives life to the full. As he puts it: ‘Who doesn’t enjoy getting up at 3.10 am?’