I kid you not
From bobsleigh to Blue Peter and beyond: Radzi Chinyanganya has kept us entertained on everything from Crufts to Songs of Praise – and even Dancing on Ice. Here, the TV presenter turned children’s author tells us how God has been the guiding light behind his success…
How have you been getting through lockdown?
I’ve been staying with my mum in Wolverhampton. My mum works in mental health for the NHS, so I’ve known the importance of the NHS since I was four years old, and the only positive for me [about lockdown] is that a light’s been shone on the NHS. Hopefully it will mean it gets funded more effectively for however many years to come.
With your mum working for the NHS, what did you think about the clapping during lockdown, and the posters etc. thanking NHS workers?
I like the principle of the clapping, because on my street there are three people who work for the NHS and it put a smile on their faces. It’s rare that the country comes together and says a unified thank you for everything you do, especially in a sector that doesn’t necessarily get remunerated that highly.
I’m proud to have the NHS in our country, but it only works as well as it’s resourced. Hospitals are run on goodwill, because the reality is, the staff are going above and beyond, doing more hours than they’re contracted. It’s lovely that we applauded them, but from a long term standpoint, that can only last for so long. I believe in rewarding people, and funding things, properly.
Do you think the money spent on posters and paint thanking NHS workers should have been spent on pay rises?
I don’t think it has to be one or the other. If I was in charge of the country, one of my main priorities would be putting money in the NHS. I’d be less concerned about people who are shooting grouse, and more concerned with people on the frontline. If you have Prime Ministers, 75% of whom have all attended the same secondary school, at a price per year that’s greater than the average salary in this country, something’s wrong. I’d love to see somebody who reflects our country, leading our country.
How has COVID affected your work?
It meant a total transformation of what I was doing. I was meant to be working at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the Invictus Games in the Hague, and the World Indoor Athletics Championships in China – and it all went down like a stack of dominoes.
So I went back to what got me into TV – hustling! I’ve worked on Songs of Praise and a Team GB podcast series called The Moments that Made Me. I’ve done a lot of the online stuff from my bedroom, and when I’ve worked at Broadcasting House for the BBC, there’d be about 16 people on a floor that would normally have at least 500 people on it.
Working at the World Snooker Championship and the US Open meant filming without a crowd, and working with the same people every day. We were tested daily, with either temperature tests or swab tests and we had bracelets to prove we’d been tested. We had meals brought to our rooms because we couldn’t go out of the hotel to get food. It’s not as much work as I’d normally do, but I’ve been very fortunate in the work I have done.
Did working with COVID restrictions feel strange?
I’d rather we skewed that way, because if you’re run by risk-averse people, nothing will ever get done. I drive on a motorway at 70 miles an hour – I can crash, I could die. But we don’t ban people from driving. In order for society to continue, for jobs not to be lost, for businesses not to go under, for people to survive, we need to continue in some vein. If that means making adaptations, I’m all for it. As long as it’s safe, I don’t see any problem in getting things moving.
I’m from Wolverhampton, and three weeks after lockdown started, the units in the town centre were already becoming vacant. That was always going to happen, because it’s not an affluent area and a lot of businesses are only just making ends meet, so if you extricate any demand, they’ll go under.
It’s a question of balance, in terms of avoiding people contracting the virus, and protecting the lives of people who will struggle to survive if they lose their jobs. We can all say, ‘It’s right to stay safe,’ and it is right, but people sometimes say ‘You can’t be too safe’ – and the fact is, you can be too hungry, you can be too poor, and you can be too homeless. I feel strongly about that because people on lower incomes have really suffered and will continue to suffer. I hope they’ll be given help in the months and potentially years to come.
We know you’re massively into fitness and your Instagram shows you’re doing lots of training. How much has exercise helped you cope with lockdown?
Two things that help me cope with life are the gym and being busy. Being busy got taken away from me, and the gym got taken away from me, so I bought a bench press, a power bar, and Olympic dumbbell bars for my mum’s garage – I’ve had to be inventive! It didn’t really scratch the itch, but it just about kept my needs at bay. I love working out, so possibly my hardest challenge was not being able to do what I like to do in the gym.
A lot of people have struggled with their mental health during lockdown, and this is something men often find difficult to talk about. What do you think we need to do as a society to help men with their mental health, and if you find yourself struggling, what do you do?
The biggest killer of men under 40 is suicide. If we go back 40 years, that’s just after Thatcher came in and caused unemployment, specifically in manual labour. As a man you have testosterone coursing through your system and we operate well when we’re being physical, whether that’s in the mines, the Army, or a factory. Taking away men’s ability to move and lift stuff is one factor. Another is losing our identity, which is often as the breadwinner. From a societal standpoint, that really hurts. I also think that as men or women, we’re not meant to be locked up. I see a therapist and it’s enormously useful, but if I didn’t have the gym – or my mum’s garage – no therapist would be able to help me. I’d spiral, because I need that to cope. A lot of guys do. So if you take away the gym, you take away their ability to cope.
How much of an influence has Christianity had on you?
God has been my guiding light all my life, whether it’s a small prayer, or a continual prayer I might have about certain things. My granddad from my mum’s side was Catholic – he was an altar boy. My mum’s Catholic and so am I. I go to church and I was an altar boy myself. Growing up, I was christened, I had my first Holy Communion and I was confirmed.
I wanted to represent my country in skeleton bobsleigh, in the Winter Olympics of 2014. I spent years training for it, and when it became clear it wasn’t going to happen for me, outside of personal loss, it was the hardest thing I’d ever had to face. That was when I decided to pursue another unicorn – becoming a presenter.
I spent three years working for free, being a runner, an intern, even a mascot! But underpinning it all was a belief in God, that whatever I’m doing, it has a purpose. Not that I will get where I want to per se, but that it has a purpose.
It was difficult because my friends were starting life – they were getting jobs and going on holiday, or going out, and I had no money. I was staying on at university as a sub-warden, so I had free food and accommodation, and in return I had to be on call for students. I felt like the guy who stayed at the party too long.
My family were pillars of support but I didn’t know if what I was doing was futile, because it’s not like most things where you see progress.
I became frustrated with God. I felt as though sometimes you can pray for something, and hope that it happens the way you want it to happen. Or you can try to involve God in everything you do. I felt I was trying to do that, and the result was nothing but personal pain and anguish.
In the March of 2013, I said a prayer. I said, ‘God, I believe in you, but I’m not going to bother trying to keep you in my heart in everything I do, because it’s obviously not working.’ I said: ‘This is my final prayer, over and out.’
Two weeks later, I was asked to screen test for a new CBBC show called Wild. A week after that, I was offered the role, and at the end of the series I had two meetings on the same day. In the first one, they offered me a job presenting Match of the Day Kickabout. Then in the next one, they said: ‘We’d like you to become the 37th Blue Peter presenter.’
As far as best days ever go, that was it. I’m not an emotional guy, but I cried and I cried.
In the Bible, it talks about how Abraham was going to sacrifice his own son, because that’s what he thought he had to do. He was taken to breaking point, but when it came to the moment of cutting the boy in half, God says he doesn’t have to, because he’s proven himself.
It says in the Bible that God will only take you to breaking point – not beyond. I was taken to breaking point, then I had an incredible breakthrough and my life changed. It hasn’t been easy and I don’t have a social life, but I’ve never looked back.
They say it’s not what you know, but who you know. I kind of agree, but unfortunately, I don’t know the right people, so for me it’s about hustling and working hard. And when you’re given an opportunity, grabbing it with both hands and riding the bull until the wheels fall off! I believe God’s guiding me, but I have to work as hard as it takes because it’s never going to be a handout.
You presented a BBC World Service special on George Floyd, and we’ve seen the strength of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. What do you think we need to do in this country to get us to where we need to be, and what would you say to people who think racism is just an American problem?
My first experience of racism was when I was six. I remember coming home and saying to my parents, ‘What’s a black bastard?’ I fell asleep on a bus once, and when I woke up, someone had written ‘BNP’ on the back of my seat. Three guys tried to jump me, and I’ve had a guy hurling abuse and shouting the ‘n’ word at me. He was about 5ft 5, and he was with two girls, standing next to a park. A week later, I saw on the news that small guys with women were threatening people from various communities to lure them into the park, where a bunch of 20 guys would smash their faces in.
So does racism exist in the UK? Sadly, yes it does. It doesn’t affect me on a daily basis, but is there bias? Well, QCs and politicians are seldom black, and none of the BBC’s top-earning presenters are black. There’s often discussion around gender equality, but seldom around race equality. I’d like to see discussions on television and radio, and a young persons’ Question Time.
I’ve been given an opportunity to do incredible things, and a chance to communicate to young people, ‘This is who I am, and I’m not a stereotype.’ For example, there’s a stereotype that black people can’t swim, and it’s true that there’s a higher percentage of black people who can’t swim – but it’s not a physiological thing, it’s a cultural thing. A lot of black girls, if they have weaved hair and it’s glued or sewn in, they don’t want to get their hair wet. If mothers don’t want to get their hair wet, the chances are, they won’t take their kids swimming. Also, it takes me about half an hour to wash my hair, so if I get my hair wet in chlorine, it’s a bit of a commitment. That’s why on Blue Peter I made a thing about, ‘I’m going to jump in the water, I’m going to get gunged, I’m going to do all these things,’ just to quietly, subconsciously, communicate to young kids like me growing up, that you can go swimming, and you can do silly things.
My name is not John Smith – that’s communicating a message. The way my hair looks – that communicates a message. I’m proud of both sides of my heritage. At formal events, you’ll see me wearing kilts, because my grandad fought for the Black Watch – and I’m as proud of my African side as I am of my Scottish side.
A lot of the issues that affect black people also affect working class white and Asian people. I believe it’s about galvanising communities to find collaborative solutions to problems. This is far-reaching and people do have answers, because it isn’t rocket science. It’s about having a plan and being able to action that plan, with governmental support.
You’ve done so much for young people – is it important to you to reach young people while they’re still open to being influenced?
It doesn’t take a lot as a kid to spark an idea, for the lightbulb to go on, to empower a child, subconsciously or otherwise, for it to change the rest of their lives. I could have opted for a life of crime – I could be waking up now in prison, or I could be excited about what I’m doing next in television. That boils down to decisions you make when you’re young, and the effects they have.
University has become more transactional than ever. When I was at Uni, people didn’t really choose subjects based on an occupation – it was often about an interest or a passion. Whereas increasingly, I’m hearing young people say, ‘I’m going to get my 2:1 and get my grad job.’ I think that’s a shame. Because we’re saying we need the right A-levels, to go to the right university, to get the right grades, to get the right grad job. To do that, you have to go to the right school to get the right GCSEs to get the right A-levels. That’s missing the whole thing, because when we’re six feet under, I don’t think we’ll say, ‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office.’ It’s about seeing the flowers along the way and learning about who you are. We’re taking all of that, ‘Who am I?’ out of the equation.
Can you tell us about your children’s book that’s coming out in January?
It’s aimed at six to eleven year olds and it’s all about getting kids moving. I’ve loved sport all my life. Growing up, I went to seven different schools, so I’m used to being the new kid. I knew I’d be OK at break time because that’s when you do sport and I could communicate that I had value. But it wasn’t until I worked in kids’ TV and went into schools as an adult, that I realised sport excludes, as much it included for me. When I said the word ‘sports’ some people cowered away and I could see they hated the thought of it.
I thought, ‘How can we make it for everyone?’ That’s when I decided to focus on movement rather than sport. It’s not competitive, and we can all enjoy how we feel, without worrying about how we look – because if you focus on how you feel, you might want to do it again and again. That may in turn change how you look, but that’s not the point. If you’re sporty, you’ll get something different out of it than if you’re not so sporty.
It’s about balance, co-ordination, concentration and moving like different animals. I looked at animals that inspired me and thought, how could I replicate that movement? Each page has facts about an animal, as well as showing you how to move like that animal. You don’t need equipment and you don’t need much space – it’s about using your imagination to move your body, and hopefully it’s fun to read. There are ‘waking-up routines’ to get you ready for the day, and ‘settling down routines’ for going to sleep.
The illustrator has made it everything I wanted it to be and more. It’s important to me that the book is affordable for everybody, so we’ve avoided coloured pages because that adds £10 onto the RRP. This book isn’t just for wealthy kids or sporty kids, or kids who are a certain size – it’s for every kid. I’m really excited about it.