Smart Thinking

Reggie Yates on The Insider: ‘What I’m doing, no one else is doing’

Reggie Yates' return to the BBC is a reminder that he’s the most ground-breaking documentary maker of his generation. But that’s not where the story ends

There’s a scene in one of Reggie Yates’s Extreme series of documentaries where he’s in a Russian nationalist’s flat and the fanatic he’s meeting is showing off his collection of weapons. Guns, knives, bigger knives – that sort of thing.

There’s a palpable tension in the room that translates just as uncomfortably on screen, because Yates is black, and although the man he’s standing alongside refuses to admit as much, he’s happy to leave the audience, and Yates, thinking he has or would use them on non-Russians, particularly black people.

Forgetting Yates’s skin colour for a moment, and indeed that it had only been a few years since he’d left the saccharine embrace of the Top of the Pops studio, not many would have gone into that flat, camera crew (and a one-man security detail) or no. But Yates did, somehow maintaining his composure when others would have turned tail. Watching on, it was clear we were witnessing the coming-of-age of a ground-breaking – or brave, or fearless, or reckless – documentary maker. And it was great TV. In 2016, Yates was named Best Presenter for Extreme Russia at the Royal Television Society Awards.

“Obviously, anything can happen when a guy is showing you his knife collection”

This autumn, Yates returns to our screens with the second series of his vehicle The Insider. It aired first on BBC Three and is now on BBC One, a familiar trend Yates’s earlier programmes inspired. There are three films in the series, one set in a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq, another in a North Carolina jail, and a third in Ghana’s notorious Agbogbloshie e-waste dump.

As with the first series in which he spent a week as an inmate in a Texan jail and another fighting Mexican drug cartels, Yates isn’t just an observer of his subject matter, he lives it. This series sees him sharing a tent with a young worker in a camp of 30,000 refugees, locking horns with 60 inmates as a jail guard, and living in the Ghanaian slum, breathing the dump’s noxious fumes. Why go so deep?

‘It’s about starting a conversation for the man on the couch,’ he says. ‘At no point in my films do I provide an answer, because I don’t have one. I throw myself into a situation to discuss it and to try and unpack it for everybody else. If ever there’s a win, it’s for the audience to think about an important issue.’

He says that in Ghana he woke up hoarse, feeling like he’d ‘smoked 50 packets of cigarettes’, but that he’s never felt in real danger while making his films. ‘Obviously, anything can happen when a guy’s showing you his knife collection, but you put things in place to make sure you’re as safe as you can be,’ he says, serenely stirring honey into a glass of mint tea.

I suggest to him that stepping into an American jail – twice – is intrepid. ‘Is it?’ he says. ‘I promise you I’m not shit at taking compliments, but isn’t it just about self-awareness? About seeing people, not seeing orange jumpsuits? Because fundamentally, the people I met in jail are people like me who made a bad decision.’

That’s no exaggeration. Yates grew up on council estates around London. He had cousins who formed gangs and has friends who’ve done time. He promised himself when he was 15 the same thing would never happen to him. Save volunteering himself to the US authorities, it never has.

‘I take people as I find them,’ he continues. ‘And quite quickly, who you are will reveal itself and that will determine how I deal with you. We gave the nationalists in Russia every opportunity to justify the way they see the world, and they weren’t able to, because it’s based in bullshit. My aim isn’t to bark someone into a corner and prove them wrong, it’s to ask them the questions that allow them to wax lyrical about the way they see the world. And if that’s scary, backwards, interesting – that’s because of them, not because of me.’

Given his choice of subjects and his calm, persuasive presenting style, he’s been likened to Louis Theroux, a comparison he’s not entirely comfortable with. ‘I’d never compare myself to him,’ he says. ‘He’s the boss. A benchmark for what’s possible. I’m not modelling myself on him or anyone else, but I’m massively inspired by him.’

He talks a lot about his own personal growth in feverish tones that make him sound like the Millennial generation who grew up watching him. At 34, he bridges the generational gap. The same themes are prevalent in Unseen – My Journey, a book (his first) he’s just written detailing his experiences, or more specifically, how they’ve changed him.

Expect it to be honest. ‘I’m very aware of the time I have on this planet,’ he says. ‘I lost loved ones at a young age. I realise the platform I have and the responsibility I have, and I’m aware of my mortality. No one like me has ever had this opportunity, so I’d be a fool not to make the most of it.’

Reggie Yates interview, The Jackal magazine

Reggie looks over a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq. Photograph by Samuel Wilkinson

That, I suggest, is a very mortal reflection for a single man of his age. ‘Maybe it’s these films I make,’ he wonders. ‘I go round the world and meet all sorts of people; good, bad and somewhere in between. And I’ll meet someone like me who wants the best for himself and his family and the world he lives in. But because of where he was born, he doesn’t have the opportunities I have. For me to come back here from that and sit on my arse and wait for the next big entertainment show to come through the door… I think I have a greater purpose than that.’

That purpose isn’t just to start those conversations. Yates is confident that what’s special about his films is not just how deep he’s prepared to go in search of a provocative story, but also that it’s him who’s making them. Despite the fact he’s been on our television screens for more than 25 years (he made his screen debut in Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s when he was eight), he’s still blazing a trail for black working-class people. ‘If you’re coming into television as a young person of colour, you’ll be aware of what I do, because it’s not been done before,’ he says. ‘It’s really important. I’m doing everything in my power to encourage there to be more of me.’

“If you’re coming into TV as a person of colour, you’ll be aware of what I do”

Is he comfortable with the role? ‘I’m figuring it out. I don’t know,’ he laughs. ‘I might f**k up. I might get it wrong. I might say something stupid. I might behave really ignorant when it counts, and ruin everything. I realise I’ve no choice in the matter. The minute you put yourself on screen in this social media age, you’re opening yourself up to be idolised, and criticised. They go hand-in-hand.’

He has plans to make more films. He talks of eight projects on the table and next year will open an agency that pools creative talent (‘not a production company – that’s what you’re expected to do’). But for all his energy and ambition, he recognises there’s a limit to how regularly he can make these films. His approach means he puts a lot of himself into them, and there’s a cost to that. ‘I’d be lying if I said these films haven’t affected the way I am off camera, because they have,’ he says.

After struggling to deal with his first experience making a film in Kenya with Comic Relief in 2011 – ‘it massively f**ked me’ – he now feels prepared. ‘It’s only recently I’ve put a structure in place to make sure I’m in a good place after filming. I take four or five days, get home and decompress. No meetings. I need to be around my sister’s kids, innocents, people who are happy, my friends.’

He admits his post-shoot recovery now includes seeking professional help, too, and that mental health has become a subject close to his heart. ‘What I’m doing, no one else is doing. No one else is immersing themselves; they’re not continually empathising in a way that I make myself.’

Talking to Yates, what comes across is not only the variety and significance of the stories he channels into living rooms around the country (and now the world – Netflix has just snapped up a dozen of his films), but also the cocktail of stories he is himself. Young, black, working class, vulnerable, authentic, relatable, intrepid, ground-breaking – and a very talented filmmaker. He’s right. No one else is doing what he’s doing. There’s no one quite like Reggie.

The Insider is on BBC One this evening at 10:45pm. Unseen – My Journey by Reggie Yates is published by BBC Books on 26 October, £18.99