For more than two decades, now, Matt Baker has become a staple on our screens, applying admirable principals of long hours, hard work and dedication. The Northern lad with the kind and compassionate manner is a natural when it comes to talking to people and putting them at ease. With that sensitivity, Matt has also become synonymous with The Rickshaw Challenge, part of the BBC’s annual Children in Need appeal. In short, Matt Baker has emerged as something of a national treasure!
So, with a second series of Our Farm in The Dales (More4) underway, following the fortunes of Matt and his family on their farm, and Children in Need looming large on the horizon, I was delighted that Matt was able to find a few moments, between assignments in his busy schedule, to speak to me.
“Oh, it’s mad at the moment, I tell you!” he says. “I’m here, there and everywhere.I’m just on my way to the World Gymnastics Championships.”
It’s 22 years since Matt was introduced to the UK public as the new presenter on BBC’s Blue Peter children’s show. After seven years, Matt moved on becoming a household name presenting Countryfile, commentating on international gymnastics events, coming close to winning Strictly and as a host of The One Show until March 2020.
“To be honest, I’ve taken my foot off the gas a bit, since The One Show, and I have a bit more time, now. It’s given me time to look at other things, one of which is Our Farm in The Dales. That’s gone really well and I’m over the moon with the response.”
That said, Matt still has time for The Rickshaw Challenge, something very close to his heart, and returned to The One Show, recently, ahead of this year’s event.
“That’s been a big part of my life for a long time, so it was really nice to get back into the studio, to see the crew and the production team, I’ve known them for so long. I left in the middle of the first lockdown, so it was great to see them again.
“The Rickshaw Challenge is not going to be part of The One Show, this year. It’s a one-off documentary that we’re doing and we’re going to be setting off in the first week of November and cycling in various different places around the UK. This time we’re taking the rickshaw to young people who have benefitted, as opposed to the past where it was one long journey. I’m actually going to them to ride thirty miles, or so, dependant on the ability of the rider. They get the opportunity to cycle on home turf, which is a brilliant thing. Whenever we got the opportunity (in previous years) to go to the town where they’re from, and they get the chance to have friends and relatives on the streets, it’s an incredible moment, so that’s at the heart of this year’s challenge.
“We’ve already chosen the team. I’m right across it from the word ‘Go’ and I always have been. That’s also been a big part of my life and this is the 11th year. It’s raised over £41miilion, it’s been just incredible, really. It’s amazing just how generous the public have been.”
So, how did the young lad from Easington, in County Durham, find himself at the centre of so many high profile shows and events on national television?
“It’s funny, really, how life goes. It was never a plan of mine to do what I’m doing, I’ve just followed opportunities. I work hard, I have a very strong work ethic and it all stems, I suppose, from sport when I was young lad.
“I was a gymnast and I learned the recipe, there, for dedication and hard work and, if you put the hours in, you get the result. I started doing sport at a very high level at a very young age. I was in the regional squad, very quickly, and then the national squad and winning medals at national level. I just stuck in and kind of applied that to my life going forward. I’ve taken opportunities when they have arisen and not been frightened to have a go. If you set your mind to something, work for it, work hard and these things tend to happen when you put the hours in.”
Matt was still a young boy when his parents bought a farm. Was that a big lifestyle change for the family?
“Not really because we did have a smallholding when I was growing up, anyway. I grew up with goats and horses, and all that kind of stuff, and then Mum and Dad upgraded. It was always Mum’s passion, her drive for farming and its Mum that was in charge. It was Mum’s dream and we all went along with it. For me, as a young lad, it was a fantastic place to grow up and it was always an adventure, when your horizons are vast to go and explore and discover.
“as a young lad, you learn the real lessons of responsibility and dedication”
“This is at the heart of the book (A Year on Our Farm) that I’ve written, along with everything else. The sub-heading of the book is How the Countryside Made Me. If you’re out there and you see a sheep stuck in a fence, or a water trough that needs mending, you deal with it, there and then. You don’t go back to the farmhouse and say ‘There’s a problem with this,’ or ‘There’s a problem with that.’ When you grow up like that, as a young lad, you learn the real lessons of responsibility and dedication. You’ve got to go out there and feed the animals, there’s no one else there to do it. When you grow up in that world, it really does set you in good stead and it was a fantastic experience for me to grow up in that world.
“Mum and Dad were always so supportive of me anyway, but to have that to fall back on, has always been a massive safety blanket for me. I loved it so much, growing up there. If everything went wrong, I would end up back there.
“Building and all that kind of stuff, brick laying when I was a young lad, laying pipes, building walls, I was very hands-on, always have been. If there’s ever a job that needs doing, I’ll have a go. If it goes wrong, then I’ll get someone in to try and sort it out but I’ll always have a go first.”
Having studied as a drama student at Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh, Matt’s first opportunity in television came in 1999 when he joined the iconic children’s magazine show Blue Peter.
“That was something that happened purely by accident. An opportunity came up and it was the auntie of my girlfriend, who is now my wife, who read in a magazine that Blue Peter were looking for a new presenter. I rang Directory Enquiries, got the telephone number for BBC and rang them up. I’d had a look at the credits that went up on Blue Peter and the person’s name that came up right at the end. I thought ‘He’s the person in charge,’ and asked ‘Can you put me through to Steve Hocking, please?’ Again, it’s being an opportunist, one thing led to another and I ended up on Blue Peter for eight years.
“Blue Peter! That was the best university of television you could ever wish for”
“Gosh, Blue Peter! That was the best university of television you could ever wish for with all the live TV and every single environment you could ever imagine, going inside the Arctic circle and the Amazon rainforest. I filled three passports while I was there! It was absolutely phenomenal. Again, it was a very difficult decision to leave and move on but you do these things when the time feels right. That’s what I’ve always done in my career.”
Matt began co-presenting BBC’s weekly farming magazine show Countryfile in 2009 and the following year joined the team of The One Show, first as a guest presenter and then in a permanent role alongside Alex Jones.
“Nine and a half years I did The One Show for,” Matt reflects. “And, alongside Countryfile at the same time, it was a really tough schedule, to be honest. I was doing those magazine shows through the week and then I would leave on a Thursday evening and we’d do Countryfile on the Friday. It was full-on for a long, long time.”
Around the same time that he joined The One Show, Matt took part in Strictly Come Dancing, where he was partnered with professional ballroom dancer Aliona Vilani, finishing in second place to the winners Kara Tointon and Artem Chigvintsev.
His sympathetic manner also made him the obvious choice to partner Mel Giedroyc in the BBC’s The Gift (2015) following the extraordinary, and sometimes difficult, but heart-warming stories of people who missed the chance to say thank you or sorry when it mattered most.
And whilst much of Matt’s TV presenting work will be scripted, he has also been known to try his hand at acting. Surely, that must be quite different when delivering a theatrical role?
“Yes, but I love it!” says Matt. “I did The Palladium two years ago, before Covid hit. It was Goldilocks and The Three Bears, it was set in a circus and I rode a unicycle, walked a tightrope and all that kind of stuff. Absolutely fantastic! I did Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Sunderland Empire, a good few years ago. I love a little bit of musical theatre.”
A man of many talents! Is there anything Matt Baker can’t do?
“Tidy up!” he laughs out loud. “I’m terrible at tidying up! I just haven’t got time!
“You know, I love what I do and I really enjoy working hard. If I’m not working, I’m thinking about what I should be doing,” he laughs. “I’m thinking ‘I really should be doing something here!’