Matt Baker’s Children in Need challenge

The One Show host talks about his path to stardom, his passion for the countryside - and rickshaws

imagenotavailable1

CLICK HERE FOR A FULL TV GUIDE TO BBC COVERAGE OF CHILDREN IN NEED 2011

Advertisement

Matt Baker leaps into the country house hotel where we’re having coffee as if he’s on springs. He is utterly unmistakeable – bouncy, good-looking, charming, friendly. Which is precisely why women like me – middle-class, middle-aged, middle England mothers who are desperate to know that “nice young men” still exist – find him so attractive.

He’s impossible not to like. He has such enthusiasm for everything that, even at the age of 33, he comes across like a young lad. “I learnt years ago, when I was a gymnast as a child, that my goal was to try as hard as I could in everything I do,” he says. “And I love what I do! I really do and I think that’s why people like me. They know I have genuine passion and I think that comes across.’’

It’s a large part of his appeal that he’s always optimistic and never shirks a challenge. He’s about to put himself to the test – physically and mentally – by cycling a rickshaw the 484 miles from Edinburgh to London in the space of eight days to raise money for Children in Need.

“It’s exhausting,” he says. “A bike weighs half a stone and a rickshaw weighs 12! It’s really hard to cycle that up a hill. The idea is for everyone to get behind me. I hope people get involved in it. It’s the stories from the public that are most exciting to me,” he says. “I might end up taking a bride to a wedding, something like that.”

Strictly Come Dancing

I first felt the full force of the “Baker effect” last year when he took part in Strictly Come Dancing. He came on with his partner Aliona Vilani and proceeded to backflip across the stage. Week after week, he waltzed, tangoed and jived his way into the hearts of the nation.

He never stopped smiling, joking and backflipping and his infectious good humour, coupled with an undeniable athleticism, found him in the final, where he came runner-up to Kara Tointon.

Did Strictly change things for him? He was offered his current job presenting The One Show when Jason Manford stepped down after sending inappropriate text messages to fans. I tell Baker I couldn’t imagine him doing that.

“That’s not my type of thing,” he says, but quickly changes the subject. “I was standing in for Jason when he was away, so it wasn’t a massive leap. I mean, I had been in this business a long time before Strictly. I’d done Blue Peter for eight years, so it wasn’t as if it was all new to me.”

But The One Show has changed his trajectory – he went from being recognisable to being mobbed in the street. “It’s not quite like that,” he says modestly. “I get my privacy when I’m at home. Anyway, I’m from a small farming community and we talk to anyone, so I’m used to it.”

But it’s fair to say he can’t have that much downtime. This is a man who presents BBC1’s Sunday show Countryfile, took part in the entire Strictly tour and now spends most of his time juggling those commitments with The One Show, which he co-hosts with Alex Jones, who is also now on Strictly. How does he manage it all?

Family life

“I have a very patient wife,” he says. He’s married to Nicola Mooney, 34, whom he met, as he says, “before any of this television stuff started”. She is a trained physiotherapist and they have two children, Luke, four, and Molly, two.

“Nicola is very supportive and understanding,” he says. “She is everything to me. I couldn’t have done any of this without her. She makes sure there is everything I want when I get home and she’s a fantastic mother. I really owe her so much.”

He says all his professional partners – Vilani, Julia Bradbury (his Countryfile co-host) and Jones – are good friends. “I get a bit fed up when I’m photographed with one of them having a coffee and the headline is that I’m doing something clandestine when I’m really not! I used to find it upsetting, but I’ve got used to it now.”

Yet, despite his fresh-faced demeanour, there is a steeliness about Baker. As a child he was a junior British gymnast and sports acrobatics champion. He had to give that up when he became anaemic, aged 14, and his school work got in the way.

He took up acting when someone at his school dropped out of a performance of Grease and he took over. He went on to study drama in Edinburgh. “It was crazy really. I knew absolutely nothing. I didn’t know what a showreel was and I hadn’t read any plays.”

Farming

Soon, however, he found himself auditioning for Blue Peter after Nicola’s aunt heard the show was looking for a new presenter. “I sent in a tape my dad made of me on the farm. I unicycled round it, introduced our lambs and read a story to children.”

The next thing he knew, he was on the train to London, a place he’d never been to before, to become a television presenter. “I’ve not stopped working since,” he says.

He is, however, still passionate about the countryside and farming. “When it all finishes for me in television, that’s what I’ll do. Farming’s not a job for me, it’s a way of life.” He grew up in Durham, where his parents have a sheep farm.

“My mother’s a brilliant shepherdess,” he says. “She’s been on Countryfile a few times and the viewers always want her to come back on again.” He is also currently president of the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs.

I wonder if his attachment to the country is why he asked David Cameron, on air, how he sleeps at night? Was it some form of mild protest about the way the countryside seems unimportant when it comes to Coalition policy-making? “My mother told me never to air your politics to other people. My views are my views and that’s it,” he says, smiling, but with a steely glint.

Challenges

When he was on Blue Peter he trained as a stuntman, flew hang gliders and passed the recruitment course for the Royal Marines. Now he has been training intensively to pilot a tricky rickshaw. Unsurprisingly, Baker tells me he is taking it very seriously. “I’ve been in training for it. I have to eat a huge meal every ten miles just to get enough calories into me.”

But what makes him undertake these challenges? Why doesn’t he just stay at home and have a cup of hot chocolate with his wife and children? “Oh, that’s not me,” he says. “I never know when to stop. It’s Nicola who has to tell me to slow down. I’d go on until I collapsed!”

How will he cope when it does all come to an end, though?\t“I’ll be\tfine,” he says. “I’ll look back at it all and know I have had the most wonderful time.”

Children in Need starts on Friday 18 November at 6:30am on BBC Radio 2 and airs from 7pm on BBC1.

Advertisement

CLICK HERE FOR A FULL TV GUIDE TO BBC COVERAGE OF CHILDREN IN NEED 2011