You may know TV and radio presenter Reggie Yates for being the face of early-Noughties Sunday-morning kids’ show Smile, or perhaps for his rousing performance of MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This on Comic Relief Does Fame Academy, or even as the voice of crime-busting reggae-loving Rastamouse.
But Yates’s latest incarnation is perhaps his most successful yet – although only a few hundred thousand people will know about it. Over on BBC3, he’s the face of a string of thoughtful, measured documentaries, taking in some of the world’s most divided societies.
His latest series, Reggie Yates’s Extreme UK, starts tonight, and is a perfect example of what makes him such a watchable documentarian. The first episode explores what it’s like to be gay in minority communities, and though Yates comes across prejudiced views he obviously disagrees with, he never loses his cool. The focus is not on how terrible homophobia is (although this inevitably comes across) but on the experiences of individuals who have faced it, and their continuing struggle with self-acceptance. And it ends on a positive note; one of its final scenes will leave you beaming.
In the same way Louis Theroux gains the trust of his subjects by never appearing confrontational, Yates gets the people he speaks with to open up simply by listening – even if they don’t offer him the same courtesy. He renders bigots or racists or homophobes foolish simply by extending to them the understanding and respect that they fail to give the objects of their vitriol.
His own views and biases are clear, but never inflexible. In the second Extreme UK programme he learns about the men’s rights movement, admitting that he didn’t identify as a feminist before making the film – that certainly changes by the programme’s conclusion.
So why, then, are Reggie and his brilliant documentaries being hidden away on BBC3? They’re not the usual “yoof” fare that the channel is known for (and good at) – they’re grown-up, perceptive explorations of big topics. He’s taken on post-apartheid South Africa, race relations in the US, freedom of speech and human rights in Russia.
Reggie’s brand of investigative TV doesn’t provide those viral, “gotcha” moments, and perhaps this is why BBC1 has so far resisted giving him a primetime slot (late-night repeats of his Extreme Russia series aired on the channel in July). But the quiet, reasoned conversations – not arguments – he has, and his articulate expressions of the issues he encounters, are compulsive viewing. His default position is empathy, not aggression, and we need more of it on our tellies.
Don’t miss Reggie Yates’s Extreme UK: Gay and Under Attack – Monday 7th December at 9pm on BBC3