Eamonn: So you’re now the rising star of breakfast TV, but it all could have been very different..?
Dan: The big plan was go to university, do history and then get a job teaching history and PE in secondary school.
So I went to university, I did history and then I went to an interview in Sheffield in a borrowed suit with a football kit on underneath, because I was playing for the university that afternoon.
It was typical good cop/bad cop with the lady being vicious and the bloke being really nice. She said, “I see you’re wearing red socks and, from your demeanour, my concern is that you’re the sort of teacher who will give the kids a high five at the end of the lesson but won’t actually teach them anything.”
I took that as an affront so I stood up and dropped my trousers. I was showing her I had red socks on because I had a football kit underneath, and that I’m not only passionate about history but about PE as well.
I gave a speech I thought would go down well. She put a big cross on the piece of paper and said, “You’re not for us.”
Teaching’s loss was broadcasting’s gain – how did that come about?
I wrote a letter to Des Lynam. I like you a lot, Eamonn, but Des was like my…
…broadcasting hero. I watched Grandstand obsessively. I’d watch programmes just because he was in them. I felt that he cared about the viewer, and that he’d make us laugh and cry, and guide us through difficult situations. He was brilliant. I wrote a letter to him when I was 11 saying, “Dear Des, I like your moustache, how do I get your job?”
He wrote back and said, “Do your GSCEs, do your A-levels, go to university, don’t do a media degree, do something like history, like English, something that teaches you to write well and to assess what you’re looking at. When you’ve done that, get a job in local radio.”
I remembered that advice.
On my office wall I have a framed letter from Des, which says, “You owe me 10% of everything that you’ve ever earned.” I framed it because, like you, he was just the man for me.
I thought, “Let’s give this broadcasting a go.” While I was doing a Masters in broadcast journalism, my then girlfriend and now wife was working in Sheffield, and she heard about a commentary competition on the local radio station, Hallam FM. I entered and won it. I got a day’s work experience, which became a week, then two weeks. They offered me a job and that was my way in.
As simple as that?
Not quite. They rang and said, “You’re on our shortlist for Commentator of the Year. Make sure you’re in this Saturday.”
But I was playing in a university cup final on the Saturday, and I didn’t think I was going to win the competition, so I asked my friend to pretend to be me if they rang up. They played the tape of my commentary, which was me in a broad cockney accent going, “Oh, look at that! Alan Shearer scored a goal from 30 yards against Villa.”
Then they said, “That’s Daniel, he’s our winner this year and he’s on the line now.” And my mate is a broad Yorkshireman, so the radio station got angry. It was clear we were two different people.
They said, “We don’t care who you are – you’re not winning this competition.” The prize was a week’s work experience, so I rang back: “Can I have a day, and I’ll prove to you in a day I’m worth your time?” That was my way in.
And now you’re in and doing brilliantly. But if the BBC said, “Dan, we want you to be the main presenter on Sports Personality of the Year but as you know it’s on Sunday night,” how would you answer?
I’ve been in that position before with people who offered me large and significant carrots, and my answer then would be the same answer that I’d give you now. I’d say, “I really appreciate that. It’s a lovely offer and I’m sure it would be a magnificent programme but someone else can do it, because for me Sundays are even more important than the best job in the world.”
And that would be the best job in sport that you’d just turned down.
But as a Christian, I’d say that some things are more important than even the best job in the world.
I would say I’m a Christian too. But my Catholicism doesn’t say that I shouldn’t work. I can worship on a Sunday, but it doesn’t say anything about me not working. Why is your interpretation not to work on the Sabbath?
I totally understand. But for practical and spiritual reasons it’s really important to me. It’s a personal decision I made for the good of my family, and I’ve managed somehow to maintain it for 20 years. I’m in the job because I love doing it, but it’s not the be all and end all.
Do you find it strange or are you offended that if you were a Muslim, if you were Jewish, we wouldn’t be sitting talking about your religious beliefs?
I’m not sure what the right answer is. We live in interesting times when it comes to faith and lots of people are terrified of talking about it.
Let’s talk breakfast TV. Who talked you into this job?
Some bloke called Eamonn Holmes rang me up then sat me down for lunch and said, “Why aren’t you doing breakfast television?” I said, “I haven’t even considered it.” You said, “Well you should do because you’d be perfect.” I don’t know whether you’ve got a strange power but about three months after that I had a phone call from somebody saying, “Things are changing at the BBC – would you be interested?”
And here you are.
When I moved, I could see that concern in people’s eyes – how’s he going to deal with interviewing the Prime Minister? Can he ask a difficult question at the right time?
The first significant serious news story they asked me to do was on the conclusion of the Hillsborough inquests. They said: “We need you to do the whole programme live from Liverpool Cathedral and you’re going to interview survivors, family members, and you’re going to do three and a half hours of proper telly.”
I didn’t sleep that night, not because I was worried, but because I knew it was important that I couldn’t get anything wrong, not just for myself but for the people I was representing, those survivors of Hillsborough and the families of the 96 who cared so much about the content of what I was going to say.
So I went into that cathedral and the show went as well as it could have gone, and people were emotional and people cared about it, and I feel like I asked the right questions.
I left absolutely exhausted but I knew I’d done a good job, not in a pat-yourself-on-the-back way, but I knew I’d met the expectations of the people I had to meet.
[Dan Walker interviewed his friend, Wales manager Gary Speed, on BBC1’s Football Focus hours before he died in November 2011]
EH: Did that test your faith?
DW: I never profess to have all the answers but I trust that someone does.
I can see [Gary Speed’s death] makes you emotional now, even thinking about it. As a viewer I sat and watched his analysis and he was talking about “if we qualify and when we qualify” — he was talking about matches.
I still struggle with the fact that he’d memorised the fixtures. I still think about that day an awful lot actually.
I can remember it in intricate detail. He came in and, within a heartbeat, he’s like, “How are you? How are the kids getting on?” Then he ran me through the fixtures and dates, the team, what he was worried about, what his hopes and dreams were.
Then the programme finished. We had a really good laugh, went upstairs and sat in the Match of the Day office. Alan Shearer was in there. He and Gary knew each other really well.
We were having a giggle about the game, and I think Alan said, “Gary, call me next week and we’ll organise for the families to get together next weekend in Newcastle.” Gary said, “Yes, that’d be great, really looking forward to it.”
Then Gary said, “Right guys, I’ve got to go and watch a game.” He said, “Dan, give me a ring on Monday and we’ll organise a get-together with the kids.” I went, “Perfect, let’s do it.”
I was in church the next day and my phone was going absolutely bonkers. Every ten seconds I was getting text messages, phone calls, so I said to my wife, “Something’s happened. I’ve got to go.”
I went outside and Alan Shearer was on the line saying, “Have you seen what’s happened to Gary?”
In my stupidness I said, “Gary who?” He went, “Gary Speed, he’s gone.” “What do you mean – gone where?” He said, “He’s killed himself.”
We just talked about how is that possible? Still now it’s hard to get your head around. I don’t think we’ll ever know.
That’s depression for you, isn’t it?
People have said that, but you speak to his family, you speak to his really close friends and they’re not sure and I’m still not sure. I know his family probably still struggle with it and I don’t know how you ever get round something like that. I don’t really care about why. I just miss the guy. I liked him a lot.
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news