The Big Breakfast | Interview with Phil Gayle

How does it feel to be returning to The Big Breakfast after the Black to Front special?I’m really pleased, because that was such a good show. The feedback I had from people who had seen it – including execs – was that it was really good. The special felt fantastic and was such a joyful experience. I’m glad someone has said, “That was really good. Let’s do more.”

The show and the house had the energy and buzz of its glory days – was that how it felt for you?My experience was slightly different – my Big Breakfast years were spent in a little box at ITN watching what was going on and having a laugh when we weren’t on air. So, like the viewers, I experienced the show through the telly. Don’t get me wrong – it was a great show, a great experience, and was one of the best jobs I’ve ever done.

This time around, to be based at the house and be in the middle of everything, is just so weird. It’s the same show, it has the same vibe, but has completely different people. And it still works.

How excited are you to be in the house?To be in the house is different. I was rarely at the house during the show’s first incarnation. We would go down to the house every day in the run-up to Christmas – I don’t know if I should tell you this – to record the shows between Christmas and New Year.

When I first started at Big Breakfast, the team said I should go down to see how it works. I sat in the gallery in the house; it was funny, but it was so tense because everything is a split-second decision. I was sitting at the back of the gallery and after two hours, when the credits were rolling, I realised I could breathe again. It was so tense and stressful because there’s so much to cram in.

This time, I’m up in the roof and in between bulletins I’ll wander around and see what’s going on. For me it’s a much more relaxed way of doing the show. It’s the kind of show where you say, “Why are there llamas over there?” You get to be a bit geeky, too, and watch how it all works. But I will keep my eye on what’s going on in the world – you don’t want to be caught out if war is declared or if somebody dies.

How did you find the early starts over all those years?I never had a problem with an early start. That was never a thing for me – but now it is. Now I’m old! To do early mornings I have to be in bed at nine o’clock. In those days, I was still going out at night. I couldn’t do that now. There’s nothing left to prove.

There was an incident where my editor at ITN asked, “So, you were out last night, were you?” I said, “I might have been. Why?” He replied, “Because you were a bit crap”. Given how much I liked this job, giving up some of the going out to do the job right was a small sacrifice.

Are you a morning person? Do you have a routine?If I have a good night’s sleep then first thing in the morning, which is 5am or 6am, I’ll go to the gym, when there are fewer people around and it means I get it out of the way.

Do you like that the show will be on a Saturday morning so people can start their weekend with some joyful chaos?Yes – it would be great if that happens. You can only have so many cookery shows on a Saturday morning.

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The Big Breakfast’s big selling point was always that it was a different offering to the other shows out there at the same time, even though it sort of outwardly looked the same. I suppose its brief in the original days was to be a morning current affairs show – but you compare that with what the BBC and ITV were doing and it was completely different. Now it’s completely different to what’s on Saturday mornings.

What’s going to be interesting is how a lot of people who watched it back in the day now have kids of their own. I mean, it’s weird enough when people come up to you and say, “I used to watch you before school.” Now they have kids, so it’s going be interesting to see if their reactions and their kids’ reactions are either the same or different to this new incarnation.

Do you remember the first time you were recognised on the street?The first time anyone recognized me was when I was walking through Crouch End and, weirdly, a fella on a milk float shouted, “’ere, it’s you, innit?” I said, “I’m sorry?” He replied, “It’s you off the telly?” And I thought, “Oh, yes, it is!”

Given the tone of the show, are you able to inject any levity into how the news is delivered?Aside from celebrity or silly stories, you have to be straight with pretty much everything else because it’s all down to credibility. No one wants to laugh and joke about a tragedy.

What you could sometimes do is play with the wording of the headlines which were behind me. One favourite, if there was a story to do with unemployment, was to have the headline “Jobs Blow”. If you didn’t see it, you didn’t see it.

You can have fun with the celebrity story or skateboarding squirrel story at the end of the bulletin – and sometimes you can just do it with tone – but you have to pick your story because it’s news.

How do you think news broadcasting has changed since the 90s?Today there’s more news, there’s more opinion, there’s more opinion masquerading as news, and you can now choose your news to reflect your worldview. A sensible person would choose a new source that is reliable, an outlet where they know the stories have been checked and verified. What’s interesting is that essentially the format hasn’t changed. Do you remember the Five News kerfuffle when Kirsty Young sat on the desk?

There have been technological tweaks around the edges, otherwise it’s small presentation changes – standing up, sitting down, tie, or,shock, no tie! The biggest change in news is the amount of people it takes to produce stories. Back in the 1990s there would be a team working overnight, to cut, write, and edit stories. Now you can pretty much do that yourself. If you go to a newsroom today there’ll be people at their desk producing whole visual packages, because the quality of the technology now allows it.

What did it mean to you when the show was recognized by the two Royal Television Society Awards and one two awards, one for Best Entertainment Programme and the other for Best Entertainment Performance?It was fantastic. The Big Breakfast has always been a good show and its return was a joyous event. We all thought it was great, so the fact it was then recognized by the television gods was pretty good. I played my little part in TV history.

How pleased are you that so many of the crew who were part of Black to Front initiative for the special will be returning?Firstly, it’s sensible, because you’ve produced this fantastic award-winning show – so let’s use the same people again. Secondly, in the broader aspect, it proves to so many people who say, “Where’s the talent? Where’s black technical talent?” that the talent exists. You put them all together and you have an award-winning show. There’s a whole group of talented people who have their CVs strengthened from having The Big Breakfast on there, so it helps when nitwits are weighing up whether to give them a job.

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The original series was a great big talent factory, behind and in front of the screen. In that intervening time between then and now, you come across a number of people in positions of power – decision makers, controllers, lord emperors of broadcasting – who worked on the show. It was a great platform, because you acquire the skill and talent it takes to grind out a daily show again and again, while maintaining the quality. There are a whole load of people around you teaching those skills and you’re teaching them. I’m glad there was the Black to Front initiative and I’m glad it’s paying off.

How did the show aid your career?Without doubt, that was the biggest thing I’d ever been on. It was my TV break and it opened doors; I did lots of current affairs work for BBC, Crimewatch Daily, and was even on Blankety Blank with Lily Savage. And Fort Boyard! That’s where I did my first bungee jump. All opportunities I’d never have had.

Doing The Big Breakfast allowed me to do Channel Four News and between them that got me loads of news gigs, including the ITV News Channel while it existed.

What are you doing now?I’m in Berlin working as an anchor on Deutsche Welle, which is the equivalent of the BBC World Service or BBC World News. My timing was just right, as the format was changing to 24 hour rolling news and for me the most exciting part of news is when it’s unscripted and you could come a cropper at any moment.

What’s been the wildest event to happen while you’ve been on air?I was on air on 6th January when the Capitol riots were happening. You’re there as history is being made and sometimes you don’t even realise how big the story is when you’re in the middle of it. What initially seemed like hundreds of people marching on the Washington Capitol becomes thousands and then you’re thinking, “Where are all the cops?” Ten Black people couldn’t walk down the street and not be arrested or beaten up, yet there are thousands of people trashing the US Capitol. Extraordinary.

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Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.