One would be hard-pressed to stumble upon a filmography which has waded into quite as many territories as that of Reggie Yates. First appearing on British television at only eight years old in sitcom The Desmonds, Yates became a prominent feature in the face of Sunday morning broadcasts as one of the lead presenters on children’s magazine programme Smile. Charming and charismatic, Yates possessed a certain demeanour which put every starry-eyed tween popstar called into the studio at ease. These days, however, the man’s got slightly bigger fish to fry – from far right Russian nationalists to men’s rights activists, Yates’ current clientele are a far cry from late great noughties pop sensation Lil’ Chris.
There’s been many a failed transition into a documentarian career from former television presenters – lifelong friend and co-presenter of Yates, Fearne Cotton, attempted to wade into the arena in 2009 with a documentary about the disturbing emergence of an online cult of anorexia, but has since appeared to find her calling on Celebrity Juice instead.
Alternatively, there are those who turn their hand to factual filmmaking, only to tackle much more wooly, everyday issues. Women who choose not to remove their body hair while perhaps prompting discussion in the locker room of your local rugby club, just don’t provide the kind of hard-hitting, informative viewing so many of us crave when the evening is to be spent between ourselves and BBC iPlayer. And when you’ve watched everything Louis Theroux’s put his hand to in the past two decades, where else do you turn?
Reggie Yates’ work fills the gap in the market for documentaries with a relatable figurehead, which still tackle challenging topics. In recent two-parter Hidden Australia, Yates tackles the downtrodden aboriginal community in Australia. He heads to the near-derelict town of Wilcannia and explores why Australia’s indigenous population face such extreme social deprivation and inequality. The next week, he heads to the streets of Melbourne, to examine the shocking epidemic of the drug known as ‘ice’, a potent from of methamphetamine, on the city’s streets.
These are serious issues which lie far outside of the mainstream British consciousness – on the other side of the planet, to be exact. But Yates ensures they’re projected onto our screens and, as the credits roll, we’re far more educated than we were an hour before.
It’s admirably brave filmmaking; Yates isn’t seen to step down in the face of hostility or whitewash the facts to make things seem more pleasant than they are. In ‘Far Right & Proud’, an episode from Yates’ 2015 series Extreme Russia, he sits calmly and diplomatically opposite Dmitry Demushkin, a man who resembles a far more sinister Groundskeeper Willie. Speaking to an ex-leader of a banned neo-Nazi group, Yates is still smiling and attempting to search for some common ground as Demushkin flounders around attempting to give fascism a friendly face. It’s clear he’s using the presence of the BBC camera for his own propaganda purposes, and Reggie’s stoic professionalism in the face of this is admirable.
Still, the man hasn’t escaped criticism entirely. Many found the broadcasting of Demushkin’s attempts to schmooze the British public and try and give his extremist views some sort of soft-side distasteful – surely abject hatred, especially towards ethnic minorities such as Yates himself, should receive much the same response? He’s also come under fire after pop singer Charlie XCX felt that her documentary, which aimed for a positive portrayal of feminism, was snubbed in favour of Yates’ Men at War, which gave a voice to men with a largely negative opinion of the movement.
However, Yates’ diplomacy is arguably a credit, rather than the sign of a man giving in and allowing disagreeable individuals to win a debate. Instead of surrendering to outrage, however righteously directed, he maintains an enviable level of professionalism and dignity, even when referred to using racial slurs, or dragged into a debate over what constitutes sexual assault. Furthermore, Men at War, while giving voice to MRAs, presents them in an overall negative light, and allows feminists to come onto the show and speak about the conflicts between the two parties. Even though Yates admits that he personally does not identify as a feminist, the reasons for which are not given on air, he still aims to provide a balanced view of the warzone into which he’s willingly wandered, and it makes for thought-provoking viewing.
From far right Russian nationalists to men’s rights activists, Yates’ current clientele are a far cry from noughties pop sensation Lil’ Chris
Regardless of a few minor shortcomings, Yates is one of a kind when it comes to the landscape of British documentary; he’s young, he’s black, and most importantly he’s an everyman – or at least, what the everyman may picture himself as or strive to be. He’s a breath of fresh air among myriad faceless Panorama pieces and Cherry Healey affairs, which may well be interesting, but do not feel anywhere near as important. A Theroux for the next generation, Reggie has the same wit and charm, the same calm, personable demeanour, and the same (less bizarrely) appealing face. Maybe we’ll see him graduate to feature length productions in a few years.