Interview: Matt Baker
Interview: Matt Baker
Actor and presenter talks Goldilocks at Richmond Theatre, Blue Peter, sheep and TV producing…
Matt Baker is busy-busy. He’s on the telly and behind it too – running his very own production company – and as we speak, he’s preparing to tread the boards at the Richmond Theatre. It’s not his first pantomime – in fact, it’s not even his first Goldilocks and the Three Bears, as he’s done it before at the Palladium. But it is special. “Richmond Theatre is such a very welcoming place. As soon as you walk in there – and we walked in there for the first time just this afternoon – it takes your breath away. And it feels so cosy and comfy. I’m looking forward to welcoming lots of people to come and enjoy the experience with us.”
Even though he doesn’t have much experience with pantomime, his co-stars definitely do. Nigel Ellacott, for example, has lived and breathed pantomime for the past half of century, with costumes of his design being even exhibited at the V&A. Says Matt, “I’ve been very privileged throughout my career to be teamed up with people who are at the top of their game. And for somebody like me to come and experience a show like this, alongside the likes of Nigel is just brilliant. I think the audience will get a spectacular performance, because of all of the experience that people carry with them.”
In his role, Matt gets to walk a tightrope, ride a unicycle, and juggle. He compares the circus skills required to his past experiences as a gymnast. He’s also commentated on gymnastics, too.
“I’ve just finished up commentating at the Commonwealth Games. And now, Great Britain and all the nations are so brilliant at gymnastics, there is so much home interest to commentate on whether that’s team Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, England. Absolute joy. The world of gymnastics is very circus-y and that’s the world that I’ve grown up in.
When I was younger, that’s what my sights were set on – becoming an Olympic gymnast. And when I was about 14 or 15, I got anaemia. I couldn’t train as intensively as I needed to achieve that level. Since I’m a very all or nothing person, I decided to stop and then I ended up in a college production of the musical Grease. And then I got into drama school off the back of that. Blue Peter came along very quickly. I found myself in this world of television that I’ve never imagined I would be in.”
Matt did Blue Peter for nearly eight years. “We were doing five days a week and I honestly believe that these were the best years ever. The places that I would find myself in week after week! From the Arctic Circle to the middle of the Amazon jungle. I filled three passports while I was there.”
He left having learned a lot about television production and directing – and now he is leading his very own production company. “We’re really busy making all sorts of different programmes for lots of different platforms. Which is a really exciting for us, because we’re quite early on! We do a lot of documentaries. We had one on last night actually – about Hotel Chocolat, all the farming that they do to support all cocoa farmers. We do Waitrose at Christmas, which is also a behind-the-scenes kind of thing. All sorts of bits and pieces – and more. We do a travel type show with mum and dad. We’re full-on busy!” Matt admits.
“I love wearing all the different hats. That comes back to the whole circus vibe. My production company is actually called Big Circus. I love that concept of all the things that can happen underneath a big top – and when we were coming up with a name for my production company, I was doing the panto at the Palladium. And I just thought, Big Circus!” he laughs.
Matt was awarded an MBE as part of the very last New Year Honours appointed by Queen Elizabeth II for his ‘charitable and voluntary services to Fundraising.’ I ask him how does one find out about such an honour. “It comes through the post in quite a discreet envelope. I’m dyslexic so I read hardly anything. My wife picks up the post all the time but this envelope had fallen down on the front mat and I hadn’t noticed it at all. And my wife said ‘have you seen this letter? I think you might want to open this.’ It’s honestly incredible. All this success wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t for all the donations that everybody has given over the years. I’m happy to receive it on behalf of everybody’s donations.” he says with a smile.
For years now, Matt has been vocal about his struggles with dyslexia “I tend to just learn everything by heart anyway. I don’t do a huge amount of reading. I always stumble my way through it. It is nicer in a way to be doing a similar performance every night. No scripts are flying around, no reading live messages. So, it’ll mean that I can indulge and relax a little bit more and not be on the edge of my seat.”
But at his heart, Matt is – and has always been – a sheep farmer. “It is something that’s never left me in my life. I’ve only ever lived six months without a flock of sheep really and it was an odd six months.” He lives remotely anyway, so Covid didn’t affect him as much as his colleagues whose entire livelihoods lie within London borders.
“It’s the life I’ve always known. Quite different to the middle of London. We did a show called Our Farm in the Dales which we filmed over lockdown. My mum had a nasty accident with the sheep and we ended up having to go across the UK to change the type of sheep that we have from heavier breeds that are quite difficult to get through in the winter time to hardier breeds that take less maintenance. There’s no such thing as maintenance-free sheep, but these are more suited to the conditions because we’re 1000 feet above sea level. We’re still going!”
“Even back in the day, I would come in covered in mud and have to have a shower before interviewing the likes of George Clooney and Tom Hanks. Everybody would make fun of me for it. And then suddenly everybody’s wanting to live like that. I was fortunate to have the upbringing that I did have. And now everybody seems to want to be involved in all of that.”
Especially in London. We’re so disconnected from nature, I say. “That was weird for me. When I first came down to London and joined Blue Peter, I was taken aback by how busy it was. It was very unfamiliar energy for me, because I’ve always lived by the pace of nature. So very quickly, I found myself moving out. I found a little cottage with a little paddock there. And that was when I said I’d lived six months without a flock of sheep – so I got a flock of sheep. And everything seemed alright again then. It’s funny really what makes you feel comfortable.”
“London is fun and great to experience but, in my eyes, it’s nice to be able to just know it’s there. And then leave it behind. Richmond is a great halfway, I think. You go on stage at Richmond Theatre and then you can walk out and be in the middle of Richmond Park. So it’s probably the perfect venue for me. “
Image: Benjamin Mole.