Ben Shephard – Pursuing Your Passion
An Interview With Ben Shephard
Ben Shephard is passionate about people, their lives, their stories and their challenges. He is a famous television presenter who front shows such as Good Morning Britain, Tipping Point,Ninja Warrior UK, Goals on Sunday and many more. In this interview Ben offers advice on how to break into such a competitive industry and he also sheds light on why it is so important to him to use his celebrity as a force for good.
Had you always wanted to be a television presenter?
No, I hadn’t really thought about it as a career or job. I think I really wanted to be an actor. Yeah, either that or a professional footballer. It became apparent at the age of 9 that I was never going to be a professional footballer despite my enthusiasm!
I’ve seen you on Soccer Aid and always thought you were a decent player!
[Laughs] Agricultural is how I think someone would describe me! What I lack in ability I make up for in enthusiasm! Which is how I kind of attack life really.
But no – television presenting was never really in my mind. I went to university and did a degree in Dance and Theatre Arts. It was at university that I got a job working for a TV company as a runner and I continued that in the Summer holidays and they were the ones that suggested I try and become a TV presenter. It wasn’t until I was about 20-21 that I started thinking that maybe this might be a good laugh. Fortunately, it kind of went from there, it was a case of the right place at the right time.
My fiancée was a TV runner for a bit.
Yes but she’s out of TV now.
She saw the light! She’s doing a proper job!
[Laughs] But she just said that it was unbelievably hard. The amount of hours you have to do as a runner for very little pay ends up taking its toll. So you must have been very motivated?
Yeah you have got to be really committed. It’s an industry that a lot of people are aware of but not many people know about and it’s very difficult to get into. So if you get a chance, you have got to be able to take it.
It’s the wrong starting point to go into television for the money. That’s not how you do it. You shouldn’t do it for the fame or for the notoriety. You get into TV because you’ve got real passion for it.
For me, it was all about communicating. I love communication. I love the idea of being able to share something I’m passionate about whether it be a music video, a book or a film or a football match or a rugby game; whether it be a human interest story or a charity that I’m passionate about. I love being able to communicate that with other people and getting their take on it. It’s such an exciting environment to be in.
I don’t think I could have ever sat in an office as I have a very short attention span. So working in a TV environment made sense and I was never scared of hard work. I was never scared of putting in the hours for not very much reward [initially] because it was such a thrill just being a part of it.
I worked on a couple of shows as a runner as I was doing my apprenticeship but every day was a thrill; going in and being part of this TV studio, seeing behind the scenes, seeing the cameras work.
Are you very aware now, having been at the bottom of that ladder, of ensuring that you treat people “lower” than yourself correctly? Do you have to remind yourself that you were once in their shoes?
I don’t think I’d ever forget, to be honest,or certainly hope I don’t. The longer you’re in the industry, the more experience you have, the more understanding of how it works and hopefully the greater appreciation for the work that’s put in by other people.
No one has higher expectations of me than myself. With that, I also have very high expectations of other people. But the people that I work with on a day to day basis, I think, are extraordinary. From our runners to the editors to the producers at some point, each day, their job will directly affect me when I’m broadcasting live so there has to be a huge amount of trust. Without it we can’t deliver the show we want to.
You originally wanted to be an actor, ended up being a runner and ultimately got a break when you got to Big Breakfast. What advice would you have for someone who’s close to achieving their goal but not had that break yet?
You can’t give up – it’s relentless. You have to be relentless. If your enthusiasm wanes as you’re getting close then you’re looking for the wrong job. That enthusiasm is so so key in an environment like entertainment or television. Whatever that program might be, it’s got to be that thirst to do more, to understand more, to meet new people, to share ideas and to learn.
I think one of the exciting things for me is I feel like everyday I’m always learning something new. I’ve got friends that I went to school with that have gone to different parts of the city and gotten decent jobs but they’re no longer inspired by what they do, they’re desperate for a change but they’re stuck. Everyday I’m inspired by the work I do. It might be someone I meet, or someone I work with that makes me want to be better at what I do. You never know when or where it will happen. It’s the unpredictability of it that makes it so special, and conversely terrifying in equal measure!
There is without doubt an element of luck in all this. You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time. But you can make your own luck too – I always describe it as you go round knocking on door after door and one person will eventually open that door, that’s the luck part, but luck won’t get you through that door. You have got to have a bit of skill, a bit of a spark, you have got to have something about you – that desire, you have got to be able to grab that opportunity with both hands.
“If your enthusiasm wanes as you’re getting close then you’re looking for the wrong job.”
That’s great advice. What you do comes with a price I imagine. The fact you are so well known – are you always aware of people looking at you, approaching you etc?
Not really. It’s not something I really consider. You can go looking for it. You can make it really obvious that you’re sitting there or you can be more discreet and I’d rather be discreet so I can just get on and do what I need to do.
So that element, the celebrity, doesn’t interest you?
I’m far more interested in other people than they are of me. If I meet somebody, I don’t want to talk to them about me, I want to find out all about them.
I think it’s one of the reasons I love television and one of the reasons I’ve been really drawn to it. I have this thirst for understanding human nature and finding out about people, and trying to bring out the best in those people. That’s been a real discovery for me.
I’ve gone back to working the Breakfast show having been out of that for three and a half years, but I really missed the breakfast show, the range of topics the turnover of stories. It gave me that interaction with people that I so enjoy. Guests that would come on whether they be politicians, film stars, sporting stars, or people with big charitable causes like Ivan Hollingsworth who you’ve featured or Georgie Moseley. I really missed that contact and understanding and delving into what makes somebody unique and what makes what they’re talking about really important enough to have to share. That’s something I’m drawn to.
The other side of it…
Yeah, the celebrity side was never something that I was interested in. It wasn’t what drove me… I have had some lovely moments that happen as a result of the celebrity side so don’t get me wrong. It’s not something that I would ever complain about because what really is exciting is people will come up to you and say, “We saw Ninja Warrior. It’s Fantastic.” I love it, it’s great. Or “on Goals on Sunday I agreed with you on this but disagree with you on that.” People are always keen to talk to me. They feel like they know me and I think it’s a great privilege to be in that position, so that part of being a celebrity is really positive.
I imagine that celebrity element does help you especially in the charity side of things?
That’s why it’s hugely important because there are causes that I’m passionate about particularly with Georgie and Harry with his charity HelpHarryHelpOthers, or Ivan with Seb4CHUF. If I can support them and offer my support, be honest and genuinely passionate about it and it can make even the slightest difference, then that makes it really worthwhile.
It must be hard though because I imagine you get inundated with requests for different charities. How do you weigh up who to support and who to leave because you can’t help everyone?
There’s a lot of people, and a lot of great causes out there people doing incredible things. I’ve had to become a lot more focused about the causes that I support regularly and consistently. Harry being one of the main ones because I met Harry, this incredible boy who changed my life. Ivan is an old childhood friend so I try and support him and his cause Seb4chuf when I can. And I’ve supported the Cystic Fibrosis trust for years now after meeting another incredible young person called Nicky West, who had CF. She was quite remarkable and cruelly taken too young. There are other charities too and I have a personal reason for supporting them all, which is crucial.
Can you remember when you met Harry?
I can yeah, vividly. I was hosting the Seve Ballesteros cancer research dinner, for Seve’s charity. It was a huge event. There was over 1000 people in attendance. I’d heard that this 9-year old boy who had an inoperable brain tumour was going to speak about his life. 9-years old!
Darren Clarke was in the room. Matteo Mannesero was in the room. There were lots of very high profile intimidating people in this room. It was just a remarkable night. I sat next to Harry and his mum Georgie. We just had such a laugh. It was brilliant but then Harry gets up and makes this extraordinary speech about his life, and why he created his charity and started making bracelets. And what was so remarkable was that at no point did he say, “I did this because I’ve got a brain tumour and it’s inoperable, why me? It’s so unfair…”
He did it because he met a guy in the ward, an older guy called Robert and they became really good friends. Harry was really sad that his friend Robert had a brain tumour. He really wanted to try and make a difference for Robert. He wanted to make a difference for the other kids on the ward as well. Never, ever did he ever utter the words ‘this is going to help me’. It was always about others, so utterly selfless – it was incredible to watch a 9-year old boy doing this.
We did this pledge whereby we tried to raise money and 55 people donated £1,000 right then and there. That’s £55,000 in a minute. All of the money was to raise money for Seve’s charity, for his foundation, because he had a brain tumour too. We sold a set of golf clubs that night for £100,000. It was one of these amazing, amazing nights where there was this incredible energy in the room that was all about raising money for such an incredible cause and Harry was responsible for lighting up that room, and creating this magical atmosphere.
Absolutely no doubt people had come for Seve but then they were overcome by this 9-year old boy and what he said. The next morning I was in a hotel and had got up for GMTV and as I walked down to the hotel lobby the manager said, “someone left you a note.” It was a note from Harry and I still have it, it’s something I treasure.
It says, “Dear Ben, it’s really nice to meet you. Here’s my mum’s number. Please stay in touch. P.S. leave some of the girls for me.” This is the note this 9-year old left me and from that moment on we just became mates.
Four years ago, he launched his charity ‘Help Harry Help Others’ officially and I went down to the launch which was in London.
Harry set about creating this charity which wasn’t about profit but was about inspiring kids his age to understand the importance of business which would benefit charity too. All through making bracelets. You buy all the equipment you need, beads, elastic, etc make the braclets, then sell them for a charity that you are passionate about. So he would show kids how business works – pay for the hardware, sell the goods, and then put the profits into the charity. He was 9 years old. Phenomenal.
The more I speak to Georgie, the more I realise why he was like that. To lose your child at such a young age must have been absolutely horrendous but she’s continued to grow the charity and it’s continued to do some incredible things. She told me they’ve given away over £700,000.
It’s staggering. That selflessness comes from somebody, that desire to help other people. He’s been inspired by her unquestionably. And he was a huge influence on her as well, I think the two of them inspired each other. She would go around with him when he did all these talks to all these big multinationals, there was such love there. And not only is it testament to Georgie that the charity continues but it also shows you how powerful the charity became in such a short period of time, for it to continue to have this impact even after Harry had gone.
Their new cancer support centre which has just opened is such a brilliant idea because Georgie has lived it, her family lived it. They are aware of the support you need financially, legally and emotionally.
With all of those things she’s speaking from an incredibly educated perspective because she’s been through it. She knows what’s missing in that sphere of healthcare. She’s implementing relentlessly. She innovating relentlessly. She’s carrying on the fundraising, carrying on his journey.
I don’t think I will ever meet anybody like him in my life. And I think about him all the time. I talk about him with my boys all the time.
“I don’t think I will ever meet anybody like him in my life. And I think about him all the time. I talk about him with my boys all the time.”
You mention him?
Yeah, absolutely and I wear his bracelet with pride. I often speak with Georgie and find out how the charity is progressing. He still inspires me daily and it was an absolute privilege to be able to call him a friend. I didn’t see enough of him. He lived in Birmingham and I lived in London but every time we got together, it was always such a laugh.
He just had some magic about him and an incredible generosity of spirit. He was wise beyond his years but he was still a young boy.
It’s so nice to hear of someone in your position being so positively affected by Harry. It’s great. So of all the charity events you’ve done, what’s been the most difficult physically?
Ivan making us cycle across the country in two days and then run back in five days! That was physically really, really tough. Not sure I’ve forgiven him yet!! You do one marathon it’s tough, to do five, one after the other is brutal.
There was about seven of us who did the whole thing and that shared sense of achievement and pain was very special. Even more special was the sense of humour we had as a group. I think a lot of people find humour through pain and we were all great mates, spearheaded by this fantastic guy [Ivan] and his amazing cause.
As a challenge it is so hard. Physically it’s doable but psychologically it is so punishing. Knowing the next day you’re going to get up and do another 26 miles – some days we’re doing 36, some days 40, it was very, very tough.
We’d all get together first thing in the morning having slept, and we’d take down some breakfast before attempting to get going again. It was brutal! We could barely walk let alone run but as a group we helped each other and once you get going again you’re ok but it must have been very funny watching these 7-8 people attempt to get going – we were waddling down the road and just looked ridiculous!
Do you get a bigger buzz from doing these events and the charity work than you do from TV, or is it totally different?
The TV stuff is my profession – and I do absolutely love my job. Someone once said that if you find a job you love, you never work a day in your life, and that’s the case for me. The charity stuff that I’m lucky enough to get involved with is very fulfilling in a very different way. Particularly the big, physical challenges. I love being able to challenge and push myself. To be able marry those two things up is great. I will never stop doing the charity stuff because I am a big believer that every single person can make a difference. So even if I didn’t have the job I had I’d be trying to do my bit. Look at Ivan – he is an ordinary guy with an extraordinary attitude and incredible focus and he’s raised £400,000.
What’s next for you television wise? Would you like to get into acting still?
No I think the world of acting had a lucky escape! I am no good!
You seem very busy at the moment. As well as GMB, Tipping Point, and Goals on Sunday, you’ve also got Ninja Warrior on at the moment which is primetime.
We’re busy which is really lovely so I’ve got no complaints. My wife complains that she doesn’t see me very much! It would be nice to get a bit more sleep but I can sleep tomorrow.
I was going to say – is it hard to juggle?
Yes. But it’s no different than anybody with a busy life and a busy job. I might be busy at periods but there’s periods where I’m not. I’m very, very lucky because lots of my friends have 9-5 jobs and they don’t get home to see their kids play football, rugby or cricket.
I finish relatively early and so I can organise things in a way which means I can be there. My dad never got to see me play football because he was working all the time. I just have to make sure I keep the balance and manage my time properly, and stay organised – which is true of anyone in a busy job. My family is my priority and always will be and this job actually helps me see more of my children than a normal 9-5 job would so that’s another brilliant perk.
“My family is my priority and always will be…”
You’ve interviewed a whole host of famous people, but as a football fan was the most nervous you’ve ever been for an interview your interview with José? [Jose Mourinho is the manager of Chelsea FC] I was nervous for you! He seems like an intimidating guy?
He’s very intense, incredibly charismatic. He’s got such an aura about him. I’ve met him a few times as he did Soccer Aid (a big charity football game) and so I got to know him a little bit in Manchester and at training in London. Kammy who I host Goals on Sunday with [Chris Kamara – a popular football pundit] knows him well from commentating at Stamford Bridge.
I really enjoy interviewing people. You don’t get it right all the time. I certainly don’t. There are moments that work and moments that don’t. I think you learn so much from any experience like that. Jose is an incredibly imposing character, fantastic to watch, brilliant and fascinating to listen to. It was an amazing experience, one that I learned an awful lot from.
I remember interviewing Madonna a few years ago and that was quite an intense atmosphere as well because she’d been delayed but she’d committed to talk to us for an hour. We had everything set up in the room and she came in and moved the lights, changed the angle of the camera, changed my chair. It was incredible to watch someone who has a great vision for what she wanted. It’s kind of a dance in a way – everything needs to be in the right place, the right position. And If I want to get the best interview, then you need your interviewee to be at complete ease in their surroundings. I also learned how important it was to be on point. For example if you ask a couple of questions, she would reply “What question would you like me to answer? The first one or second one? I’ll answer one if you want.” So all these experiences help you improve your craft, so I am grateful I got the chance to interview José and I certainly hope I get the chance to do so again one day.
I find interviewing some people difficult, especially if they don’t expand on their answers.
There’s a skill to it. Interviewing is an art and like any art it requires practice – the more you do it the better you become because you learn something each and every time. You learn what works, what doesn’t and you can use these in the future.
Sometimes you think the interview will be really easy and it’s not, and vice versa. One bit of advice I would have is before you begin interviewing/filming, try and find some common ground that you can talk casually about – because it will relax you both and make you more comfortable in each other’s company.
I guess the final question is what’s next?
It’s a difficult question to answer because you never know who’s going to call, and what’s around the corner. If you said to me in 2001 when I first started at GMTV that in five years I’d be presenting and hosting the show when I was just hosting Entertainment Today I’d have said, ‘no chance!’
10 years later, if you said, you’re going to leave and you’re going to work with Sky and you’re going to present the Champion’s League and you’re going to present the League Cup Final, and do Goals on Sunday, then I would’ve again said ‘No chance. It’s never going to happen.” That was a dream come true.
Then if you said to me in 2010, you’re going to go back to morning television in 2014, I would’ve said absolutely no way. There’s no way I’m going back to do early mornings – I’ve just gotten my life back, I am just sleeping again!
Life changes. To be honest, the thing that drives me, the thing that inspires me most is my family, my kids – making sure that they can wake up with a smile on their face and that I can experience them growing up, and hopefully be a half-decent parent. Fortunately I’ve got a very stable and patient wife who allows me to do the best job I can. I’m very lucky and I won’t ever forget that.