Dan Walker: Channel 5 presenter talks Strictly Come Dancing and celebrating everyday heroes in his latest book ‘Standing on the Shoulders’
Sometimes five minutes just isn’t enough. It’s a feeling broadcaster, journalist, and author Dan Walker knows well, given his job as a TV presenter involves more five-minute interviews than you can shake a boom mic at. And so he decided to do something about it, to dig a little deeper with the interviewees who fascinated him. To tell their stories, unabridged.
The end result was Standing on the Shoulders, an exploration of the incredible stories of heroes who often go without the recognition they deserve. Walker’s fourth book and his second on the theme of unheralded good guys who walk amongst us after the bestselling Remarkable People, Standing on the Shoulders is a feel-good rebalancing of affairs.
“I get to interview a lot of people, but with some, there’s a lot more story to tell and you want to go back and find out what makes them tick,” says Dan, who spoke to almost 50 people for the book. “Some people in the book have been through dark and difficult times, yet they’ve come out the other side and spending time with people like that is a real eye-opener.
“I’ve learned so much by speaking to them and that’s made me a better person who’s more aware of the world around them,” he adds. “It’s been a lovely experience and I’m so proud of it. There are 48 people in there and I spent, on average, at least two hours with each of them, so you get invested in the stories and want to tell them well.
“But some chapters were harder to write than others,” Dan says. “I wrote about three dads who lost their daughters to suicide and I had to take six weeks off from writing after that because, as a father of three young kids myself, I was like ‘imagine what they’ve been through; how’ve they come out the other side after that?’”
Diving into the untold lives, lesser-known stories, and rich backgrounds of everyday heroes such as actor and 2021 Strictly Come Dancing winner Rose Ayling-Ellis, Lancashire-born Martin Hibbert, who lost the use of his legs in the Manchester Arena bombing, and Dan’s own Strictly partner Nadiya Bychkova, Standing on the Shoulders is all about recognition and learning.
“It’s good to write about things that make you think and assess your own life, so it’s been largely a really good experience,” says the amiable Dan. “For example, I’m pleased that Rose and her mum Donna let me write their story, because seeing somebody change TV forever and have an impact on millions of people every week like that was incredible.
“Then there’s Nadiya [Bychkova], who sacrificed so much to get to the top after falling in love with dancing, Tim, the father who raises money for charity after finding his teenage daughter’s suicide note saying ‘if somebody’s able to learn from what I’ve done, please let them’, and the three women in a chapter called The Truth About Monsters who all lost a loved on to murder but forgave the murderers.
“I think a lot about Jimi Olubunmi-Adewole, who jumped in the Thames to save a drowning woman and lost his own life, and about Martin Hibbert, who lost the use of his legs in the Manchester bombing but who became just the second paraplegic to climb Kilimanjaro after refusing to be defined by his wheelchair,” he continues. “Something he says which will always stay with me is ‘it’s not my injury which makes me disabled, it’s the attitudes of society.’
“I find them all equally inspirational, but what stood out were themes like forgiveness, redemption, rehabilitation, and sacrifice,” Dan explains. “After speaking to Darren Frost, the probation officer who tried to stop Usman Khan at the stabbing at Fishmongers’ Hall and is on medication for the nightmares he still has about it, I started thinking about what I’d do in certain situations.
“Would I have stepped in and put my own life on the line to protect others? But that’s what John, an ex-murderer who spent 17-and-a-half years in jail, did that day. Does one act define the rest of his life when he went on to save the lives of perhaps hundreds of others by putting himself in the firing line?”
As well as prompting Dan himself to explore such questions, writing Standing on the Shoulders also offered him invaluable insight into what such humble heroes have in common, what makes them tick, what we can learn from them, and what it takes to make a lasting impact on a community. And it’s those lessons which have stayed with him the most.
“I really hope the book is a positive tonic for people,” says Dan, who recently moved to become one of the faces of Channel 5 after presenting BBC Breakfast for six years and Football Focus for 12 years. “My wife’s one piece of advice was ‘don’t make it too sad’, so there’s huge swathes of hope and encouragement in every chapter.
“We need that at the minute,” he adds. “Rather than wallowing in misery, there are people who we can all learn from because they’ve come out the other side.”
With Dan gearing up to visit Blackpool for ‘An Audience With Dan Walker’ at the Winter Gardens this weekend, talk inevitably turns to Strictly.
“I was never able to come to Blackpool with Strictly because of the pandemic, but I’ll be there with the book!” he says with a chuckle. “I’m really looking forward to meeting people who’ve been impacted by the book. That, for me, is the most amazing thing; I love it, it’s the best. The fact that it’s influential and makes a difference is beautiful.
“I’m not quite as invested in this season as I was in my year, but I know Helen Skelton and the standard of dancing is just fantastic,” adds Dan, who came fifth in last year’s season of Strictly. “She’s the only one who can beat Hamza, for me. He’s so talented, but Helen’s getting better all the time and Gorka is a brilliant professional for her.
“With what she’s been through this year, it’s lovely for her and her family to have such a great time on Strictly and to see how the public have got behind her and supported her. I love what Nikita has done with Ellie as well - I’m amazed at how good the professionals are, so for him to change his choreography entirely to make it more accessible for Ellie is great.
“And I’ve got to mention Tony Adams,” he adds. “I loved watching him as a player and it was an inspiration to see him come through some of the struggles he’s gone through and come out the other side is great. He’s what Strictly’s all about: someone who hasn’t danced before, finds it difficult, thinks he’s going to be useless, and actually realises that the public loves watching him because he’s enjoying it, improving, and is having fun.”
Dan Walker will be at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens for ‘An Audience With Dan Walker’ on Saturday November 12th. For tickets and more information, click here. Tickets cost £22, which includes a signed book.