CBeebies’ Alex Winters talks to Northern Soul
CBeebies entered my life in late 2010 and has been an invaluable friend to me, my wife and my little boy ever since.
I’ve followed Alex Winters on Twitter for a couple of years now and always thought he seemed like a nice fella (I even nominated him to switch on the Prestwich Village Christmas lights one year). He likes his music. I mean, he REALLY likes his music. His Celebrity Mastermind subject was Manic Street Preachers and he only lost narrowly to Chris Packham (it’s no mean feat to lose to the big-brained birder but the defeat still smarts…) and when I bumped into him at Elbow’s recent gig at Manchester’s Phones 4u Arena, a seed was planted in my head – why not do a wee interview with the cheery Welshman for Northern Soul? And so it was through Twitter that we set up an interview at the BBC headquarters at Salford’s Media City, and blethered for a full morning.
He’s infectiously and unsurprisingly enthusiastic – enthusiastic about everything – music, sport, his job, his family. We’re chatting away and suddenly he’ll lean back, point into the air and start singing along to the tune on the radio playing over the BBC building tannoy. Over the course of the morning, I’m treated to renditions of the theme tune from Let’s Pretend and Button Moon (his favourite TV shows as a kid), and Vic and Bob’s I Love The Smell of Fidel Castro. “I LOVE Vic and Bob,” he says. He uses the word “love” a lot. That’s infectious too – and in a good way.
I wonder if he has any TV heroes. “Vic and Bob are my comic heroes, but Philip Schofield. I cannot tell a lie. He’s a consummate professional, great on children’s telly and really enjoyable on things like The Cube – these light entertainment shows that could be very rubbish. I think he’s very adaptable – just really good at what he does.”
So this was something he always wanted to do? “Even then, I wanted to get into children’s telly,” reflects Winters. “It was always something I wanted to do. Me and my sister used to act out Blue Peter in the kitchen. We’d take it in turns; one of us would be cooking, the other one holding the camera made of boxes and toilet rolls.”
Winters’ childhood dream came true but he had to pinch himself that it was really happening. “For me, it took a long while to get used to sharing a studio with Andy (Day) and Sid (Sloane). Remember, I was a dad before I was on CBeebies. I was thinking ‘I used to watch these guys with my little girl’.”
I tell Winters that CBeebies really seems to have picked up its game in the past couple of years. He seems surprised. “Really?” he says. But I think that maybe he misunderstands me – it’s always been top drawer, but in recent years the variety and style of shows has just gone up a notch or two. For example, it’s got one of the best websites around, a view that Winters shares: “Our online is amazing.”
Not only that, the mix of programmes is very good. Obviously there aren’t any advert breaks, and this helps, but the shows themselves have no fast edits, like you’d see on Channel 5’s Milkshake, for example. Winters agrees. “Yes, and other channels. There are programmes on other channels I think ‘I wouldn’t mind seeing that on CBeebies’, but we are the best channel – for variety, content, and because we have the continuity.”
Despite CBeebies’ massive following with parents and kids, there are obviously large amounts of the population who don’t recognise Winters or know what he does for a living. Is this a fair point?
“Do you know, that’s the question I would’ve asked myself if we were swapping places, but since being one of the guys from CBeebies, I’ve found it’s very different. It’s not specific, in as much as with CBeebies, not CBBC, CBEEBIES [he stresses] actually spans the whole family. And I love it. It’s one of my favourite times when a grandparent stops me. We have grandparents, parents, siblings, and the children themselves – our cross-section of society is the whole family. We’re not as specific as we thought.
“When we’re approached by a child, they feel like were friends and they’ve known us for ages. It happens an awful lot. Someone will walk past and say ‘Hey Alex’ and carry on walking, and then come back and say ‘Oh I’m sorry! I don’t actually know you do I?'”
I suggest that CBeebies presenters are in most young families’ houses every day, and this reminds Winters of a U2 gig at the Millennium Stadium he took his sister to a few years back.
“We were sat down watching the support act [Glas Vegas] and this massive hand squeezes my shoulder really tight. I look up and there’s this huge fella, looks like a big Welsh rugby player. I don’t know who he is. He says ‘Excuse me mate. You see more of my wife than I do’. And I have no idea what he was on about. I was like, ‘WHAT?!’ I was panicking. I was thinking ‘He’s mistaking me for someone else, there’s going to be a fight and I’m going to be battered by some huge fella.’ And he just broke into a smile and was like, ‘YOU’RE THE GUY FROM CBEEBIES! YAAYYY!'”
At this point, Winters feigns a huge sigh of relief. “And that’s it! We’re very cheap babysitters!”
Winters is a massive music fan – and appeared at Glastonbury for the fourth time this year. He says: “It’s a summer roadshow in the Kidz Field with games and stuff. I absolutely love it, and Tony (Cordy), who runs it – well, what a wonderful thing he’s created over the years.”
And the music?
“Elbow, Manics, erm, Disclosure and Rudimental for my kids. My kids love ’em. Also, we’re all obsessed with Foals at the moment. Holy Fire, in my opinion, is one of the best British albums of the past decade. It’s an absolute corker, and it’s so underrated.”
Our conversation continues wherein we share our disbelief at the lack of recognition Everything Everything has had for Arc in 2013, and the surprise at how good Kasabian’s new single is, or isn’t, or is.
We drag the conversation back to family matters. I ask Winters what he’s reading to his kids at the moment.
“My eight-year-old daughter has just got into a writer called Cathy Cassidy, who is very popular – I was unaware – especially with girls. And then there’s Roald Dahl – together, all of us. So after we’ve finished reading Matilda we’re going to take them to go and see it in London.”
I mention that I’ve tried Fantastic Mr Fox and Danny Champion of the World, but think that my son, 4, is a bit too young. Winters suggests dipping into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and changing it as I’m reading it. “I think that for a younger age group, this works.”
At this point I must warn readers that Danny Champion of the World begins with the sentence ‘When I was four months old, my mother died suddenly and my father was left to look after me all by himself’. So it’ll be a while before I can take another shot at THAT one. However, I have just completed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with my son (on Winters’ recommendation) and he absolutely adored it. Another Roald Dahl bedtime reading tip: think carefully before considering different accents for characters – books such as this, James and the Giant Peach and other ensemble pieces will need at least five or six different accents if you want to do them justice. I’ve got three accents at best. I was exhausted after each chapter.
Next, I wonder if the Winters’ household is just an extension of the CBeebies house. What does a soggy Sunday afternoon hold for the Winters family? Without missing a beat, Winters replies: “Family Olympics”.
He explains: “Yeah, so we all decide on different events. For example, we all stand at the top of the stairs and see if you can drop a ball on a step without it dropping down onto the next step – and who gets the furthest down. With younger kids you can use a hackie-sack instead of a ball, to give them more of a chance. Paper aeroplanes – see whose plane goes the furthest, see if you can get it through the hoop.
“We have to make one up each weekend and the kids have to choose one of their own to do. My wife came up with the whole idea. My wife’s brilliant. Balloon rockets are a good one. Take a piece of string and put the string through a straw. Then inflate a balloon and sellotape it to the straw, holding the end of the balloon. Attach each string to a door, and then when you let go of your balloons on your separate pieces of strings, you have a balloon race. Its a good one, that.”
I am nicking ALL of this gold. In the past year, I’ve introduced my son to Star Wars, Panini football stickers and Lego. I ask Winters if he is slowly introducing things to his kids, things he actually loves himself. A terse no is his reply. I am genuinely surprised. Really?
“No. Not slowly introducing them. Fast. Right from the off. [Ah, good. I see. He is one of us.] Hence the reason my 7-year-old and 5-year-old both love Foals, Stone Roses, festivals and going to watch rugby and football with me. It’s not slow at all. I’ve completely thrown it at them. I’m a massive comics fan and we were queuing early at Travelling Man in town last month for Free Comic Day.”
To finish, I want to find out what Winters’ top tips are for a grand day out in the North West. Where are his fail-safe places and what are the plans for the rest of summer?
“Up here it’s Red House Farm down Dunham Massey way. It’s brilliant. Go and see Farmer Johnny – he’ll look after you. We like MOSI in town, and the kids have just got into 10-pin bowling and Crazy Golf at the Trafford Centre (other places discussed include Kenyon Hall Farm for fruit picking, garden centre, and general awesomeness).
As for the rest of the Summer, Winters has his hands full. “Summer’s always busy because of the nature of the job,” he says. “I’m compering Lollybop Festival again, down in London, which is just brilliant. Love Lollybop. I’m doing various summer roadshows at Hoburne Holiday Parks in Devon and South England. The kids will come with me when they’re off school. It’s a lot of travelling but it’s interesting for them. We get to go to some good things. We’re lucky. I love my job. I wouldn’t do it otherwise.”
In answer to the quick-fire questions I asked at the start, Winters revealed that he would choose The Fall Guy over Knight Rider, Star Wars over Star Trek and Pip Schofield over Andi Peters. I think we’re all on board with those choices, eh?
His favourite film is Psycho, although his ACTUAL favourite film (when pressed) is So I Married An Axe Murderer. Again, choices we can all get behind.
However, he can take or leave Marmite and loves coriander. Plain weird.
His first gig was The Shamen, first album was Tears for Fears and if he had a choice between Cardiff City back in the Premiership or Wales qualifying for the World Cup, it’d be Wales every time.
After chewing the fat with Winters, I see a man who is not too removed from his on-screen persona – but there is most definitely a difference. ‘Alex from CBeebies’ is smiley, bouncy and not unlike a springer spaniel. If I’m honest, he kind of annoyed me when I first started watching CBeebies in 2010. However, considering how little sleep I was getting in 2010 (my son is now four), I reckon pretty much EVERYONE annoyed me in 2010. Alex Winters the bloke is smiley and bouncy – but also measured, clever, clued-up, interesting. And a pleasure to spend time with.
Images by Chris Payne
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