When the TV presenter and newsreader Dan Walker was asked by his publisher to write an autobiography, he rebuffed the request with “Who cares?” Instead, he wrote about people who found a silver lining in the darkest of clouds — and the result is Standing on the Shoulders. “I just like telling other people’s stories,” he explains.
He wanted to devote more time than the five minutes allotted on the breakfast-TV sofa — where he recently ended a six-year tenure as a BBC Breakfast host — to remarkable people, and give a voice to the voiceless. “Some of them are really broken, and they acknowledge that; but they’re also brilliant.”
His subjects’ shared humility was another thread. “There are obvious things that resonate with me as a Christian: forgiveness, redemption, and sacrifice. There is a humility that flows through every chapter, which hits some of the tones the Christian story hits. I love talking to people who’ve been to some of the darkest places, and are permanently trying to find the light at the end of a long tunnel.”
Mr Walker’s faith is rooted in his Baptist family’s church life in Crawley. “My parents went to church. I went from an early age, and it was a big part of growing up. My parents never got me in a headlock and said, ‘This is what you have to do.’ When I was about 12 years old, I had what people refer to as a conversion experience, where I heard somebody preaching a sermon and I was aware of my need of a saviour.
“And I knew, even at that age, I wasn’t right with God. And I needed to be right with God. And I could see that Jesus Christ was the only way of getting there. So, yeah, I was still a very annoying 12-year-old the next day, but I think my life has been very different because of that.”
Never feeling drawn to a position in ministry, Mr Walker wanted a career in teaching or sports broadcasting, and famously wrote to the Match of the Day presenter Des Lynam for advice on getting into television. Mr Lynam suggested a degree in history or English, and Mr Walker later read history at Sheffield University. Work in commercial local radio led to Granada’s regional news programmes, followed by sports presenting on the BBC, then BBC Breakfast presenting, and now Channel 5. Broadcasters know that Sunday working is off limits for Mr Walker.
WHILE being so public about faith is far from the norm in the media, Mr Walker maintains that any attempts to pigeonhole him because of his beliefs have come to nothing. “It’s a high-profile job, and I suppose they expect me to act in a certain way, or to be a certain person, or have a certain size of ego. I like it that they can’t work out why I am the way I am. Faith does determine a lot of the things I do, and the way I choose to do things. And, maybe, that’s a little bit in contrast to a lot of people who work in industry.”
Worshipping at a non-denominational Evangelical church in a suburb of his university city, where he still lives, Mr Walker declares little tension between his public profile and being part of a church community. “There’s an assumption that it’s very difficult, but I’ve never seen it that way. I’m aware that I am a high-profile Christian, or I’m a high-profile TV person who happens to be a Christian, but I’m not ashamed of it.
“I don’t talk about it a lot. But it’s a big part of who I am. There’s a lot of ignorance about what it is to be a Christian, and what it actually means, and how that translates into life. But my job is not to talk about being Christian — my job is to live it, and do the best I can in the jobs that I’ve been given. I don’t get it right all the time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t come back the next day and try a bit harder.”
A desire to make an impact in a practical way is also woven into the ethos of his church. Visitors joining the Sunday congregation would find “a community of people who are trying to make an impact in their community, and learn a bit more about what God wants them to do in the world, and what it is to be a Christian in 2022. And how you can have an impact on the small and big society around you, in terms of the circles that you move in.
“You’ll find quite a joyful bunch of people who have a real sense of perspective. Above everything, my faith enables me to have a real sense of perspective in an industry where you’re constantly under scrutiny, and constantly criticised for what you say, what you do, what you wear, how you are, how you talk, what questions you ask, all these sorts of things.
“I know that I’m valued; so I don’t take my value from what people say, write, or print about me; so I don’t get carried away by the praise, or dragged too low by the criticism.”
AS WE are in the neighbourhood of scrutiny and criticism, would he be willing to dispel the confusion around his take on Genesis, and the Creationist label that some columnists have tried to attach? “No, is the answer to that question.”
With amiability, Mr Walker prefaces his push-back with: “It’s not my job to get into the controversial issues, because they’re always misinterpreted. So, I just avoid talking about them.” Looking at Glen Scrivener’s book Reading Between the Lines — a favourite theological work for the presenter — the early verses of Genesis are read as God’s light being the start of life as we know it.
Sometimes portrayed as unapologetically out of step with secular society — he danced on Strictly Come Dancing as a six-foot lobster, as his family do not celebrate Hallowe’en, and he would have felt disingenuous in a spooky costume — are there faith issues where Mr Walker’s views have changed?
“I think, like any relationship, it develops over time, because now I understand more now about the complexities of things you go through. There are phases in your life where you’re sort of more entrenched in certain opinions or ways of looking at things. As you mature, you develop your way of thinking and your way of looking at not only yourself, but the outside world as well. And I think that is the route that anybody who’s a Christian would take, and I’ve always felt I’m very tolerant and understanding of other points of view and differences of opinion.
“But my faith is very important to who I am, and what I want to do in life, and my hopes and dreams and ambitions, and the way I speak and act; so it’s always there. And it’s always important, and sometimes it’s a bit more at the forefront than other times.”
“SILENT partners” is Mr Walker’s description of those who support him in his faith. “My wife, my family; various really good friends that I’ve got; some of the pastors or vicars that I spend time with over the years as well. There’s a lot of people who are silent partners, in the background, without whom I probably wouldn’t be here.” What, not here existentially? “Not here in my career.”
Suicide and its reverberations is a topic in Standing on the Shoulders, and is also close to his heart, after the loss of his friend Gary Speed, who took his own life in 2011. After completing the “3 Dads” chapter in the book, about three fathers bereaved by the suicides of their daughters, and who walked across England to raise awareness of suicide prevention, Mr Walker took a six-week break from writing.
“As a father of three children, I found that a taxing one, because it’s hard to think of anything else once you’ve written a chapter about three families that have been ripped apart by three young women who, for various reasons, decided they don’t want to be part of this world any more.”
Reflecting on the way in which one of the dads, Tim, considered the question of forgiveness after his daughter’s death, Mr Walker asks: “Can you ever forgive yourself for what your daughter’s done? I think, anybody who’s lost somebody close to suicide goes through that process of guilt, anger, frustration. And it is a long process for many people to forgive themselves.”
Another chapter covers Usman Khan’s terrorist attack in Fishmongers’ Hall in 2019 (6 December 2019), and how certain individuals reacted. Among them, the convicted murderer Steven Gallant, who saved lives on the day, highlights the challenges of walking the walk of courage and self-sacrifice. “It’s a chapter that reminds you it’s OK to think a certain way in the abstract, but, when the rubber hits the road, that’s when you have to apply that thinking to real life. The actions of Darryn [Frost] and Steve [Gallant], and others on that day, make me think ‘What would I do in that situation?’”
The final chapter of Standing on the Shoulders contrasts routes to forgiveness exemplified by the Ven. Mina Smallman, the former archdeacon whose daughters Nicole and Bibaa were murdered by Danyal Hussein in a London park, and Tamar Pollard, whose father Michael, a charity worker, was killed in a robbery in Hungary, in 1997.
While Ms Smallman is prepared to forgive her daughters’ killer, who was acting out a satanic fantasy (News, 9 July 2021), she positions the police officers who tried to avoid being held to account for their gross behaviour at the crime scene (News, 10 December 2021) in a long line of white men perpetuating discrimination. “Forgiveness is a gift, but you have to be open to that gift.”
Ms Pollard, on the other hand, sees the only route to peace as forgiving unconditionally, and letting go of what is fair and just. “Forgiveness is easy to admire, but it’s difficult to do in practice when it arrives at your own doorstep,” Mr Walker observes.
Mr Walker’s favourite song is “Desperado”, by the Eagles. Beyond the piano solo that he longed to play as a child, are the lyrics revelatory about his stance on life? “‘Don’t your feet get cold in the wintertime? The sky won’t snow, and the sun won’t shine.’ It’s a long plod, life.
“In ‘Desperado’, there’s a pilgrim’s plod, learning a lot along the way, making mistakes, picking up lots of information, learning from other people, realising sometimes you’ve wandered down the wrong road, and trying to find your way back. There’s a reason why I love songs like that.”
Standing on the Shoulders: Incredible heroes and how they inspire us by Dan Walker is published by Headline at £22 (Church Times Bookshop £19.80); 978-1-47229-127-1.
This interview was first published in the Church Times on 13 January 2023