There may never have been a better time to be Reggie Yates. The 38-year-old, who has been a fixture on British screens since he was a child actor, has found the thing he wants to do for the rest of his life. He’s no longer thinking about documentaries – of which he has made dozens – nor about presenting, which he has done for the biggest platforms in the country since he was a teenager. Instead, with a new feature film he has written and directed, he is embracing a different passion: cinema.
For years, Yates wrote screenplays in hotel rooms while working on documentaries – a secret hobby about which he lacked the confidence to tell people. There were action scripts, and sci-fi scripts – “lots of half-decent ideas that I didn’t really have enough technique to know how to execute”. Then along came Pirates, a comedy about three teenagers at the cusp of the Millennium, driving around London trying to get into a New Year’s Eve party because one of them has his eyes on a girl.
Speaking to NME in an empty cinema – hopefully not an omen for the film’s prospects – Yates is wearing a black-and-white, polka-dotted coat with a gold bracelet and a gold ring on his little finger. He smells fantastic. Two nights ago was the premiere, where his mum Felicia danced her socks off at the after-party. Yates is eloquent and, unsurprisingly for someone with a lengthy history in the media, adept at making it clear when he has come to the end of a sentence.
As someone who has often been professionally expected to keep his finger on the pulse, Yates’ rewind to 1999 seems like a surprising move. Why he did choose this moment? “The turn of the millennium felt like a really cool place to discuss that coming-of-age formative experience thing,” Yates says, “because the mood, from what I remember at the time, was this fear about everything being different – and that is exactly what you’re going through in your teens when one of your pals is going off to college; or when one of them’s about to get a girlfriend. Everything is changing; you’re suddenly not kids any more.”
The central conflict in Pirates – which is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 79 minutes long – is that Cappo (Elliot Edusah) is struggling to break the news to his childhood friends Two Tonne (Jordan Peters) and Kidda (Reda Elazouar) that he can’t continue being the manager of their pirate radio music outfit because he’s focusing on his time at university in Hull. For Yates, the shifting sands weren’t university-related but friends moving abroad to chase their dreams, or having kids and giving up their dreams.
His big moment of change came at 18, when he dropped out of Camberwell Art College. A career in showbiz beckoned: he had been offered three annual contracts with CBBC, Top of the Pops, and Radio 1Xtra. Dropping out was a no-brainer – though it took his parents a while to see things the same way.
Yates gives you the sense that he has been finally been given a platform from which to tell his own stories. He has learned a lot since writing Pirates several years ago but he remains passionate about what it represents. The young Black leads aren’t caught up in gangs or drugs, or various of the other cliches that have come to dominate films about Black men. Their skin colour is not pertinent to the story; the film is more Inbetweeners than Adulthood. “This should not be the abnormality,” says Yates. “This should hopefully become the norm, as opposed to the exception to.” He claims that audiences haven’t seen Black men like this on the big screen before – “which is heartbreaking, but at the same time exciting.”
As a young Black man, Yates’ was a different kind of face to the one associated with mainstream BBC documentaries before him: Michael Palin; Louis Theroux; Brian Cox. How did this affect the way he approached his subjects? “When you’re interviewing minorities and you happen to be one,” he says, “your perspective is very different, which is why I think my films resonated in the way that they did. Making films about homophobia in the Black community is always going to be a different film if you have a Black person presenting.”
His work on subjects like homophobia in Russia and race riots in the US saw him vie for and win various television awards. But he isn’t necessarily synonymous with impactful documentaries in the way that someone like Louis Theroux is. Is this because someone with his background has a harder time? The question seems to make him bristle a little. “When I walk down the street people stop me and talk about my work. And it’s something that’s really lovely, being able to have conversations with strangers about things that you’ve done that have impacted them. Being pat on the back by an awards body or given some sort of moniker that speaks to the success level that I’ve had as a documentary maker by people that I’ll never meet kinda doesn’t really matter to me. It’s those conversations on the street that matter. Would I have had a different career if I looked different, if I was a different race? I’ll leave that to you to decide how that might have played out.”
It isn’t the first time he talks about the public being the people that matter most. Discussing his ambitions for Pirates, he says that he hasn’t read reviews for 20 years. How does he manage that? “You just tune out the noise, man. I’m too old and too tired to be affected by that sort of stuff. I’m not the guy that googles himself or that reads everything because it’s not gonna help me in any way.” Instead, he has told his young cast, what matters is how you and the people closest to you feel about your work.
Yates is precise and polite with his words but this hasn’t come painlessly. In 2017, he got into trouble when he said on a podcast: “The thing that makes it great about this new generation of artists is that they ain’t signing to majors. They’re independent – they’re not managed by some random, fat, Jewish guy from north-west London, they’re managed by their brethren.” Four years on, he has learned to think before opening his mouth. He learned that every word you say matters when you have a public profile. “If you’ve got 12-year-olds, 15-year-olds idolising you, looking to everything you say as a guiding light, what are you actually saying?”
I wonder where Yates’ extraordinary work ethic comes from. Is it born of a desire to prove himself to people? “I wish it was as complicated as that,” he says. “It’s way more practical for me. I’m a kid of working-class immigrants, man. And I know what it feels like to be broke; I know what it feels like to be hungry.” He says that Tipp-Ex was a familiar smell in his childhood. His mother would use it to correct the dissertation she was writing at night after working all day. He’s striving for a good work-life balance but he isn’t going to cut down on the work part any time soon. “Not to say that I’m gonna work myself into an early grave,” he says, “but to sit around and wait for it to come to me isn’t in my nature.”
‘Pirates’ is in cinemas now