the saturday interview

The Repair Shop’s Jay Blades: ‘As a Black person in a white space, I’m breaking the mould’

The host of BBC One’s teary phenomenon ‘The Repair Shop’ has overcome racism, homelessness and a mental health crisis to become Middle England’s favourite ‘Black geezer with a gold tooth’. And he’s friends with royalty. He tells Ellie Harrison how he got here

Saturday 04 May 2024 12:39 BST
‘As a Black person in a white space, I’m breaking the mould’
‘As a Black person in a white space, I’m breaking the mould’ (Getty)

Jay Blades loves a good cry. He weeps in front of up to 3 million people every Wednesday when he fronts the beloved BBC One sobfest that is The Repair Shop, in which timeworn family heirlooms get carefully restored. And when we speak, during a filming break, he tells me there were more tears only yesterday, with a woman he met in the street. “I needed a little cry in the mornin’,” says the 54-year-old presenter, all East End charm on my screen, with his signature flat cap topping off a crisp white shirt, black braces and smart trousers. He leans forward, fixing me with his gaze through those familiar thick-rimmed glasses. “This young lady came up to me as I left my hotel,” he says. “She started talking to me, and she held my hand and said, ‘When something’s broken, you replace it with gold, which makes it stronger and celebrates what broke you.’”

He lets out a long breath. “I’ve been going through some stuff at the moment, my life is not always rosy, and that’s exactly what I needed to hear.” “Some stuff” appears to be something of an understatement. A few days after our interview, Blades tells his 194,000 Instagram followers that he is stepping back from social media following the murder of his uncle, who was allegedly stabbed to death by a neighbour in a row over a shared alleyway. Then barely 48 hours after that, Blades’ wife of 18 months, Lisa Zbozen, announces that their marriage is over. Blades doesn’t discuss any of this, but says that, after talking to the woman in the street, he began to cry and hugged the kind stranger, offering her some reassuring words of his own in return. “Then I kissed her hand, like I was in the 18th century, tipped my hat to her and went on my way.”

This encounter would probably feel like a strange dream for most people. But with Blades, I get the impression that this sort of thing happens a lot. The Repair Shop brings it out in everyone, you see. Whether it’s a pensioner arriving with a rickety old rocking horse, someone taking in their childhood teddy bear to be sewn up, or even the King popping by with his faulty clock, big, fat, salty tears will roll. The pure, wholesome loveliness of it all is TV magic. It’s now in its 13th series, and the 14th is being filmed as we speak.

But it’s not just heirlooms that have been fixed on the restoration series – Blades needed putting back together, too. He was brought up in Hackney with his younger brother Justin by his mum, Barbara. His dad, Trevor – whom he only refers to in his autobiography as “The Man Who Contributed Towards My Birth” – was hardly there. Once, Blades has said, his father showed up to steal Barbara’s savings, effectively forcing the young family to move into a refuge.

By the time Blades joined The Repair Shop in 2017, he had overcome an absent father, racist teachers and classmates, police brutality, dyslexia, homelessness, an acute mental health crisis, and an attempted suicide. Everything came tumbling down when Out of the Dark, a charity he had set up to teach the young how to upcycle old furniture, lost its funding. Blades was suddenly feeling directionless, and was lost without a project; his marriage (to Jade, the mother of his daughter Zola) fell apart and he ended up sleeping on friends’ sofas. After the breakdown and his subsequent recovery from it, he was cobbling his life back together – working as a furniture restorer and helping disadvantaged young people through another charity he set up, Street Dreams – when BBC producers spotted him in a short film and cast him in The Repair Shop.

Blades says the show saved his life. And he believes that, in its celebration of fragility, it’s saving other people’s, too. “Especially with men, we’ve created a culture where to show your vulnerability is to become a victim,” he says. “I used to believe that when I was growing up in Hackney, that you had to be this tough guy, as I was growing up in a very tough environment.” He sighs, and points to the high suicide rate among British men – it’s the leading cause of death among men under 50. “Why is that? Because a lot of men are struggling with stuff and they don’t know how to express that.”

The presenter might not be shy about crying now, but this was a development that came quite late in life. The first time he cried in front of a man was when he was 45. It was 2015, he was in the middle of his mental breakdown, and he had just been rescued by an acquaintance after sleeping in his car outside a McDonald’s for a week.

King Charles III talking to Jay Blades during his 75th birthday party at Highgrove Gardens
King Charles III talking to Jay Blades during his 75th birthday party at Highgrove Gardens (PA)

Blades is now extremely open about his mental health. As if to prove the point, he tells me he is seeking therapy for the first time in six years. “This morning,” he says, “I asked my assistant to find me a counsellor, because there’s stuff that I’ve got going on in my head and I need to speak to someone. I don’t mind sharing that with anybody, because as far as I’m concerned, if you need help, you need to get it. If my car was broken down, I would go to a mechanic or call the AA. I don’t know how to fix it. It’s the same with emotional stuff.”

Days later, Blades would share with his Instagram followers his plans to get therapy following his uncle’s death, saying, “It really affected me. I feel a little bit messed up ... When things happen, sometimes you need to take stock and just relax.”

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But he tells me he needs support for other things, too – such as coping with the pressures of what he calls an “insane schedule”. In 2022, one of his busiest years of work, he spent just 22 days out of the year in his own home in Ironbridge in Shropshire, where he lives near his furniture restoration business, Jay & Co. This year, he’s already filmed five different series, an experience he calls “quite intense”. These include an untitled series with Judi Dench, The Repair Shop series 14, West End Through Time, and a show looking at the history of the country house. He tells me about the fifth, before swearing me to secrecy. “You ain’t telling no one about it,” he warns.

On top of all the filming, Blades released his bestselling autobiography, Making It, in 2021. And last September came Life Lessons, a book of tips and aphorisms, which he’ll be discussing at Hay Festival later this month.

People used to cross the road when they saw me coming – now they ask for selfies

Life Lessons vibrates with a tigger-like energy – just like Blades. In the chapter about the importance of education, he writes, “Keep your eyes open! Use that grey matter!” He also writes “Bosh!” a lot, something he also says in conversation whenever he makes a point he’s satisfied with. “I’m full of beans,” he says now, “but sometimes I do get a bit cream crackered.”

The first chapter, “Roots”, unearths the lessons he learnt from growing up in Hackney in the Seventies and Eighties. “I guess some Repair Shop viewers, raised in comfy, leafy, middle-class suburbs, might find it impossible to believe that cops might give a young Black guy a kicking just for the colour of his skin,” he writes. “Well, I’m sorry to report, that was what used to happen. That was how life was!” He recalls being pulled into a van full of police who were hungry to give a beating. “They were nasty, but they weren’t stupid. They’d stick wet towels on you, to prevent any tell-tale bruising, get their truncheons out, and beat the crap out of you. I’d be curled into a ball on the floor of the van as the blows and kicks came raining in. It hurt like hell, and it wasn’t just me. It happened to all my mates.” Later, writing about the police, his absent dad, and teachers who let him down, he adds, “They tried to hold me back, but I used their negativity as rocket fuel: I’ll show you!”

He has found it overwhelming to adjust to his popularity now, after the racist abuse he suffered growing up. “People used to cross the road, hold on to their handbags, and lock car doors when they would see me coming,” he says. “Now, people want to take a selfie. It’s a really weird scenario.”

Blades is “disappointed” when he goes to Hackney now. “I must say, the whole gentrification of an area is necessary, I do strongly believe in that,” he says. “But the one thing I don’t like about it is it creates a kind of them and us.” He argues that the rising number of new builds with separate entrances for social housing (known as “poor doors”) are part of the problem. “The gentrification has created a lot of wealth, don’t get me wrong, but there’s still a lot of poverty there, and it doesn’t make sense to me. How can you have wealth coming into the area, but have such deprivation? It’s because there is a separation. There is no community.”

No matter how traumatic his experiences in Hackney were five decades ago, he still has “a lot of love” for the sense of community that existed back then. “We were all in the same melting pot, and we had one thing in common – that we were poor and we all helped each other out. If we were hanging out on the streets and someone came with a packet of crisps, they had to share it among nine people. That’s just the way it was. Now, it’s really different.”

Blades has fronted ‘The Repair Shop’ since 2017
Blades has fronted ‘The Repair Shop’ since 2017 (BBC/Ricochet Ltd)

He is saddened by the number of food banks needed in Hackney – some of which he’s helped to launch. At the opening of one food bank in the borough, he witnessed a fiery debate about his career. “A lady said to me, ‘Oh, you’re just a coconut because you’re on the BBC, and the way you speak, blah, blah, blah...’” he tells me. “And just as I was about to reply to her, this guy jumped up and said, ‘No, you don’t understand the role of Jay.’ I was like, ‘Where is this guy going?’ And he goes, ‘For the first time on TV, we’ve got a Black guy who’s not linked to sport, comedy or music. He goes on The Repair Shop with his trousers pulled up. You’ve got this 6ft 3in Black geezer with a gold tooth, and he’s kind of in charge of white Middle England in that workshop. It has never been heard of on the BBC. On TV full stop.’”

Blades leans back in his chair. It feels like a “bosh” is coming on. “As a Black person in a white space, I’m breaking the mould,” he says. “It’s only recently that more Black people have gone into gardening or crafting on TV, and I’m glad to say that I’m probably the instigator of that. When I was watching TV growing up, it was very, very racist, and also a lot of the Black community didn’t necessarily watch the BBC because they didn’t have many Black faces on there. Now, there are people from my community who say they only watch it because I’m on there.”

Debunking the homogeneity of the Black experiences shown in popular culture is hugely important to him. He wants to show what the alternative to the caricature of Black men as “violent, aggressive, or very athletic” looks like. His daughter recently took him to the West End to see Ryan Calais Cameron’s shattering play For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide..., which lifts the lid on Black male vulnerability, and he was bowled over by it. “Wow, is all I’m gonna say. As a matter of fact, I take my hat off as a mark of respect to that play,” he says. The flat cap is whipped off. I realise I’ve never seen Blades’ actual head before (he’s shaved it ever since he was a chauffeur years ago, when his boss told him Black hair was “intimidating”). “It’s so powerful,” he says of the play, “and shows how stereotypes are put onto you, which then you start to live up to. I’m very fortunate to be alive when it’s on in the UK, because the UK often takes a little while to catch up on certain things.”

To demonstrate just how much he has subverted damaging stereotypes, Blades gets on his feet and points his camera at a framed picture, on his dressing room wall, of him and the King. “That young man there, he’s from the royal estate, and I’m from a council estate,” he says. “It’s surreal to actually say that I’m kind of cool with the King, like, we’re alright.” The pair have become friendly after Charles appeared on a special episode of The Repair Shop in 2022. They clicked, and it showed on camera, with some viewers at the time slightly scandalised by how much Blades touched the royal – patting him on the arm and the shoulder. Blades has previously rebuffed these concerns, saying, “There was plenty of royal security there to say ‘Don’t touch the geezer,’ but they didn’t. He’s only a human, and he touched me, too.”

Now, he smiles and shakes his head. “I’d never have thought, carrying on in Hackney, I’d be saying, ‘You know what? Me and him are alright. When we meet each other, we have a laugh and we talk and we get on.’” He tells me a few anecdotes about meeting Charles, including when he introduced his mum to the royal and she told him he was “really good-looking”. “There was this big smile on his face, and he looked at me and he said, ‘This is definitely your mum, because only you and her would say stuff like that to me.’ Bosh.” He grins. “We’ve met a few times. I’ve had a few sleepovers at his house and all that, in Scotland.”

When he’s not tinkering with furniture, opening food banks or hanging out with royalty, Blades is continuing his journey of learning to read. He is severely dyslexic – when he was young, words looked like ants scurrying across the page – but he only got his diagnosis when he enrolled at university at the age of 30. Teachers discovered that he had the reading ability of an 11-year-old. In 2022, doubling down on his signature openness and vulnerability, Blades made the BBC documentary Learning to Read at 51. It followed Blades from not being able to decipher the letter awarding him his MBE to achieving his aim of reading a bedtime story to his daughter Zola by the time she turned 16. (He has two other children, sons Levi, 32, and Dior, 28, from previous relationships.)

After Making It was published in 2021, Blades told an interviewer: “I’ve listened to my memoir, but I can’t wait to read it. It will be the first book I read.” Both his books have been written by a ghostwriter, Ian Gittins, with Blades nattering away to him down the phone for hours at a time. “I could talk for England,” he says, laughing. “I will talk your ears off, girl!”

He already has, and it’s been memorable. And with that, he’s off. The Repair Shop filming beckons. Bosh.

‘The Repair Shop’ airs on BBC on Wednesday nights and Blades’ latest book ‘Life Lessons’ is out now. Hay Festival runs from 23 May until 2 June, where Blades will be in conversation with Sarfraz Manzoor on 30 May at 2.30pm

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