Jay Blades talks to Saga

04 June 2021

Presenter Jay Blades explains why he is The Repair Shop's biggest restoration success. By Julia Llewellyn Smith



Throughout the gloom of the past year, one thing’s been guaranteed to make us smile. Jay Blades, in his flat cap and waistcoat, beaming as he welcomes nervous visitors to BBC One’s The Repair Shop, where a team of brilliant craftsmen and women stand ready to bring their battered family treasures back to life.

Later in each show, Jay is prepared for frequent tears when people return to the barn where the series is filmed to see their nan’s old music box or their uncle’s teapot magically restored.

‘Some people really don’t want to cry – they look at the floor so they don’t catch my eye,’ says Jay, 51. ‘It’s fine by me if they hold it in, but often they can’t help themselves and the tears flow. It’s wonderful to know nothing’s so broken it can’t be mended.’

Jay isn’t just talking about objects, he’s referring to people, most specifically himself. ‘I often say the biggest repair job on The Repair Shop is me,’ he laughs, speaking from his furniture restoration business Jay & Co in Wolverhampton.

Having read his autobiography, Making It, I can only agree. It’s a gripping account of non-stop highs and lows. ‘If you told anyone my story, they’d say, “Don’t be silly, all these things could never happen to just one person”,’ he says.

Writing it (aided by a ghostwriter, since Jay is severely dyslexic) was cathartic. ‘Allowing myself to see my childhood through a 50-year-old’s mind was one of the best therapy sessions I’ve ever had. I used to feel ashamed and embarrassed that people treated me differently because of the colour of my skin. Now I understand that racism’s their problem, not mine, and that’s helped me move forward,’ he says.

This article appeared in the June 2021 issue of Saga Magazine - for more great interviews, subscribe today.

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Born in Hackney, east London, Jay was brought up by a strict single mother, who rarely showed him affection. He barely knew his father, whom he dismissively calls ‘The Man Who Contributed Towards My Birth’, only discovering as an adult that he has 25 half-brothers and sisters, 11 of whom he’s met. ‘But my childhood was brilliant,’ he exclaims. ‘I was poor, but I didn’t know I was poor. My memories are of playing with my mates around the estate and in the park. Hardly anyone I knew had a dad, and I had loads of caring women around me.’

But when Jay started at his local comprehensive, he became the target of vile racist abuse. ‘It created this rage inside me,’ he says. ‘I lashed out at the world. It was non-stop fighting.’

Dismissed by teachers as ‘disruptive’, Jay left school with no qualifications, barely able to read or write, finding casual factory work. There were frequent run-ins with racist gangs and the police.

Having been with his girlfriend Maria sporadically since he was 16, they got back together and when he was 20, she gave birth to their son, Levi. But just a year later, Jay walked out. ‘I’d hoped being a dad would fill the hole in my soul, but I wasn’t ready,’ he says.

Jay began volunteering for a homelessness charity in Oxford in return for a roof over his head. He discovered he had a talent for communicating with the dispossessed and as he moved from town to town, working as a labourer, he spent his spare time volunteering with youth charities.

Having split with the mother of his second son, he was feeling increasingly despairing about his lack of prospects when his landlady suggested he became a mature student.

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At 30, despite being unable to fill in the application form (he copied an example from the internet), Jay won a place at Buckinghamshire New University to study criminology. There, lecturers quickly spotted his dyslexia and found him support, using dictation software. He graduated with a 2:1.

Afterwards, he and his then girlfriend, Jade, started a youth charity, which led to the police asking him to help train officers in how to deal with young people. For a while, everything was perfect. He and Jade had a daughter, now 14, and got married. When funding for the charity dried up, he founded a new enterprise, Out of the Dark, teaching young people how to restore and sell old furniture.

But suddenly, aged 45, Jay’s life imploded as he found himself falling out of love with Jade. ‘I just didn’t know how to keep a loving relationship going,’ he sighs. ‘The Man Who Contributed Towards My Birth told me his purpose in life was to go forth and multiply and – even though he’s not been in my life at all – his DNA runs through me and tells me: “You’re going to mess up a relationship”.’

One night, without even packing a bag, Jay climbed into his car and started driving aimlessly. ‘I thought, “This is it. I keep on having these children, my relationships keep failing. Really my life is over.” I’d helped so many people, but I couldn’t ask anyone to help me.’

Taunted by fantasies of crashing into a motorway bridge, Jay drove until his petrol ran out at a retail park outside Wolverhampton. For several days, he just sat in his car. Finally, he checked into a cheap hotel where he was tracked down by a family friend.

‘I just burst into tears. I sobbed, I howled. I felt relief but I also felt vulnerable crying in front of another guy,’ Jay says. ‘I’d been brought up never to show emotion or vulnerability.’

Afterwards, Jay started a new life in Wolverhampton, where he met his current partner Christine, who works in marketing. Given his track record, does she trust him? ‘I’ve been a bit naughty,’ Jay admits. ‘I don’t drink, don’t take drugs but if a woman is beautiful, I’m in trouble. But I’ve been fighting those demons and I’ve turned it around now, I’m behaving myself.’

After appearing in an episode of Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas, television producers spotted Jay’s potential and he started making regular appearances on BBC One’s Money for Nothing, restoring and selling items from skips. Then, four years ago, he was asked if he’d like to become involved in The Repair Shop.

First a cult hit on BBC Two, during last year’s first lockdown it moved to BBC One, where it attracted nearly seven million viewers an episode. Why was it such a hit? ‘The show’s all about love, community and family and that was exactly what the nation needed,’ says Jay.

People also love that there’s no competitiveness and money is never discussed. ‘These items are like family members – if you were to put money on top of that it would make it a bit tacky. I don’t think people would believe it was genuine, and The Repair Shop is 150 per cent genuine.’

Jay’s natty outfits, which he chooses very deliberately, are another of the show’s joys. ‘Wearing a shirt, waistcoat and flat cap harks back to the 1920s, when people used to go to work in a three-piece suit, and I know that conjures up memories of people’s fathers and grandfathers.’

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While the show has a devoted young fanbase, many attracted by its reuse-don’t-replace theme, Jay is proudest of the message it sends to older people. ‘These craftsmen and women have come into TV after doing their jobs for years, and it makes people think they could do the same. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you can always do something different with your life.’

People often ask Jay why black people rarely feature on the show. ‘In my family, like so many in the black community, any family heirlooms had to be pawned to pay for Christmas dinner or a bill, so treasure doesn’t get passed down. Obviously, I have my children, but the only other treasures I own are a pair of scissors given to me by a lady I was helping to move into a hospice whose late husband was a tailor.’

Busy times are ahead: as well as more Repair Shops, he’s making Jay’s Workshop for the BBC, which he says will be a cross between The Repair Shop and DIY SOS. Then there’s an upcoming BBC documentary Jay Learns to Read.

‘I picture myself in a nursery holding a Peter and Jane book, but I think it’ll inspire men my age who are dyslexic to give it a go.’ He’s an ambassador for several charities, including Gangs Unite, which specialises in gang-conflict resolution, and despite the many separations, he’s on good terms with all his children. ‘They’re doing great. I’m so proud of them.’

As far as Jay’s concerned, everything about ageing is good. ‘I can’t wait to be 60 and 70. I was filming with Mary Berry, who is 86, and I thought, “I want to be like you!” She commands respect and oozes charisma. That next stage is going to be “Wow” and I’m so ready for it.’

This article appeared in the June 2021 issue of Saga Magazine - for more great interviews, subscribe today.

Making It by Jay Blades is published by Bluebird in hardback, priced £16.99

 

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