On the 7th April, it will have been 10 years since children’s TV presenter Mark Speight took his own life. Found hung outside Paddington station in London, Speight’s suicide note stated that he could not live without his fiancée Natasha Collins, who had died four months before. Speight and Collins’ story is first and foremost a distressing and tragic tale of heartbreak, but it also carries contemporary implications for how we view TV presenters through the small screen and the image they maintain when on the air.
Speight featured in several shows aimed at both kids and adults, but it was the arts and crafts show SMart (1994-2009) for which he will be remembered most fondly. His endless exuberance, spiky hairstyle and wonderful personality were a mainstay of UK children’s television for much of the 1990s and 2000s. If anyone was born to reassure children that they can colour outside the lines since they were going to cut it out anyway, it was him.
From what is known of Speight’s final months, the death of Collins (also a TV presenter) seemed to fill this happy-go-lucky and adored figure of kids’ television with overwhelming grief and sadness. Collins died in the bath following an overdose of cocaine and burns all over her body from hot water. Speight discovered her body. He was originally considered a suspect, until it was ruled that Collin’s death had been an accident. He quit SMart the following month, saying that the “tragic loss” of Collins was too much to bear and he could no longer commit to the show.
When police officers approached him hours before he was reported missing, Speight refused all offers of help. The descriptions of him being “vacant”, “distracted” and in “a fragile state of mind” as reported by the BBC are deeply upsetting, especially in hindsight. An apparently bubbly individual and an accomplished children’s TV presenter who had no immediate plans to stop doing what he loved could not live with the pain. His body was discovered six days after his disappearance.
For those who grew up watching Speight, Collins and others on the small screen as they grew up, there was no impression that they could be anything more than people who delivered joy and happiness through 480 pixels. Such is the image of presenters constructed, both by the presenters themselves and the studios, that any vulnerability or emotion is masked and covered over in the name of entertainment. Children almost certainly have no idea of the emotional torture such incidents can trigger, nor are they always fully informed about its consequences. When CBBC’s Newsround reported on Speight’s death, they received complaints that they upset children by saying “suicide”, so instead reverted to saying that “police don’t think he was killed by anyone else.”
Openness in TV triggers debate regardless of the example in question, especially where children are concerned. In whatever case, it contrasts with the common messages about personal wellbeing and welfare for those of us who are not TV presenters. You have probably heard advice at some point telling you to not bury your feelings under a façade but instead to talk freely and express your thoughts with others. No problem is too big or too small, and if you are struggling, then a problem shared really can mean a problem halved.
This positive message of looking after your own mental wellbeing by being emotionally transparent is not reflected by those tasked with entertaining and informing vast audiences on a daily basis. What we hear of such typically composed figures outside of their on-screen terrain is heard only in snippets – BBC Breakfast’s former presenter Bill Turnbull being diagnosed with cancer for example. Despite his condition, his former co-host Louise Minchin said that “anybody who has watched him over the last 15 years knows he’s an immensely optimistic person”, an intimate character detail we are meant to ascertain solely from watching him in action on the red sofa.
Just this past week, Ant McPartlin from Saturday Night Takeaway admitted himself to rehab for the second time in the space of a year following his arrest on suspicion of drink driving. His addiction struggles were referenced when he and Declan Donnelly accepted the award for Best Entertainment Presenters at the National Television Awards in January – the 17th consecutive year they took home that prize. McPartlin is one of the more open presenters regarding his mental health and personal struggles, but those who have simply been tuning in to his show every Saturday night would never have guessed.
Television presenters almost never give away too much about themselves when they are on the air, as if there needs to be a sustained gap between viewer and host. While everyone else is being encouraged to share their feelings, presenters do not seem to be sharing in this newfound freedom.
It is important however to not make assumptions. Whether presenters feel at ease with expressing their own difficulties and feelings to a national audience is not a dilemma to be lightly dismissed, and the answer will depend on who you are talking to. Refraining from too much expression is what arguably maintains the current state of the viewer-presenter relationship, contributing to the appealing escapism offered by the likes of Saturday Night Takeaway. It is not so much a case of forcing the faces of television to spill out their feelings on cue for the sake of their wellbeing. Rather, it is simply worth asking about the inconsistency between what you see on screen and what you know aside from this, and considering how the former is constructed for viewing purposes.
What we see on screen is only a part of the personality of a ‘TV personality’. It’s not to say that Mark Speight didn’t love what he did, or that Bill Turnbull is not full of optimism, but it is a case of remembering that your perception of them is very deliberately crafted, in a way that may well (but not necessarily) reflect the presenter themselves. It takes news of a presenter’s death or the reality of their flaws for this perception to shatter.
The next time you soak up your daily dose of information from the news channel or indulge in a bit of light entertainment, it’s worth remembering that there is a human being behind all this. Someone who, like you, will not be perfect and will share concerns that you have on a daily basis. Remembering this fact has the potential to change the way we view television in the 21st century. How exactly it will change will be up to the presenters themselves. Whether they choose to be more open on the air or not, the crucial factor is that it is their own decision.
Illustration: Josh Green