There were hugs and tears on the day Dan Walker left BBC Breakfast a couple of weeks ago, and of course a massive inflatable lobster.
‘It was a strange feeling to leave, but I had made my mind up and I was confident it was the right decision,’ says the tall, lankily handsome 45-year-old, who is preparing to take up a swanky new job anchoring the news every weekday night on Channel 5.
The lobster was a tribute to the costume he wore on Strictly Come Dancing for a jive with his partner Nadiya Bychkova, and we will be talking much more about his relationship with her – as well as the huge pay packet that’s coming his way. But for a moment his mind is on that fantastic send-off, with past and present colleagues gathering on the famous red sofa before an off-air leaving party.
‘I must confess to being really humbled by the depth of feeling,’ he says. ‘I’ve had thousands of lovely messages and it was wonderful to hear from Sally Nugent, Louise Minchin, Carol Kirkwood [his fellow presenters] and Nadiya.
Dan Walker, 45, (pictured) left BBC Breakfast a couple of weeks ago to join Channel 5. The British TV presenter recalls embarrassment when his salary was published
‘I’ve spent a lot of time with them over the last few years, so to hear them say I gave them strength and helped them to shine was incredible.’
Slightly less sugary was the message from his former breakfast TV rival Piers Morgan, who has often been downright rude about him but this time jokily tweeted, ‘End of an error.’ Though he did add with clapping emojis, ‘Congrats mate.’ Walker replied, ‘Thanks… I think!’
He then drove home to Sheffield with the lobster in the back of the car to process all that emotion with his wife Sarah, their three children and their rescue cockapoo Winnie. ‘As I said to Sally [Nugent], change is good, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard.’
It’s a relief not to have to get up eye-wateringly early, too. ‘It was nice to watch the golf on Sunday night knowing I didn’t have a 3am alarm call.
‘It feels weird not to be ironing a shirt in the evening and having a shave at stupid o’clock.’
There is another thing he definitely won’t miss: everybody knowing what he earns. ‘That’s one of the nice things about leaving the BBC,’ he says, laughing heartily.
Dan as a boy in the 80s. He says that his parents didn’t have any money whilst he was growing up and all his clothes were hand-me-downs. He feels uncomfortable these days getting paid a lot of money
‘I hate talking about money. I feel uncomfortable that I get paid a lot of money to do a job I love. I remember the first day a national newspaper published what I earned on the front page. That was awful.’
The state-funded broadcaster declares the salaries of all its top stars, so we know he earned about £295,000 last year.
I’ve worked with some absolute pains in the backside. I never want that to be the case with me
‘Can I be honest with you? I am embarrassed by the amount of money I earn. My parents had no money growing up. All my clothes were hand-me-downs.’
He does sound genuinely ill at ease. ‘At a time when people are struggling to put food on the table, it’s horrible to have your salary on the front page.
‘I’m aware that even people in my family are finding it hard to budget for three meals a day right now, getting to the end of the month and it’s beans on toast again. I understand that’s a real heartache.
‘I grew up in that position. I’ve been there.’
Dan was born in Crawley, West Sussex, in 1977, the son of a Baptist minister. He obtained a masters degree in journalism at the University of Sheffield, where he met Sarah in 1999; they married two years later.
He started at the BBC as a sports reporter on North West Tonight then presented major events including Wimbledon, the Six Nations rugby and the football World Cup before joining BBC Breakfast in 2016.
He’s a man who goes his own way, living in Yorkshire but commuting to Salford for BBC Breakfast, and now to London for Channel 5 where he starts work on Monday. He chooses not to work on Sundays so that he can rest and go to church, so can we presume that as a Christian he follows the call to give a substantial portion of his income to charity?
Dan was very popular on Strictly Come Dancing last year alongside his dance partner Nadiya (left) and speaks of her warmly
‘If you’d like to come to that conclusion, it’s fine by me,’ he says. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for Comic Relief in 2019, created a bursary for young journalists at the University of Sheffield and is a patron for a children’s hospital in the city.
He’s one of a number of BBC stars to have announced their departure recently, including Andrew Marr and Emily Maitlis, with pay transparency thought to have been a factor for some. Recently the corporation has started taking that much further.
‘Now they’re doing that thing where they publish what you get paid for external events. It’s really uncomfortable. And I don’t like it.’
The corporation’s register revealed, for example, that he was paid £5,000 for hosting an event for an HR company last year. ‘The BBC could look after its staff a little better, but that wasn’t the reason for me going.’
Perhaps a hefty pay rise was, but Walker snorts with laughter when asked if it’s true – as reported – that he will earn around £1.5 million over three years. ‘No comment, your honour!
‘I could go full Michael Gove on you and start doing silly voices.’ He’s talking about a bizarre breakfast interview in which the cabinet minister put on all kinds of accents in an apparent bid to avoid answering directly.
But then Walker insists, ‘I don’t care about the money. I’ve never been motivated by that.
‘This is part of the reason people like Piers Morgan say I’ve got a halo around my head. My driving ambition is that I want the people I work with to feel that they’re working on the best programme on the telly.
‘A lot of that comes from the person who sits on the sofa or the chair. I’ve seen it with people who go the other way, who are really hard to work with and make it an absolute pain in the backside to be in the studio with.
‘I never want that to be the case with me.’
MY FAITH IS INTEGRAL TO WHO I AM
Raised in the church, Dan began to take Christianity seriously from the age of 12. ‘Since then I’ve made all sorts of mistakes, but my faith is integral to who I am,’ he says.
Can we assume he doesn’t swear then, doesn’t drink, doesn’t take drugs, doesn’t get angry? ‘You should talk to my wife about that, but most of them you’re right!
Everyone gets angry though, don’t they?’
His faith helps him deal with all the attention on social media, he says. ‘I work in an industry where people are horrible, they say terrible things about you all the time and accuse you of things that are never true.
‘If you start to believe and worry about them, your mind will begin to melt. I’ve seen it happen.’
Not to him though? ‘I worry about very little.’
He even laughs about one man who said he had named his dog after him. ‘The dog’s new name was Idiot.’
Piers Morgan was on rival channel ITV for most of the time Dan Walker was on BBC Breakfast and they’re chalk and cheese. ‘My biggest window into the world of Mr Morgan was when we played golf together at Wentworth many years ago in an event with big crowds.
‘We were walking towards a hole on the back nine and Piers said, ‘Lovely day; you’re great company, Dan. I’ve paid this photographer to follow me around all day, can I get a picture with your hands around my neck?’
‘It was so he could have his picture in the papers the next day. I did do it, just for a laugh.’
Are the rivals secretly mates then? ‘I went to his 50th birthday party some years ago, but I’m not sure he would say we’re friends now.
‘I enjoy spending time with him, but we’re completely different in the way we go about stuff. He has a certain style of broadcasting I would feel very uncomfortable doing, but it works for him: “Watch this because I’m really opinionated.”
‘That’s the antithesis of what I’ve done and what I want to do.’ How so? ‘I’m not going to spin a story.
‘I’m not going to over-egg it. I want you to make your own mind up. One of my key jobs is to get out of the way.’
He’s very good at that indeed, as television bosses started to notice in a big way after Dan found himself stuck out on Copacabana Beach for BBC4 during the 2016 Olympics. He turned this exile to his advantage by taking an anarchic approach: giving gold medals to binmen or beckoning to a raucous hen party to come and have a chat live on air.
‘They all seem to be tied together,’ he told viewers who had tuned in expecting the weightlifting. ‘Magnificent scenes. Maybe that’s how you do it in Brazil.’
The tipsy soon-to-be-bride Maria then declared her love for her future husband and the hens chanted their support. The clip went viral and ratings soared.
‘The head of BBC4 sent me an email saying: “We’ve had consecutive nights of four million viewers, we’ve never had that in our wildest dreams”.’
He’s still Facebook friends with the family, but then Walker has stayed in touch with many of the ordinary folk with extraordinary stories that he has met over the years. He even wrote about them in a book called Remarkable People.
His affability is a big part of what Channel 5 want, along with a relaxed but firmly-in-control style reminiscent of the great Des Lynam. He will make other shows beside the news.
‘It could be a documentary series, a travel show, a quiz show. I like making telly that’s inspirational, enthusiastic and has a message in there somewhere. I also like making daft telly!’
He was very popular on Strictly last year alongside Nadiya and speaks of her warmly. ‘I loved every second of it, I just connected with this Ukrainian two-time world champion and we got on from the very first minute.’
The appreciation was mutual, he says. ‘She said I taught her to be herself on television.
‘When I walk into a studio, I feel like I can rule the world. The only place I’m terrified is on the dance floor.
‘I’ve avoided it my entire life. But this amazing woman said, “Listen, I can teach you this and you can enjoy it.” I fell in love with the process of learning to dance.’
Did he fall in love with her, though? That’s what presenter Dan Walker would ask and we both know there were rumours that he did.
Dan is preparing to take up a swanky new job anchoring the news every weekday night on Channel 5
‘We really got on well, but she’s a professional dancer,’ he says, suddenly sounding quite firm. ‘Her job was to teach me to dance. That’s what she did. We enjoyed it a lot. The one time I did get very close to Nadiya was when she was the only person I could touch.’
He’s referring to the Covid rules that kept the partners in bubbles, which seemed particularly cruel on the anniversary of the suicide of his friend Gary Speed, the former Wales football star and manager. ‘I was a bit broken that day,’ he says.
‘I’d recorded a film for the ten-year anniversary and I foolishly watched it the day it went out. I had a text from his family saying how much it meant to them.
‘Then I read a comment from one guy who said, ‘Watching your film about Gary stopped me taking my own life.’
‘You think, ‘I’ve got to do a rumba on telly in about an hour.’ I needed a hug that day. Nadiya gave it to me and I’m very thankful to her for doing that.
‘I think about Gary a lot. I still miss him. And his family miss him.’
He still wonders why his mate had to go. ‘I’m thankful I don’t have those thoughts, but a lot of that comes back to my grounding, my faith and my family.
Dan with Claudia-Liza Vanderpuije on Channel 5 News. Dan joins 5 News, weekdays from Monday at 5pm
‘Those are the important things,’ he says, his voice rising with urgency now. ‘That’s why I don’t care about what I earn and how much people hate me or how much people with large mouths say that I’m bad at my job or that they’re much better at their job, because none of that stuff matters.’
If there’s one person who can take the rough with the smooth and remain unruffled, it seems to be Dan Walker. ‘I get messages from people saying I’ve done something badly or they hate me – and also loads from nice people.
‘I don’t let them drag me down or lift me up too high,’ says this quietly steely man with a high-profile new job and a confidence in the love of those closest to him. ‘I know my value does not come from what people think of me. I know I’m valued.’
- Dan Walker joins 5 News, weekdays from Monday at 5pm on Channel 5.