The Last Leg's Alex Brooker: I have a special connection with the NHS
Alex Brooker has found fame through being funny but a new documentary about the NHS sees the presenter return to his journalistic roots. He talks to Georgia Humphreys about why he wanted to be involved, plus how The Last Leg has boosted his confidence
ALEX Brooker had no idea how much his life would change after the 2012 Paralympics. The 34-year-old was working as a sports journalist when he started co-hosting The Last Leg on Channel 4, a comedic look back at each day's events at the games in London.
Six years later, along with co-stars Adam Hills and Josh Widdicombe, he's back for a 14th series of the critically acclaimed panel show. And using it as a platform to open up conversations surrounding disabilities has really helped Brooker, who was born with hand and arm deformities, and had his leg amputated as a baby.
"I remember going into counselling in 2010, because I became really conscious of my disabilities," the Kent-born presenter says. "And then it's almost like I've done another six years of counselling on [The Last Leg's] sofa, in a completely weird, surreal way."
Discussing a powerful speech he made on the show about how Paralympian Alex Zanardi inspires him, he says: "I never think to myself, 'Right, I'm going to try and say something poignant' – if you watch the show, literally about 98 per cent of what I say is the most unpoignant stuff you can ever imagine.
"But the odd 2 per cent where that has happened has been critiqued well. It's lovely to have been able to have those open conversations and it's helped me to become extremely comfortable with myself."
The Last Leg has also led to other TV roles for Brooker, including co-presenting reality show The Jump, and now a return to his journalistic roots for BBC Four's The NHS: A People's History.
Each episode of the documentary series looks at a different period in time, and sees patients and staff share their experiences of the National Health Service, to mark its 70th anniversary.
On why he wanted to be involved with the programme, Brooker says: "The work that I've had done at Great Ormond Street and the care that I've been given, that's allowed me to achieve the things I've wanted to and gain the independence I've wanted to. I have a special connection to the NHS and it was something that interested me.
"And, as well as getting a chance to tell a bit of my story, I wanted to hear other people's, and learn more about the NHS."
Something which was particularly memorable for Brooker while filming was hearing first-hand how difficult life was before the NHS.
"We interviewed a lady called June and to hear the story about how every time the doctor came out to visit her mum, who had cancer, it was five shillings, which was almost three-quarters of what they were paying for a month's rent on a house in London...
"The idea of paying that just to see a doctor before you even had any treatment or medicine, and the fact that people were scared to be ill, that's an incredibly powerful story and something that I never really knew before. It's made me think how lucky we are, really."
The three-part series sees Brooker meeting people from all walks of life. And it was definitely a moving experience, as interviewees shared intensely personal objects and stories from their lives for the camera.
"When they got emotional, I found myself getting emotional with them, because you immerse yourself in their stories and, you know, it would have been ignorant of me not to have done that," he says.
Brooker also had a chance to talk to unsung medical heroes, which meant a lot to him.
"You've got to bear in mind that sometimes there is negative press about the NHS and the strain that it's under, but the people who work for it are the heart of it, really," he says.
"They care immensely about the patients and certainly that was the case when I was at Great Ormond Street."
Indeed, Brooker is more than happy to open up about how some of the amazing doctors who treated him have stayed with him.
"As I was growing up and I was growing, obviously I'd outgrow a prosthetic leg, and you're seeing the prosthetist several times a year and you form a relationship with them," he shares.
"I had the same prosthetist, Andy, for a long time in my life, until not too long ago and he retired, and I went to his retirement party."
It is undeniable the NHS has faced many challenges over the years, which Brooker promises the show does not shy away from.
When asked for his thoughts on what can be done to improve the health service. though, he's hesitant.
"As a guy who makes jokes on a Friday night for a living, I'd worry if I was the sort of person who had the right advice for how to solve the NHS," he says with a chuckle.
However, he later settles on: "I think that it's looking after the staff that work in it. And obviously, funding. The NHS will always need more funding, that's just the very nature of the organisation."
Brooker's chatting away after a busy day writing for The Last Leg, which is filmed in front of a live studio audience in London, and sees the panel assess news stories from the week with satirical humour.
He commutes to work from Yorkshire, where he lives with wife Lynsey and their one-year-old daughter.
"Sometimes, I'll be honest with you, it's quite nice to leave my daughter behind when she's having a tantrum," he says, laughing.
Jokes aside, Brooker is clearly embracing every minute of fatherhood.
"It's hard when you work away in London," he admits. "It's hard to say goodbye. But that's the nature of it.
"I love being a dad and it's amazing. It's brilliant."
:: The NHS: A People's History starts on BBC Four on Monday July 2.