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Alex Brooker: I've a special connection to the NHS... the TV series tells what it means to others too

Alex Brooker has found fame 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


Past patient: Alex Brooker was a regular at Great Ormond Street as a child

Past patient: Alex Brooker was a regular at Great Ormond Street as a child

Past patient: Alex Brooker was a regular at Great Ormond Street as a child

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," confides the Kent-born presenter.

"And then it's almost like I've done another six years of counselling on a 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% of what I say is the most un-poignant stuff you can ever imagine.

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"But the odd 2% where that has happened has been critiqued well. It's lovely to have been able to have had 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 Hospital 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 made me think how lucky we are, really."

The three-part series sees Brooker travel the country and meet people from all walks of life.

And it was definitely a moving experience, as interviewees shared intensely personal 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 remarks.

Brooker also had the chance to talk to unsung medical heroes, which meant a lot to the presenter. And he is more than happy to open up about how memories of some of the amazing medics who treated him have stayed with him.

"As I was growing up, 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 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 [problems]," he says with a chuckle.

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 honest satirical humour.

He commutes to work in the capital 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 quips with a chuckle.

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. 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

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