Jay Blades is learning to read at the age of 51

Wednesday:Jay Blades: Learning to Read at 51; (BBC1, 9pm)

By Claire Cartmill
Tuesday, 25th January 2022, 5:00 pm

It is a statistic universally acknowledged as shocking that a quarter of all children in England leave primary school unable to read to the expected level.

More than eight million adults in the UK have poor literacy skills, and nearly half of all prisoners either can’t read or struggle to do so.

Jay Blades, much-loved presenter of The Repair Shop, left school with no qualifications and nothing to his name except a reputation as a great fighter.

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Jay Blades

Until he was in his 30s, Blades hid the fact he has the reading ability of a child. Throughout his life, he found ways of avoiding the written word and while it hasn’t prevented him succeeding as an upholstery business owner and finding fame on the small screen, he has decided it’s finally time to learn to read.

This documentary will follow him as he works with a charity that organises volunteer coaches to work one-on-one with readers, using a system that was launched in prisons. Blades will join other people also learning to read and together they will support, cajole and encourage one another to get over their fears of the printed word.

Along the way, he will revisit key moments in his life that were shaped by struggling to read: from his being put in the ‘learner’ class at school, and receiving an important letter from hospital and having to find a stranger on the street to read it to him, to taking a series of dead-end jobs because he had no formal qualifications.

Then there was not being able to read his children bedtime stories. His daughter Zola is 15, and Jay is determined to be able to read her a story before she reaches adulthood on her next birthday.

Over six months, this intimate and revealing film goes behind closed doors to see how not being able to read has shaped Blades, impacting how he organises his upholstery business, manages on The Repair Shop without scripts, and struggles each day with his vowels and consonants as he tries to learn phonics.

We meet his girlfriend Lisa, the aforementioned Zola, and his ‘adopted’ family who all help him with his reading challenge. Blades also meets pupils at school, as well as other adults who struggle with reading and writing, to learn the human stories behind the nation’s literacy statistics.

Blades enthuses: “Learning to read is going to be the toughest challenge for me. On this journey I’ll be meeting people who can’t read, for whatever reason, and hopefully helping them. I’d love this film to inspire millions of other adults in the same situation as me.”

He’s already impressed Jack Bootle, the BBC’s head of commissioning, science and natural history. He says: “We all love watching Jay on The Repair Shop, but very few of us know about his long-term struggles with reading. To achieve what he’s achieved with very limited literacy is amazing.”

We suspect hankies may be the order of the day before the credits roll. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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