Jay’s Yorkshire Workshop was always going to hit the nail right on the head. Even the title of the new BBC2 series has it all, let alone the basic premise. Take charismatic community crafter Jay Blades (front man of BBC1’s massive hit The Repair Shop) and flank him with a team of six real-life Yorkshire folk (young and not-so-young), each with a passion to become a master carpenter. Give him doughty lieutenants in the form of three expert woodworkers to guide these apprentices through their inevitable lows and highs. Then set them a series of challenges – creating bespoke furniture and other hand-crafted wooden pieces to award to local heroes, those who have gone above and beyond to help their community.
Set it all in God’s Own Country, within an atmospheric old mill building that positively glows with contemporary-cool, industrial chic heritage, and there you have it – TV gold.
“Right up my street,” is how Jay describes the show. “Community workers are always on the sidelines. We publicise celebrity, but we don’t publicise the normal person.”
His job is to connect. “The community work I have done in the past was intense,” he says. He has worked with centres dealing with mental health, domestic violence, vulnerable women and children and prisons. He says: “When you have that experience, so many people’s stories you have listened to, that gives you a more rounded approach to dealing with TV. I don’t put on airs and graces, and I am exactly the same as I was 10 years ago.”
Filming began in April in Bradford city centre (the exact location is a secret). “The people have a really beautiful personality. Yorkshire people, I’ve found, are very proud, and everybody is a historian,” says Jay. “Bradford was chosen because it’s such a warm community.”
The six-part series is sure to spark a new trend for DIY carpentry and make stars of its apprentices, exploring their lives as they learn on the job. Les, from Huddersfield, is a retired building maintenance surveyor and joiner. As well as new skills, he is looking for a new sense of worth. “When you’re retired, it’s as though you’re irrelevant, and that hurts,” he says.
Jabbar, 30, is a school caretaker from Bradford. “When I’m working with wood, I feel at ease. It’s almost as if your soul goes into it,” he says. Graham, 69, from Leeds, is a retired engineer who knows the type of wood by its smell – and turns out to be a dab hand at marquetry. Kate, from Leeds, began her carpentry journey four years ago when she joined a woodworking club. Ant, 38, from Huddersfield, got into woodworking as a child when his stepfather made a rabbit hutch. Becky, 27, is a design graduate.
On hand to mentor are Saf Fakir, Isabelle Moore and Ciaran O Braonain. Saf, from Bradford, studied industrial design at Keighley College and Huddersfield University before following in his father’s footsteps as a joiner. He specialises in bespoke staircases and furniture. Isabelle is a designer based in Edinburgh, and Ciaran is a Dublin-born woodwork teacher with a workshop in Cheshire.
As for the community heroes, their stories are extraordinary. The first episode featured Connor, from Leeds, living with a life-threatening liver condition when Jack, a stranger, responded to a social media post asking if anyone would donate half their liver to save his life. After their operations, they fell in love. Soon to set up home together, expert woodworker Saf and his team made a mid-century style sideboard as a thank-you to Jack for his selfless act. He was delighted. “It’s going to symbolise the journey we have been on together,” he says.
For the eight Doncaster care home staff who moved in at the start of the pandemic for 56 days to protect their residents, there was a curved arbour for the garden. Meanwhile, Karen, a mum of three adopted children with additional needs, runs the LS29 group in Ilkley for similar families. A keen sewer, she received a bespoke sewing box with exquisite marquetry. “That’s so beautiful,” she says. “I’ve never had anything made just for me.”
The first piece of furniture that Jay ever made over was a G-Plan sideboard. “I love British manufacturing and anything made in the mid-century modern kind of era,” he says.
He has always been practical, if unorthodox. “When I got my own flat, I had breeze blocks and broomsticks across it, and that was my wardrobe. Instead of a sideboard, I had some bricks with glass suspended in between, and that was where I used to put my stereo.”
He puts this alternative vision down to his dyslexia. “When you’re dyslexic, you come up with a different way of seeing the world, a different way of finding a solution.
“If you send a long text, I will more than likely never read it because it hurts my head, but you do find a way of coping.”
At school, he was in the “learners” or “L” stream. “My career teacher just said to me, ‘Blades, you’re going to amount to nothing. Next.’”
But Jay did go to university at 31. “I studied Criminology and Philosophy, which is probably one of the most text-heavy subjects you could ever study. That’s when I found out I was dyslexic, because they did tests on me and they got a lot of help for me. I was able to pass with a 2:1.
“My calling was to support people and become a community worker, but university confirmed it.”
Now 51, he published his memoir, Making It, earlier this year. He was born in Brent, north London, to single mother Barbara. Growing up, he had nothing to do with his Jamaican father and later discovered he was one of 25 half-siblings. “The man that contributed towards my birth is what I call him,” he tells me. “I don’t call him my father because he’s not. It just made me realise that I had a number of siblings, and I wanted to get to know all of them, but I was only able to get to know 11 of them.
“I have two mums,” he says. “Barbara, in Barbados, she’s the one who gave birth to me, and then my second mum is Thelma, who lives in Wolverhampton, and she gave birth to me when I fell down, five or six years ago.”
Thelma is the mother of his friend, Gerald Bailey, who cared for him after he had a breakdown at that time, taking him to live with his own mum and stepfather. “I was just welcomed into this family like you wouldn’t believe,” he says. “When I’m not filming, I will be round their house on a Monday, a Wednesday, a Saturday.”
Jay now lives in Wolverhampton with his partner, Christine, and says he does not miss London at all. Up north, strangers say “good afternoon” as they pass. Down south, most people are more concerned about themselves.
“I’m living the dream,” he says. “My shows will always be based around community, because that is where my passion is.
“It’s a beautiful feeling being a community worker because you never stop giving and the community never stops giving back to you.”
Jay’s Yorkshire Workshop is on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC2.