The doctor will see you now, and she's a picture of health

She is what the Australians might call a flying doctor '“ a 'portfolio GP' who receives patients in Wetherby and dispenses advice on wellbeing and sexual health across North and West Yorkshire.

Dr Helen Lawal. Picture: BBC

But Helen Lawal’s constituency stretches further still – a consequence not of shrinking health service resources but of the name in her casebook that sets her apart among medical practitioners – that of her showbusiness agent.

It was he who helped her get hired as co-presenter on the Channel 4 series, How to Stay Well, last year, and then sign a development deal with the network – and he who arranged her new deal with the BBC, which sees her co-hosting a quiz series called Britain’s Best Junior Doctors, with the comedian Jo Brand.

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It’s a variation on University Challenge, she says. The contestants sit at desks and field questions on different medical conditions. It’s her job to explain to viewers what they’re talking about.

Isn’t that intimidating for the contestants?

“Doctors are used to being tested,” she says. “You spend five to six years at medical school and it’s test after test after test. It’s part of the job.”

It’s a career path she knows well, having served as a junior doctor at hospitals in Leeds and Wakefield, before going on the road as a GP.

But little else about her background conforms to medical convention. Brought up in Pickering, the daughter of a Nigerian surgeon and a Scarborough nurse, she was, she says, “one of only three brown children” at her school.

“I always did feel different. When my dad used to come and visit, it was a spectacle – this very dark-skinned African man would come in and all the kids would and gather round and my brother and I would be would be very popular for a couple of weeks.”

She spent her summers in Nigeria and at 10, accompanied him on his ward rounds.

“We would see leprosy and people who had been to witch doctors and had bone infections – things you just wouldn’t imagine, she says.

Despite her background, unusual at the time in the North York Moors, discrimination was not evident. Not until she went to York to study.

In 2009, a threatening phone call was made to the organisers of the Miss York title with which, at 23, she had been crowned. She was also the reigning Miss Black Britain.

“It was the first time I’d seen prejudice and racism,” she reflects. “A very strange experience.”

But the modelling titles had lit a creative spark, and, inspired by an article she had read by another TV doctor, she set about finding her agent.

“The doctor said you had to go out there and knock on doors, because they were never going to come looking. So I did my research and while I was in London working, I went looking.”

The incentive, she says, was part showmanship but mostly the desire to communicate to the widest audience possible.

“TV is a really interesting way of getting messages out there, and of course I could see how powerful the screen could be.”

She has fronted documentaries and would like to do more, especially one that takes advantage of her African heritage. But working in a studio with Jo Brand and an audience was a more surreal experience.

“I’m not necessarily as confident as I might come across as being on TV and I still get nervous about and putting myself out there,” she says.

“My passion has always been health education, but I did also have this creative side that needed nurturing, and my media work – TV, radio and blogging – has allowed me to feed that.

n Britain’s Best Junior Doctors begins on BBC Two at 7.30pm on Monday.