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What’s up doc?

For over two decades Dr Chris Steele has been a regular on the This Morning sofa, teaching the nation about all manor of medical issues and giving advice in his genial and reassuring manner.

He has worked with various  big personality presenters, has shown ground-breaking breast and testicle examinations live on air,  all the while holding down a full-time position as a Manchester GP

Picture the scene. The affable Dr Chris Steele, who has been dispensing his medical advice on the daytime show This Morning since it started 21 years ago, sitting astride his trike. Not a kiddie one, obviously, but one with ‘great big Formula One-sized’ wheels and an engine, roaring around the country, helmet firmly placed on his head, finding out if old wives’ tales do have any place in medicine. ‘Wheels of Steele’, as it was aptly named, was just one jaunt Dr Chris got up to on his long stint on This Morning – one of ITV’s flagship programmes –  and he is still loving every minute of his time on the show.

And yet you couldn’t meet a more unstarry person. The first impression of Dr Chris is of twinkly eyes and a personality emanating warmth and kindness – just as he seems on the programme – and you can understand why he is still such a major draw. Totally unphased by all the celebs he has seen over the years – and he has met numerous major stars from music, film, politics and entertainment – Dr Chris says he doesn’t watch much television. ‘I am not very good with celebrities,’ he told at home. ‘Most of the time I’m told they are very famous and I don’t even know who they are. You just get used to seeing them. The one star I was impressed by was Joan Collins because she was nice to everyone including the kids [the progamme researchers]. She wasn’t aloof at all, but a nice, warm individual. Some of these celebs really are full of themselves, though!’ And he laughs throatily.

But how did this ordinary GP come to be doing such an extraordinary job? ‘The short answer is that I was Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan’s GP,’ laughs Chris. ‘They were the original presenters and they thought I’d be up to the job because I specialise in nicotine addiction and had spoken about it on television several times before. So I did a screen test and was told I had the job. But I didn’t want it! Initially, I thought they wanted me to talk about nicotine addiction every week and then when I realised it would be questions about anything medical I found the thought terrifying. I knew I couldn’t make a mistake and give the wrong answer – I’d be in big trouble. It was my four kids who persuaded me…so I agreed I’d do it for three months and then they could find someone else. But I’m still there over two decades later!’

Been there, done that
Dr Chris was on the very first show and, having watched footage back recently, he said it was ‘pretty primitive’. At the time, though, it was cutting-edge television. The first ever magazine show in the UK, the formula is still working and although now it is ‘pretty slick and fast-moving’ according to Dr Chris, essentially the format is not all that different from when it first started. And crucially it is still attracting millions of viewers for five mornings every week.

In the old days it was very much the Richard and Judy show but since they left in 2001, there have been several different presenter double acts. ‘We went through Twiggy and Coleen Nolan – I’m not making any comment on that combination – then John Leslie and Fern Britton, who were very good together and Phillip Schofield and Fern were a tremendous pairing of talents. When they started giggling, it was so infectious and the viewers just loved it. There were no airs and graces. New recruit Holly [Willoughby] is doing such a good job – the viewers love her and, although Fern is a very hard act to follow, Holly is holding her own.’

Away from the glittering television lights Dr Chris continued to work full-time as a GP in south Manchester in a suburb called Fallowfield, a working-class area with a mixture of students and families from council estates. ‘I know some of my patients boasted their GP was Dr Chris from the television,’ he chuckles, ‘and when I got new patients they’d do a double take, especially the students who seemed to all watch This Morning. One big difference I noticed ever since I started on the show was that my patients stopped questioning me. They must have thought that, because I’m on television, I am a good doctor, although that’s not necessarily true! You do have to be bang up-to-date with your medical knowledge all the time, though.’

So what attracted him to being a doctor in the first place? ‘I’ve no idea,’ he laughs. ‘It’s not in my family background, although my mum was a nurse for a short while.

I was an only child, brought up by a single mum in Wallsend; an area of the North East, near Newcastle.

It was a mining town and they shut all the mines, which had a huge impact on the local economy. It’s very sad to go back there now, but it has produced a few famous faces, including Sting… and me.’

Dr Chris’ mum struggled to get the money to pay for his grammar school education – he failed the 11 plus – on her receptionist wages but she managed somehow and from there he went to Manchester and medical school, escaping what must have been a fairly financially deprived upbringing. But once he qualified, his ambition was to be a GP and that’s what he has done until he gave up his position only two years ago. He still misses his patients terribly.

‘I see them around where I live and I feel like I’ve lost old friends. Some of them I’ve known for 40 years and have treated four generations of the same family. It’s quite an intimate relationship and when I first stopped practising, I felt a big, gaping emptiness.’ But he admits there were downsides to his job. ‘The on-call system meant that often I’d be called out to see patients seven nights a week and people would abuse the system, calling me for trivial reasons. It was frustrating, not to mention exhausting. Patients don’t get that now – you have to use an out of hours deputising service but it is far better for GPs as it makes it an easier job now. And it’s better paid, too!’

Not only has there been a sea change in the way GPs work, but the health of the nation must have altered over the past three decades, too. So what are the big health issues now? ‘Obesity is a growing problem – more people are becoming overweight; especially children. This can lead them to develop a type of diabetes that can mean some children will run the risk of getting heart disease and other very serious health problems and even die before their parents. The eternal problem is smoking. Although the number of smokers is coming down, there is still a large percentage of hardcore smokers who claim they don’t want to or can’t give up because they are so addicted. Another big issue is STIs [sexually transmitted infections] which are on the increase, especially among young people. Teenagers are more promiscuous and this ties in with binge drinking, which has also become a bigger problem especially over the last five years. Inhibitions go when you are drinking to excess and that is why STIs are increasing.’

So, top tips on improving the health of the nation? ‘If you smoke, then quit. It is the most dangerous habit and giving up will only improve your health. Get your weight into the normal range and try and do 30 minutes of exercise a day. And it’s not about signing up to an expensive gym – go for a slow walk and increase the pace and distance every day. Eat your five a day and I’d also like to see people eat fish two to three times a week because it contains essential fatty acids. Some people are heeding the advice, but unfortunately there are many who aren’t – especially when it comes to exercise and eating enough fruit and veg.’ But people are still hungry for health information. Dr Chris is approached by the public most days when he’s out and about.

He doesn’t mind at all. ‘If it started annoying me, then I shouldn’t be doing this job,’ he laughs. ‘Taxi drivers, people in supermarkets – it happens all the time. “Would you mind checking this lump on the back of my arm?” That sort of thing. I will have a look but I usually tell them to see their GP
so they can have a full diagnosis!’

And does he think that stress is the scourge of the 21st century?
‘Stress has always been there,’ he muses. ‘What’s different is that people are more open about it now.’ Maybe Dr Chris could be thanked for this more open approach when it comes to medical matters.

‘One thing I’m very proud of was showing the very first breast examination on This Morning about 11 years ago. It was the first time this had been done in the UK and I’d been battling for a long time to get the producers to put it on. We’ve since done a testicular examination on air and we try and show both of them every series because they are so useful for people.’ At the time, this type of frank medical discussion was unheard of and generated big headlines. ‘It was ground-breaking stuff,’ says Chris. ‘And what is gratifying is the number of emails and letters telling us how the live examinations prompted people to examine themselves. Some of them then discovered lumps which they were able to have treated before it was too late.’

Cringe factor
But the most embarrasing TV moment he can remember was when Viagra first came out. ‘It was really tacky TV,’ he says, cringing as he casts his mind back. ‘We had three couples who admitted they had sexual problems and they were taken to a hotel and told to go to bed with their partner. And then they had to report back on the show to see if the Viagra had worked. They were under pressure to perform and it was horrendously tacky! But I have to admit it was informative because a lot of people did not know what Viagra could do at the time.’

Informing people is the key reason why Dr Chris still loves his job. ‘I am lucky to have that platform to be able to teach more than two million people every time I appear on the show, but it is a big old responsibility,’ he adds.

ITV1 has been hitting the headlines recently with news that it is in serious financial trouble. Has Dr Chris ever been worried about his position, particularly recently? ‘There have been a lot of changes on the show but the medical slots are still very popular, particularly the phone-ins. I’ve always been on a yearly contract and that hasn’t changed. Personally, I still find doing the show extremely exciting and stimulating.’ And that is probably one of the reasons the viewers still love him after all these years. ‘We get lots of emails in from viewers and I think their perception of me is that I’m understanding and that I explain health issues well.

It’s reassuring to hear these nice comments but I’m not on a big ego trip. I just want to do the job right. What works is that I’ve always just been myself.’

There are occasions, too, when he simply doesn’t have the answer. ‘You can’t know everything about every medical condition,’ he admits. But he doesn’t just leave it there. Someone will get back to the viewer after the show with an answer and even though they are inundated with letters and emails from people they try to respond to every request.

So, you see, Dr Chris takes his job seriously. And not only that but for every subject he talks about, he will put in up to 10 hours of intensive research beforehand to make sure he has the most up-to-date medical information. No mean feat, when he admits he is not a big fan of the internet. ‘I get my information from medical journals,’ he explains, ‘and I have a huge library of medical text books in my office at home and cuttings that I’ve put together myself over the years, which I still refer back to.’

Questions have changed, too. ‘The internet has meant that people have more medical knowledge and there is a big interest in health now. It is a big seller. People are much more aware. It’s a change for the better because people ask pointed questions and, as a GP, you have to have more knowledge. It can be dangerous though because people can find out so much about their particular condition and not all the medical sites can be trusted.’

It’s no surprise that Dr Chris is the archetypal family man. He has been married for nearly 40 years to his wife Monica, a retired nurse. But only one of their four children has gone down the medical route.

‘We’ve never pushed them into it,’ Chris smiles. But they are very successful. His eldest son Matt is the keyboard player for The Brand New Heavies, his youngest son Andrew is a professional 400m runner and is hoping to compete in the Olympics in 2012. Ann-Marie, his eldest child is a translator and Catherine is an occupational health therapist. With two granddaughters, aged five and two, life for Dr Chris is pretty hectic. But when he does need a break, his trusty motorised trike is his de-stresser. ‘I call it miles of smiles because, whenever I drive past someone, they smile at me!’ And he gives a big grin.

Did you know?

  • Dr Chris’ life was saved when he went for a heart scan on This Morning and discovered live on air that he had a serious heart condition. He’d had no idea before that he had a problem.
  • Dr Chris was on the very first This Morning show 21 years ago, with Richard and Judy and he is still a regular on the show over two decades later.

    Dr Chris’ son Andrew Steele is an Olympic 400m runner and he is set to compete in the London Olympics in 2012. Last year, he was ranked 16th in the world and his personal best is 44.94 seconds.

Photographs: Neil Cooper

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