Carry on doctor
Dr Christian Jessen is the people’s favourite. Adored by fans worldwide for his honest, open approach to sensitive health issues, he’s busier than ever. Deputy editor, Jo Willacy, caught up with him for an in-depth consultation…
‘You look very weathered,’ says photographer John Wright as he welcomes Dr Christian Jessen, 34, to the studio for our photo shoot.
‘Is that weathered as in worn, or weathered as in well?’ asks Dr Christian, with a slightly concerned tone, presumably hoping it’s not the former (he’s about to be photographed nonstop for six hours).
‘The latter,’ confirms John, to Dr Christian’s relief. ‘You look as if you’ve been away.’
Dr Christian assures us he hasn’t. There’s been no time for a holiday amid his recent punishing filming schedule. It would havebeen no surprise if he had looked worn out, though – the months of work, for not one, but three shows, have resulted in Dr Christian barely being off our TV screens in recent months. He fronted One Born At Christmas, live, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; the end of January saw series four of Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies begin, with a whopping four million tuning in to episode one; and soon to air, also on Channel 4 and for series number four, is Supersize vs Superskinny.
A doctor who qualified more than 10 years ago might well have thought his days of working on Christmas Day were well and truly over. So did he enjoy his shift, of the TV variety, presenting One Born At Christmas?
‘There was a lot of pressure. Christmas Day – four live shows – a lot of people watching. It was massive. It was terrifying in many respects but really exhilarating in others. I breathed a big sigh of relief at the end and went, “Actually, that was fine.” There were no major cock-ups, I didn’t feel I made a complete arse of myself. I love live telly because you know when you start and you know when you finish and there’s no buggering about in between!
‘One thing it made me realise, though, is that my geography is really bad. There was a big map and viewers sent in pictures of their babies and where they’d been born. It wasn’t like “Manchester”; it was “Ecclesfield” or something. I had no idea where half of these places were – I just randomly stuck them on!
But it wasn’t his geographical mishaps that sparked criticism after the shows, but a seemingly insignificant symbol of a baby bottle that was used – on said map – to symbolise a baby’s birth. A lobby of experts complained about the image of the bottle, claiming it didn’t promote breastfeeding.
‘Don’t get me started. It was like, “Well, we can hardly have a picture of a large tit, can we?’”
Health issues laid bare
One show where a tit (of any size or shape) would be right at home is the award-winning Embarrassing Bodies, the new series of which began four days after our photo shoot. ‘We keep finding them,’ says Dr Christian, of the various patients featured on the show. ‘They’re pretty extreme cases. I still get shocked by things – I think the day I don’t is the day I give up medicine.’
Having already covered Embarrassing Kids, Teenagers and Old Bodies, the show has found another angle to explore later in the year. ‘We’ve filmed Embarrassing Fat Bodies – it’s probably our most eye-opening stuff yet. It covers the complications of being overweight – people who were too heavy, so lost the weight, and the problems they’ve now got; fertility issues with being overweight; all sorts of things. It’s not just, “You’ll all have heart attacks and that’s the end of it.”’
His other big show – Supersize vs Superskinny – launches its fourth series on next month with four hour-long kids’ versions. ‘I loved making them. It’s one skinny and one supersize kid – eight years old up to teenagers – with one parent. The kids and the parents were just wonderful. It had a very different tone to the adult shows because what I could and couldn’t say varied according to their ages. I quickly realised it’s all down to the parents really – an eight-year-old doesn’t do the food shopping and cook the food; it’s got to be coming from somewhere. In most cases, the parents had sort of lost control. There was always a revelation moment when the parent realised, “I’m in charge. It’s down to me in the end.”’
Had it been down to a teenage Dr Christian, he would never have ended up in medicine and, ultimately, in front of the camera – his school boy aspirations were to be behind it, as a theatre or opera director. ‘At my school [Uppingham], theatre was not a proper career. It didn’t lead to a salary! Funnily enough, it was a very theatrical place – Stephen Fry, the Suchet brothers and Boris Karloff all went there. But for some reason – I think because I was academic and sciencey – I was a tick in the box for medical school. That sounds like I was forced into it. I wasn’t – it was definitely a second interest. If it had been up to me at that age, I would have tried to go into theatre, but people who were older and wiser said, “Look, get a proper degree first, then you can think about it.” They were right, of course. But what I do now is a lovely balance because TV is a lot of, “How shall we do this?” “How shall we do that?”, so I’m kind of doing what I always wanted to do, but with something else thrown in.’
A bit on the side
Those older and wiser people in his life – his parents, for one – clearly have a strong influence on him still. A recent tweet of his (Dr Christian is a big fan of Twitter) read: ‘Off to my clinic today to do my proper doctoring job, as my mother calls it. None of this TV nonsense for her!’
Such snippets providing easy fodder for our interview, I ask if he agrees with his mother. ‘The short answer is I regard it all now as a proper job. I didn’t at first. I thought the TV was a bit of fun – a glamorous little extra – and that, bottom line, doctoring was what I did. But I’ll tell you now – my TV days are far longer, far more tiring and far harder work than my clinic days – by a long way.
‘My parents were a bit poo-pooey about the whole TV thing – and then I took my father on a shoot for Embarrassing Old Bodies, which he wasn’t exactly delighted about! They MRI scanned the two of us and were comparing difference in joints and muscular tone – him being exactly the same as me – same height, same build, same everything, but twice my age – he was 64 and I was 32.
‘It was actually really sweet because at the end of it he said to me, “I never really thought this TV thing was a proper job, but it’s a lot harder than it seems. You’re really having to analyse this and think.”’
Jessen Senior was right. Dr Christian explains: ‘I have to think very hard about what I’m going to say on TV, what my message is – chatting away on camera, it seems all relaxed – but actually I’m thinking, What is the point I want to get across here? You’ve got four million people watching you, you don’t want it over-complicated; you don’t want it to be boring, because you want to hold their attention. But you’ve got messages to get across. In clinic, I might see 12-15 patients a day, but in one programme I’m talking to four million people, so it’s a huge responsibility.’
At Doctorcall, the Harley Street clinic where Dr Christian is to be found two days a week, he specialises in sexual health and HIV. ‘I love it. It’s one of the few specialties where people walk in absolutely terrified and very worried and guilty, and 20 minutes later walk out with big smiles on their faces. The idea of having to talk about their sex lives fills people with dread, but when they realise, “Oh, it’s not that bad. I wasn’t embarrassed and he didn’t judge me,”… Well, brilliant – that, for me, is hugely satisfying.’
Since his ‘other’ career took off, Dr Christian’s clinic has become a little more varied. ‘The more TV I do, the more people I get seeking me out for GP reasons – often strange, embarrassing problems.’
Do the two roles ever clash? ‘I do get some patients who come in and either look around for cameras or say, “Oh my God, it’s you”, then get all flustered. But I just try to be me and I think they quickly get used to the idea that I’m just a doctor.’
Despite his ever-increasing public presence, Dr Christian has no intention of giving up his clinic work. ‘I don’t think you can be a valid doctor if you’re not seeing patients anymore. You have to keep up to date and I like seeing my patients. I wouldn’t say the TV work is more fun – in fact, some days, it’s absolutely not. Clinic can be far more entertaining than days of long, cold, wet shoots – it can get quite grim. But there are days of filming that I love, particularly when I talk to young people about health issues and teach them new stuff that makes them go “Ahhhh”. I love that look of interest and thirst for more knowledge. That’s what I find really satisfying.’
Learning the hard way
As a young man himself, Dr Christian took a year out, straight from school, to go to Africa. Though he was over there to teach, ‘whatever they needed – everything from agriculture and farming to health,’ he learnt a lot, too.
‘The biggest lesson was finding out who I was; I grew up. I led a very privileged, mollycoddled existence in boarding school from the age of seven to 18, so had no idea who I was or what life was about. Being thrown into a Third World country, you grow up very fast. I suppose the biggest lesson, actually, was how relatively insignificant you are. But having said that, at the same time, realising what a big difference one person can make. Teaching five people about an aspect of health, that they then go off and teach five other people, and they go off… and before long, you’ve made a difference.’
Dr Christian has returned to Africa several times to do medical work since that first eye-opening trip, but surprisingly he thinks it’s this country that needs to improve its health awareness, particularly when it comes to sex education. So where does he think we’re going wrong?
‘Prudishness and too much resistance to talking about it. The fact that a show like Embarrassing Bodies makes such waves and gets so written about is proof of that. It has its critics, “This is porn”; “This is disgraceful.” No, this is real life. This is what happens to every single one of us. We’ve all got those bits, we all shag each other – we need to grow up about this sort of thing. We need to normalise it – the more we talk about this sort of thing, the more boring it becomes. And good, it should be boring, because it should be everyday.’
Somewhat surprisingly, it’s not sexual health that immediately comes to Dr Christian’s mind when, to end our interview, I ask what he feels are the biggest health problems in the UK. ‘Obesity, alcohol and… a third one… Can I come back to you on a third one?’
I express my surprise that he doesn’t mention sexual health.
‘Well, yes, sexual infections, but I thought that was a bit obvious for me! As for alcohol, people forget it’s a drug and it causes so many problems. We’re seeing kids as young as 15 admitted to hospital with liver damage due to drink – putting up prices will not do anything. When it comes to obesity, I think we need to stop being so politically correct. At the end of the day, it’s what you put in your mouth that makes you the way you are. Yes, there are certain conditions and certain predispositions that make it a bit more likely you’ll be more overweight, but even then – let’s say PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome], a very common disease that does tend to make women bigger – the same applies. It’s what they put in their mouths that makes them overweight – they just have to work harder at it. That makes me sound very cold and unsympathetic – I’m not; it’s the truth.
‘People need to understand that they are in control – it’s this idea of, “Oh, it’s not my fault, I can’t help it.” It’s related to the nanny state thing of people expecting their doctor to embrace them and make them better without them doing anything to help. It’s very frustrating.’
As our day with Dr Christian nears its end, it’s been anything but frustrating. He’s posed happily for six hours, changed in and out of various outfits (and looked good in them all, damn him!), tweeted about how much he’d enjoyed himself (‘Just finished shoot for my @athomemag – long day but great pics’), donned latex gloves (‘These are the wrong type, they don’t stretch!), and draped a stethoscope round his neck every which way possible; ‘There’s only so many ways you can hold a stethoscope – otherwise it becomes more like a feather boa!’
Now there’s an image Dr Christian’s army of fans wouldn’t mind seeing. Maybe next time…