CBeebies star Maddie Moate: ‘Elephant poo is so magical!’

·6 min read

Halfway through my interview with Maddie Moate, I check that I haven’t missed anything out of her heaving body of work. There’s a new picture book, Stuff, which is why we’re talking. But there’s also her long line of factual CBeebies shows, among them Maddie’s Do You Know?, which has plunged her – smiling and inquisitive – into countless factories and laboratories since 2016. She also hosts a CBBC series about beekeeping, and runs a YouTube channel, which was home to a daily, self-produced educational show over lockdown. Then there are the videos she makes about electric cars. Oh, and her podcast, which this year won a British Podcast award.

I’m sure I’m missing something, I say. “Live shows!” she grins. Of course. The touring science show she hosts with her fiance, fellow TV presenter Greg Foot. “And I’ve just spent the last two weeks prancing about the stage as a reindeer for CBeebies”, she adds. OK, right. “And then at Christmas, I’m doing my first panto.”

Stuff is yet another example of Moate’s professional curiosity. It’s a bright, fun children’s book that leads the reader around the world, sharing unusual variations of things we use every day. There’s a bit about an Indian engineer who made ink from soot, another about East African sandals made from old tyres, another about paper made from elephant poo.

Related: The Guardian view on CBeebies: cherish this British success | Editorial

“I’ve always gone in search of the processes that are slightly more off the wall, creative, that sort of make you go, ‘Huh? I didn’t know that happened’”, she explains. “Stories about ordinary things that are made in extraordinary ways. And often these are simple, creative, very eco-friendly ways as well.”

Several of the ideas – including the elephant poo – have already been dealt with in Moate’s previous work. “I find these stories quite magical,” she says. “With packaging that’s made from seaweed, or paper that’s made from poo, it’s just so unexpected. Those were the sorts of stories that I was enjoying telling on YouTube, so I figured, let’s find some more.”

If you detect a strong head-girl energy from Moate, it might be because she was head girl at the Henry Box School in Oxfordshire. She went on to study drama at Bristol University; which apparently left her quite torn. “People often assume that I’m a scientist because of the content I make,” she says. “I remember so clearly, in sixth form, doing both biology and drama, and having to make that choice. I thought I wanted to be some kind of ‘ologist’. I didn’t know if that was a zoologist or a marine biologist, but I wanted to be an ‘ologist’.”

Drama won. “I wanted to be an actor,” she says. “I considered it for a bit, dabbled, then quickly realised it was not for me.” Instead she wound up reviewing consumer technology for a now defunct YouTube channel. Shortly afterwards, the BBC came calling. “They started [an online channel] called BBC Earth Unplugged,” she says. “Sort of a little sibling channel to BBC Earth.” Attempts to hire traditional television presenters had failed, she recalls, because “the YouTube style is so different. It’s really fast-paced – just not telly at all. If you put a traditional natural history presenter straight on to YouTube, especially if they don’t watch it, it isn’t going to work.”

Moate’s easy, inquisitive presenting style worked instantly, so it made perfect sense when CBeebies came calling. “Before Do You Know?, all of the programming on CBeebies had very much been based in studios. And the presenters were always actors playing a part,” she says. The scientist on Nina and the Neurons, for instance, wasn’t a real scientist, nor was Andy Day a time-travelling museum worker. In contrast, Maddie’s infectious authenticity shone through.

I’ve interviewed children’s presenters before and their full-beam enthusiasm for life has always been a source of fascination. They can’t really be like that all the time, can they? So, perhaps a bit rudely, I decide to test the waters a bit. Have you seen Squid Game, Maddie?

“No”, she replies, almost apologetically. “Greg is watching it, and he was like, ‘I don’t know if you’ll like it or not.’ I don’t mind blood and gore, but he said that some of the violence is pretty intense. There were some things that sound like they would just imprint themselves in my brain, and I’m like, ‘Do I want that?’”

Tangent over, we move on to what at the time seemed like a Herculean task: the online show Let’s Go Live, which she produced and presented with Foot from their home over lockdown. The show elevated her to the pantheon of entertainers who helped steer children through the choppy waters of Covid, along with Joe Wicks and Rob Biddulph. But, my God, it sounded like a lot of work.

She nods. “Every day we would get up at 6am and get camera ready, then set up the spare room. At 9.30am, we would rehearse the show once, and then do it live at 11am. As soon as the show ended, we’d get on to social media and thank anybody who had been watching. And then, for the rest of the day, I would script the next day’s show and make any props or activities, and test things out. At the end of the day, Greg would look over the script to see what he thought. He was also in the background, working on community management. In addition to that, we were getting 500 emails a day.”

She has been engaged to Foot for “a long time now”. How long? Moate smiles. “Five years, maybe more. Oh, my gosh, if I get it wrong I’ll be in trouble.” That’s a long time, I say, suddenly turning into my mother. Are you too busy to get married? “We are both definitely driven when it comes to work,” she says, a tiny hint of caginess creeping into her voice. “I think we are both driven by opportunity, and just super lucky that we have jobs that offer us amazing opportunities and experiences that are just too much to turn down. It gets in the way of personal things but, equally, if that means going on a trek to find the world’s largest, smelliest flower, or having the opportunity to travel to Iceland and film orcas, you don’t say no to that kind of thing, do you? We are both too busy and our balance is completely off. But at the same time, if you were to ask what I could do less of, I couldn’t tell you.”

Perhaps this relentless optimism really is her default setting. In any case, it’s clearly working. My children do not give a stuff when I tell them about my interviews, but there was palpable excitement when I said I was going to speak to Maddie from CBeebies, and they wanted in on the act. My six-year-old asked me to ask her a question, which I duly did. The question was this: how many things do you know?

For a second, Moate screws up her face, before exploding with more of that full-beam enthusiasm. “Tell him I know,” she exclaims, as brightly as ever, “approximately 7,263 things”. Screw it, I give up. Maddie Moate really is like this all the time.

Maddie Moate’s first book, Stuff: Eco-Stories of Everyday Stuff, is out now.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting