Stacey Dooley talks sleeping over and asking the difficult questions

Stacey Dooley talks sleeping over and asking the difficult questions

Friday, 6th May 2022
Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over: Strictly Orthodox Jews (credit: UKTV)
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TV natural Stacey Dooley gives RTS Futures her account of her current series, Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over.

Intrepid and armed with a fearsome work ethic, Stacey Dooley seems to be on a one-woman mission to popularise current affairs for a new generation of young viewers.

Dooley made her TV debut in 2008 as a contributor on BBC Three documentary series Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts, one of six fashion consumers living and working alongside Indian garment workers making cheap clothes for the UK.

It was obvious she was a TV natural. Within a year, she had her own BBC Three show, Stacey Dooley Investigates, which, for more than a decade, has seen her travel the world: to Russia to film an exposé of domestic violence; to Japan to report on the sexualisation of children; and to Nigeria to talk to young women forced to become suicide bombers. She has also reported for Panorama and made films on arms dealers and Isis. Fearless doesn’t cover the half of it.

There’s a softer side too: fronting CBBC shows Show Me What You’re Made of and The Pets Factor, judging RuPaul’s Drag Race UK and even winning Strictly Come Dancing.

Her current project is Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over, now in its third series. At an RTS Futures event at the British Museum, Dooley spoke about the programme and her career. “I remember the guy who gave me my first gig – he was so generous because I obviously wasn’t an established journo; I was this sort of mouthy, opinionated girl from Luton Airport.

“It was such sound advice. He said: ‘Look, there’ll be a temptation to conform and feel like you need to sound the same as everyone else and dress the same as everyone else. There are thousands of journos [like that] – if that’s what I wanted, I would have gone to them. I like that you are inquisitive and have something to say.’”

A little over a decade later and Dooley has her own production company, Little Dooley. “I’m now talking about risk assessments and on the phone to Blackpool council about drone shots, which is really dull, but it’s a good learning curve for me,” she said.

Mum Fighting the Clock (credit: UKTV)

In Mum Fighting the Clock – episode 3 of the current series of Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over, which was premiered at the RTS event – Dooley spends time with Jemma McGowan and her family. McGowan, an almost impossibly upbeat mum from County Tyrone, is living with a terminal diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

Dooley doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions about death and McGowan’s belief in alternative medicine, but there are also moments of joy.

“A lazy approach would be to spend the entire time in an earnest manner, talking about death,” said Dooley. “While those conversations are necessary, she is [a woman] in her twenties with lots to say. Instinctively, I think her natural default is that she’s an optimist, so I’m delighted we showed that.”

Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over first aired on W in 2019 and runs to 16 episodes, all available on VoD service UKTV Play. Dooley’s personal favourites include weekends spent with a Mormon family in Greater Manchester, and, most of all, Rabbi Mordechai Wollenberg and his ultra-orthodox family. “I’ve got such a soft spot for Mordechai… [he] was such a gent,” said Dooley.

She described Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over as a “unique format”, adding: “I think it’s healthy and necessary to hang out with people who you don’t always understand or agree with because, increasingly, we surround ourselves with people who nod along at the same time as us.”

The series is shot over a long weekend. “As film-makers, sometimes we can [think we’re] tortured artists, [wanting] weeks and weeks and weeks [to film]. Actually, we get there on a Friday, we leave on the Monday and we’ve never made a duff film yet,” said Dooley.

“It’s a good discipline, making a film in 72 hours,” added executive producer Alice Bowden, who has worked on the series since day one – first as series producer, now as executive producer. She is one of a production crew of five, which includes two camera operators, in what must be a crowded house.

Offering proof – such as Dooley brushing her teeth or getting into bed – that the presenter is actually sleeping over is “critical”, said UKTV’s head of factual and factual entertainment, Hilary Rosen, who commissions the series for the W channel.

“I always worry that there’s a large degree of cynicism among the audience and that [they] will assume that these things have been manufactured to suit the people making the programme and that corners have been cut. So, I always think it’s important that it’s very, very clear visually to the audience that [Stacey is] there for those 72 hours.”

Dooley added: “I get that cynicism because we’ve heard before that presenters have alluded to the idea that they’re staying, and [in fact] they go and stay in a five-star hotel.”

Dooley is hugely grateful that families open themselves up for TV. “They’re such good sports,” she said. “If the telly called me and said, ‘Stacey, we’d like to come and stay around your house. There’ll be five of use, there’ll be two cameras and we’ll be asking you deeply personal questions – are you up for it?’ I’d be like, ‘absolutely not’, so I never, ever, ever take it for granted.… It’s never a given that [people] are going to allow us in.”

"The worst thing they can do is kick you out"

Nevertheless, there is sometimes what Dooley refers to as “rub”; occasionally, “quite a lot of rub”. Two episodes stand out: The British Lion King, in which she stayed with a family that kept two lions and a puma in their back garden and probed them about animal welfare; and The Family Without Rules, whose aversion to modern medicine ran up against Dooley’s personal experience of seeing children die from malaria.

“It’s my job and I hate the idea of getting in the car [to go home] and thinking, ‘You should have asked that’. So, I always bite the bullet. The worst they can do is kick you out,” said Dooley. So far, they haven’t.

The families can’t say they haven’t been warned. “We always say, ‘Stacey will ask you the difficult questions’, so they are aware that there isn’t going to be a subject that’s off limits,” explained Bowden. The families also see their episode pre-broadcast, in the company of Bowden. “People are generally happy with the [final] programme,” she said.

A member of the RTS Futures audience wondered whether meeting Jemma McGowan while filming Mum Fighting the Clock had provoked any changes in Dooley’s own life. She replied: “For the last couple of years, I’ve been having this weird existential crisis where I’m terrified of dying.… I don’t know why because, to my knowledge, everything is fine.”

In fact, she added, personally and professionally, “things couldn’t be going better. So, spending time with Jemma reminded me, and I don’t want to sound too much of a cliché, that every single day, you’ve got to go for it. When I came home, I was due a smear test; I made sure I had the smear test and asked them to check every­thing else while I was there. It’s a bit of a predictable answer, but that’s what [Jemma] will do for lots of people.”

‘Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over screening and Q&A’ was held at the British Museum on 21 April. The producer was Kelly Phelps, senior publicist at UKTV.

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