Buckle up as we take you on a whistle stop tour of the ever-changing career of Berkshire local Kirsten O’Brien – just be careful if she offers you a sandwich…
Preparing to interview Kirsten O’Brien, I literally have no idea where to start. There’s her very successful career as a kids’ TV presenter, which started a quarter of a century ago; the move into documentaries, including a very revealing look at what kids’ TV presenters tend to do to shake off their public image; a successful stand-up show; winning The Weakest Link; and even holding two Guinness World Records involving socks and toes. Taking a deep breath, I decide to dive in feet first.
“Hello Berkshire!” exclaims O’Brien excitedly when she answers my call. Right from the off her enthusiasm is catching, particularly when she explains she has answered on a vintage phone. “It rings like an old phone, so all the kids run to it [when someone calls]. It has brought a bit of lockdown joy,” she laughs.
If you are feeling a little down in the dumps, find an hour to speak to mum-of-three O’Brien – but considering she started out presenting to kids, her energetic approach to life isn’t a surprise. “I know Phillip Schofield said that gig is the best years of your life,” she says when I ask about if the enthusiasm comes naturally. “It was a young environment, it was live tele and we had quite a lot of freedom. It was a ball of a job. I got sent off to interview George Clooney, I could ride around the BBC Studios in the Noddy car… I mean, who doesn’t want to do that? There was a lot of joy in the job.”
Looking at O’Brien’s work in kids’ TV, it’s almost like a career within a career. She started out in the legendary (for those of a certain age) Broom Cupboard with Otis the Aardvark, before going on to front the likes of Smile, Springwatch Trackers, Totally Doctor Who, Short Change and popular art show Smart. Which, naturally, led to a stand-up show called Confessions of a Children’s TV Presenter.
“It seemed like the natural thing to do with my comedy,” she explains. “When I started doing stand-up, I was very anecdotal. Unsurprisingly, my persona was not dour like Jack Dee and I was like a giddy lamb on stage, so it seemed the natural thing to write a kids’ TV presenter show. It challenged perceptions. I remember I’d come off stage in a club after having used some mild, low key swear words, but because everyone’s perception of me was as a kids’ TV presenter, people couldn’t believe I had said things like that. People went on after me and said much worse things, but because of this perception I was a smiley kids’ TV presenter… The stand-up was a chance to mess with people’s minds and evolve myself.”
Those people may have also been a little stunned after seeing O’Brien’s move into documentary making with Kirsten’s Topless Ambition. “I thought about what matters to me, what am I interested in, and I came up with this notion of a right of passage for female kids’ TV presenters feeling the need to do [racy shoots with] these lads’ mags, so that was my first authored documentary and I am really proud of it as it was a very personal piece. In kids’ TV you are really ramping up your personality, it’s a joy and full of brightness. Then I did Topless Ambition and I cried in it, so I was exposing myself more than I ever had before – and quite specifically sometimes as well!”
O’Brien appears to have a real hunger to try out new things, and her post-kids’ TV career varies wildly. She has become the leading face fronting Britain’s Most Embarrassing Parents, presented Botox Britain: Your Life In Their Hands and Eastenders Live: The Aftermath, and travelled the globe with Will Mellor for the World’s Toughest Driving Test, where she is now the proud owner of a tank driving licence. She has also won The Weakest Link – “That’s a real highlight” – and has two Guinness World Records to her name. “One was the number of socks on one foot, the other was number of taps in a minute when doing tap dancing,” she says nonchalantly, as if these are everyday occurrences. “My brother and I grew up trying to do something like how many Jacob’s crackers you can eat, so I wanted a record – it was on my bucket list. I was doing a radio show at the time called The Big Toe Radio Show, so I was looking for foot-related records. Another one I attempted and failed was making a sandwich with your feet. I practiced quite a lot at home, it’s quite elaborate, but that was one that went wrong.”
Home has been Berkshire for nearly a decade, although things did not get off to a good start when she extracted herself from her London flat. “We moved out of Camden just before my eldest was one,” she recalls. “I was a bit panicked about leaving London to be honest, so initially it was just a rent as I was too terrified to commit. We moved a week before my son’s first birthday and two weeks before Christmas, so it was absolutely insane. We rocked up to this property we were renting and the estate agent messaged to say, ‘Bad news, there’s been a power cut, so the house is freezing’. So the first thing I had to do was buy logs from a local garden centre to get a fire going. There I am with an almost one-year-old baby having been persuaded to leave London and my worst fears had been realised: there’s no heating and I can’t even get a hot meal on the go for my child… It was a bit of a baptism of fire!”
It is fair to say things have improved since then and O’Brien recounts the joy of now being able to do voiceover recordings in her shed. The anecdotes, I feel, could keep coming, but her latest venture is all about getting others to recount their stories. “Sixteen Summers is a podcast I have been working on whilst we have been in lockdown,” she explains. “It’s a very simple premise: if you had to choose between the childhood you had or the one you are giving your children, which would you pick? So far we have Will Mellor, another local lad Steve Backshall, Jason Manford, [last month’s cover star] Melinda Messenger… We will keep it going.” The future, it seems, looks like being just as eclectic for Kirsten O’Brien.
Kirsten O’Brien’s local picks
My local pub on Crazies Hill. Jade and Owen took it over last year and are working so hard to make it a great place to be.
It has a great play area, brilliant parts to go for bike rides, you can feed the ducks, we have been on kayaks at the water sports centre in the past… This is definitely one of my favourite places.
Our local bike café! They do amazing cakes and coffee. It was actually an old pub when we first moved here, but then the owner, Lee, came along and opened it up again as a bike café. A brilliant idea.
I have just got a canoe for my birthday, so I am desperate to get on to the river when things get back to normal.