The last time we saw Andrew Hayden-Smith on television he was battling Cybermen alongside David Tennant’s Doctor Who. Since then the openly gay Geordie has been taking a bit of a breather, but not for much longer. Andrew is set to reappear on our screens this summer in a project he says he’s obliged to keep under wraps for now.
It’s now been 15 years since Andrew, 27, won the role of Ben Carter on the BBC’s children’s programme Byker Grove.
“I was at a normal comprehensive in County Durham, which is where I grew up. Byker Grove used to go around regular schools and find kids that didn’t go to drama school. I’d never even thought about acting. At the time my sister was working as a runner on the show and had taken me in to be an extra for the day. Matthew Robinson, the producer, asked if I’d like to audition. I did and I got it.”
He stayed on the show for seven years, balancing the filming schedule with his schoolwork. Towards the end of his stint on the programme he was promoting the series at CBBC’s London studios when he was asked if he’d like to guest present CBBC for a week.
“I had so much fun I just ended up staying. I signed a contract and I ended up staying there for like three years. They put me on BBC One, which I couldn’t believe.”
I point out that live television is very different from a format where, if you make a mistake, you can just do another take.
“It was a laugh,” he says modestly. “I think the viewers enjoyed that we weren’t perfect all the time.”
There was a problem however. He was now presenting CBBC while still appearing in Byker Grove. The live CBBC role necessitated he moved down to London, but the Byker Grove filming was still in Newcastle.
“I was travelling to and fro quite a lot, mostly by train. I was 19. My character in Byker Grove was now a youth leader, I was that old! I asked to be killed off. Characters who leave usually walk down the drive or go away somewhere, but I said I wanted a memorable exit.”
In the programme’s final season his character was hit by a car and killed, a storyline he says means he’s now especially careful when crossing the road in real life.
With less travelling to contend with, his new life in London enabled him to explore gay pubs and clubs in a way he hadn’t been able to in Newcastle.
“I think I went out on the gay scene once when I was in Newcastle. It’s got a great scene now, but back then it was nothing compared to London. I’d been down about a week when I decided to hit the town. I remember going straight to Heaven and I loved it!”
His work life extended again when he added presenting UK Top 40 to his anchor role on CBBC, but it was around this time that his private life caught the attention of the mainstream press.
“There was a tabloid that said: we know Andrew’s gay, he’s been to Heaven, we’ve seen him out clubbing, we might run a story about it. So I thought: well I’m going to do Attitude, I’m going to beat them to it.
“It wasn’t a big deal though. I’d already told my parents and my friends. I’d already dealt with it myself. I was just getting on with it. My boss at CBBC said it was fine and to just go ahead and do it. They were all very supportive.”
That he can be so relaxed not only in recounting the story, but also at the time of his coming out is testament to the progress of the last 20 years. That the tabloids thought it would be news shows there is further to go.
With everything seemingly perfect I ask him why he took the decision to leave CBBC. The timing had a lot to do with his appearance in Doctor Who, then under the stewardship of Russell T Davies.
“I fell into presenting. I didn’t really want to pursue it as a career. One of my producers at CBBC, a huge Doctor Who fan, said I should give Russell a call to see if he could use me as an extra. I didn’t think he’d get back to me.
“I first met him on the set in Cardiff. It was a freezing cold night and I had a really nice chat with him. Queer of Folk was on when I was 15 so I was completely in awe of him. That show was a huge part of me dealing with my sexuality. The nice thing was he said to me that he’d been planning on writing me a letter to say how proud he was about me coming out.”
Andrew’s last Doctor Who episode aired the same day he left CBBC and he took the opportunity to take a well-deserved break.
“I’d been working almost non-stop since I was 12! It was the first time I was able to take a breather. I wanted to be an actor so I took a break and slowly immersed myself into the routine of auditions and castings.”
A stint as Romeo in the West End followed and garnered generally good reviews. For the past three years TV viewers have also heard Andrew’s melodic tones as an announcer on ITV.
“That’s the good thing about being a Geordie in London,” he jokes. “Wouldn’t work at home! It’s ITV too, so that’s nice because up to that point I’d always been a BBC boy.”
I level with him and tell him that prior to our meeting I’d been worried his coming out had affected his career, or perhaps slowed his transition to adult actor.
“Not really. I just needed a bit of a break. I’m pretty excited about this year. I’ve got a couple of things coming out, but I can’t talk about them, which is the worst thing for me because I’ve got a massive mouth!”
I press him for details, but he charms his way out of it. He’s happy to talk about his bachelor status, however:
“I had a boyfriend on and off for six years between the ages of 19-25. We were together when I came out. You change a lot in your early twenties and in the end I think we were both worried we were somehow missing out. We broke up two years ago. Right now I’m having a good time being single and hanging out with my friends.”
In my head I wonder if his having come out of a relationship is connected to the new impetus in his acting career. If it is, the viewing public should hope he remains single for quite a while to come.