Amelia Reynolds: 'I've learned to live a bit more in the present - enjoy the right now'
- Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021
We sit in a bright, naturally-lit, corner of Amelia Reynolds’ home near Norwich.
Music is not necessarily in the air, but it is in my line of sight as we drink tea and coffee; a piano is central, surrounded by guitars, a saxophone and a clarinet, on stands. The signs of a very musical family.
Amelia is upbeat, positive, but also reflective, having just returned to regional TV screens as a presenter on BBC Look East.
Regular viewers had, of course, noticed her absence for some six months, which was – as she revealed recently – a tough and determined fight against a rare form of bowel cancer.
November brought the news she had been waiting for: that she was clear of the disease and ready to get back to the job she loves.
Amelia has worked for BBC Look East for 20 years, presenting bulletins and more recently concentrating on the Politics East programme, recorded on a Friday and broadcast on Sunday mornings.
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While that may see her in front of camera and under the lights, she does reveal that she did initially have another, not altogether dissimilar, career in mind.
“I wanted to be an actress,” she confesses.
Having studied English and Drama at Exeter University, where she was also actively involved with university radio, her initial aspirations were the RSC, and playing the likes of Lady Macbeth.
“I auditioned for the Bristol Old Vic, but did not get in, so I thought about other drama schools. But perhaps I did also have one of those ‘life’ moments and realised that this was a sign that I should pursue journalism and broadcasting.”
Giving people a voice
Amelia's introduction to broadcasting was certainly interesting and international, with her first assignment reporting on Aids orphans in Uganda for an independent radio production company, which made programmes for the BBC World Service and Radio 4.
“That was amazing,” she continues. “I was able to travel to amazing places and hear people’s stories, and that was how I got into journalism and reporting.”
From there, she worked with cable TV organisations in the eastern region where she was encouraged and inspired by the journalists around her.
Recalling the words of her early mentors about listening to people and hearing their stories, she said: “I firmly believe that what is really at the heart of good journalism is giving a voice to people who are not normally heard.”
Later, she realised her dream of working for the BBC, having secured a job as a researcher at Look East and worked her way up from there.
There are challenges but meeting so many people from diverse backgrounds is what Amelia enjoys the most.
“I love people and this job allows you to meet all sorts of people; I have been lucky enough to go to Number 10 and interview a prime minister – not the current one - been invited into people’s homes who may be going through really difficult times, or allowed to ask the questions chief executives maybe need to answer,” she says.
“It is a ticket to all sorts of extraordinary places and experiences.”
While now studio-based as a presenter, she has had stints as an out-and-about reporter, and was Look East’s Essex reporter at one stage.
Along the way, she has covered major stories including the Soham murders, the 7/7 London bombings, plus election night dramas, as well as the so-called plane-spotters trial in Greece involving a Suffolk couple who ended up being accused of spying. (This was later made into docudrama, where Amelia did finally achieve her ‘acting dream’ and played herself in it.)
It is, however, the affinity with the regional audience that is so special.
“I think that is the difference about working in regional media; we have a different type of relationship with our audience,” she adds. “People see me out and about in the community, my kids go to the local school, I am part of this place and that creates a different relationship with the viewer.
But there are pressures and challenges of chasing stories, and presenting late night bulletins, especially with a young family, though she also acknowledges that is simply “part of the job.”
“And after the last six months I have had, I am just so pleased to be back and doing something I thought I would never get back to doing,” she adds.
That difficult few months started earlier this year when Amelia suspected something may be wrong.
Having noticed blood at times when she went to the toilet, initial tests revealed nothing untoward but as it persisted, she returned to her GP and was referred to the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital for further investigative tests and a biopsy.
After a couple of weeks, it was confirmed that she had a relatively uncommon form of bowel cancer, which often exhibits similar symptoms to piles, and is more common in women than men.
After receiving the confirmation, she went to tell her parents at their Suffolk home with her husband, ITV Anglia presenter David Whiteley.
“They were extremely supportive and have been brilliant with the kids throughout, but it was not work that was in the front of my mind, but how am I going to tell my children, what do I say, and when do I say it?
“David and I obviously I talked about that but I also phoned Macmillan for some advice because I was in strange territory and wanted to do it for them in the best possible way.”
Having told children Annabel (11) and Cleo (8), she also acknowledges that it helped being able to share the reassurance that this was a cancer that could be successfully treated, though it was still going to be a rough journey.
Course of treatment
From the diagnosis at the beginning of May, supported by family, friends and colleagues, she began a course of treatment, with a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
The chemo, to enhance the effectiveness of radiotherapy, was delivered via a pump which infused the drugs into her body 24 hours a day, but it meant she could receive that aspect of the treatment at home.
However, there was a realisation at the outset of the long and arduous journey ahead.
“I distinctly remember when I first went into the Colney Centre and on to the ward, there were maroon-coloured padded chairs with people in them, all having chemo.
“This lovely nurse directed me to an empty chair and I sat down in it and then the realisation of what was happening - and what was going to happen - just absolutely floored me.
“I felt awful as there were all these people being brave and stoic and getting on with it and I just burst into tears but this lovely nurse said ‘it’s all right, this is normal’, and when you are a cancer patient, words like it is OK, it is normal, are what you want to hear.
“She showed me around, someone offered me a cup of tea and that kindness at that moment was amazing. I am so grateful to that. I then had my first radiotherapy session, which were every day from there, apart from weekends.”
Beating the tumour
Amid the intensity there were challenges, particularly testing for COVID-19 on week three, but the treatment continued, albeit with increased precautions.
“I was admitted to a COVID isolation ward because my temperature spiked really high and they could not tell whether it was COVID or a chemo infection, but I had to spend a weekend in hospital while I was ‘pumped’ full of antibiotics.”
The intensity of the treatment, and side effects, saw Amelia take a break from work.
“There are so many people that have been through similar who do not need me to say that it is tough but it is the hardest thing I have had to do.”
But by mid-November, an MRI scan revealed the tumour had gone. There will be more scans and tests, but this stage of the journey is over.
She remains grateful for the support of the N&N nursing and oncology staff, and knowing that they were always available throughout the treatment and recovery.
“They are under pressure with the ongoing pandemic, but you do not feel you are alone,” she says.
In addition to the care she received, Amelia is appreciative of the hundreds of emails and Twitter messages after she posted on social media to explain her situation. That saw many followers respond with their own cancer stories.
But her over-riding message to people is that if they suspect something is not normal, to get checked out.
“If you can catch cancer early, you have such a better chance,” she continues.
Within her cancer experience, she acknowledges that although it was a tough time, she retained a job and was still paid, had a “supportive husband, great parents, loads of friends, and great colleagues.”
“I did not have to worry about where the next meal was coming from and that experience has left me wanting to try and work out what I can do about it in a practical way to help others,” she says.
“It has left me with this feeling of how on earth do you get through this if you are in an abusive relationship, if you are a single parent, if you are relying on food banks, if you are facing eviction, if you cannot afford to heat your home, how do people do it and that is something that I feel I need to try and do something about.”
For Amelia, who admits to being something of a worrier, the outlook and perspective on life has shifted.
“I think we are all guilty of the next thing, push, push, push, get through this, whizz through that, but what I have learned - and I really hope I am going to hold onto this - is just live a bit more in the present, enjoy the right now.
“I won’t worry about the small stuff anymore. I knew before, that I had an amazing husband, great kids, brilliant parents, lovely friends, and a fantastic job, but my gosh I know that more than ever now.”
Early November saw Amelia back on screen, delivering lunchtime bulletins and refocusing on Politics East.
“After I did the first one, I remembered what it is like, I love doing it and am looking forward to getting into the swing again. It is great to be back.”
With husband David, who was previously with the BBC Inside Out programme, it is back to balancing work and family life on a daily basis for two busy regional TV journalists on opposite channels.
Here and now
Away from work, Amelia enjoys the countryside and heading to the coast, dog walking and playing the piano alongside Annabel on saxophone and Cleo who plays the clarinet. Amelia, too, is learning to play the saxophone, while David is the guitarist.
Born in High Wycombe, her parents Norman and Sarah moved to Fressingfield when she was one and still live in the same house.
“I see myself very much as an East Anglian girl,” she adds.
While she also loves to ski, a more immediate wish is for a family holiday in the sun for 2022 but in the meantime, it is the delights of East Anglia.
“I love Salthouse, the North Norfolk coast, and Walberswick and Southwold because I grew up in Suffolk. Those places have lots of memories for me and I also prefer them out of season when it is chilly and windy but without the crowds.
“Most of all though,” she adds, “I am just so grateful for the here and now.”