Appearing on TV and radio, Sonali Shah is one of the current hosts on BBC One’s Escape to the Country and has her own Sunday Morning Breakfast show on Magic Radio, through which she presented last year’s West End Live at Trafalgar Square. Sonali has also covered events such as the Queen’s 90th Birthday, the passing of Prince Philip, as well as BBC Sports coverage including the Olympics. As a children’s presenter, Sonali hosted Newsround alongside Ore Oduba, with whom she appeared on Let’s Dance for Comic Relief. Last year, Sonali released her first children’s book The Best Diwali Ever, which was illustrated by Chaaya Prabhat, and was included in Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell’s recommended Christmas gift list. Recently, Sonali talked to us about being a host on Escape to the Country, presenting for Magic Radio and releasing her first children’s book The Best Diwali Ever.
How is your time going so far as one of the hosts on Escape to the Country and what do you enjoy most about being part of the show?
I’ve always had a slight obsession with homes and property (we built our family home when I was 13) so joining the Escape team eight years ago felt like converting a hobby into a job. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the British countryside better through the programme. I love hearing people’s stories, whether they are welcoming us into their homes or have asked us for help to move to a more rural area. A new home is so much more than just bricks and mortar and house-hunting can be quite emotional because so often, it’s about changing your life.
Have you had any highlights from working on the series so far?
My highlight has always been going back to revisit those who’ve house-hunted with us on the show to see where they ended up – it’s so lovely to be able to catch up with escapees again a few months or years down the line and have a nosey around their new home.
Can you tell us about your Sunday Morning Breakfast show on Magic Radio and how is it being on the Magic Radio team?
I host Sunday Breakfast between 7 and 10am on Magic Radio. I get into studio while most people are still asleep and get to see the sunrise while easing listeners into their Sunday with some of their favourite music – it’s an absolute joy. The Magic family have been so welcoming and we’ve been on some lovely trips to the theatre or out to hear live music together.
What was it like hosting last year’s West End Live at Trafalgar Square?
It was spine-tinglingly emotional after the 18 months everyone had gone through. Those working in theatre and the arts had been hit so hard so to see people perform on a stage once again in front of live crowds was incredible. I have a real passion for hosting live events where you can feed off the audience there and then.
How do you find the experience presenting live events such as the Queen’s 90th Birthday and the passing of Prince Philip?
It always feels like such an honour to be able to be the eyes and ears for the audience at big national events.
You have also presented BBC Sport and the Olympics coverage as well as other sporting events, what are these like to do?
Being at a major sporting event gives you a real buzz. The first major games I covered were the Beijing Olympics in 2008 – I headed there after filming a Newsround special on the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake. Not only do you get to report on the sport, but all the other stories that emerge around the action. Hosting coverage at my home games (London 2012) has been one of my career highlights.
Having been a presenter on Newsround for a number of years, what are some of your favourite memories from presenting this show?
There’s nothing quite like being in a live studio every evening – it was a dream job. The icing on the cake was being able to travel the world to show children in Britain how other kids lived. It was a real honour to be able to have hosted such a flagship show for the BBC.
In 2013, you appeared on BBC’s Let’s Dance for Comic Relief alongside your Newsround co-presenter Ore Oduba, how was this?
It was so much fun. I’ve always danced (I learnt Indian classical then Indian folk before moving onto street dance and Bollywood when I was younger) so it was great to be able to raise money for charity by learning a dance routine. And to be able to share the experience with a friend was incredible. I would love to attend more regular dance classes nowadays but it’s tough to fit in around work and family.
Last year, you released your first children’s book The Best Diwali Ever, what was it like to work on?
I really enjoyed the process of going back and forth with a book editor, tweaking and refining the story. And then, once Chaaya Prabhat was brought on board as an illustrator, it was wonderful to see the words brought to life through her talent.
How was it seeing the book be released and what’s it like seeing the reader response?
It was incredible to receive such a positive reaction to the book from parents, teachers and of course, most importantly, from kids themselves. You never quite know how something you’ve been working on will be received. The Best Diwali Ever was even included in Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell’s recommended Christmas gift list – that certainly made my Christmas special!
Had you always wanted to write a children’s book and do you hope to release more in the future?
After my time hosting Newsround, I was keen on writing a children’s book, if the right idea came along. I’d only ever seen Diwali books in the RE section of libraries and wanted to produce a book which felt different and reflected how non-religious families celebrate the festival of lights. I would of course like to write more books, but only if I am able to produce something that feels fresh and relevant to the target audience.
We understand you are an ambassador for The Prince’s Trust, the British Asian Trust and Barnardo’s, how did these come about and can you say about your work with them?
I was looking to support some charities with causes close to my heart. I have huge respect for how The Prince’s Trust supports entrepreneurship and became an ambassador for them after bumping into someone at a Kylie Minogue concert! I went on to become a British Asian Trust ambassador because I was keen to support an organisation who helps educate girls in South Asia, where my grandparents from both sides were born. My relationship with Barnardo’s started after I hosted some concerts for them during my time at Newsround. I also regularly support Great Ormond Street and have hosted events for the NSPCC and Action Aid.
Where does your love of presenting come from and how did you start?
I always talked too much in class at school and my mum used to say my mouth would be the making and breaking of me. I’m just glad I have been able to put it to good use! My first experience of presenting was a tiny segment on Blue Peter from the Victoria and Albert Museum as a teenager – if only I’d known then that I would end up working at CBBC just over a decade later!
What advice would you give someone wanting to get into presenting work?
Presenting is about telling stories and being able to communicate information so I think it’s a good idea to have a subject to specialise in, if you can. That can set you apart from other people who are interested in presenting too. Nowadays, people don’t need a broadcaster or a publication to give them a platform due to the presence of social media so if you want to write, podcast or make videos, I say just do it!
How do you like to spend your time away from your career?
Catching up with friends and family, eating out, cooking, reading and watching movies with the kids. I can’t wait to get back to more travelling soon too.
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