Joe Wicks's daily work-out videos were a light at the end of an endless tunnel for many when Covid struck in 2020. But as we learn in the gripping and moving Joe Wicks: Facing My Childhood (BBC One, Monday) that infectious enthusiasm – a can-do fervour that lifted spirits across the world – has been forged in deeply challenging circumstances.
With a thriving keep-fit empire and 4.4 million Instagram followers, Wicks is a self-made success. He is also a survivor of an emotionally abusive childhood, having grown up with a heroin-addict father who would fall off the wagon over and over.
“Other kids would say, ‘Your dad’s a junkie’. I would reply, ‘I don’t know my dad’,” says Wicks, adding that, as a teenager, the gym became his “sanctuary”.
Seven or eight hours on the phone – I can go on benders. All day long, sending voice notes
Wicks would also run to school rather than take the bus. “That’s quite weird – now that I think about it. The pain of suffering was the best way of letting go of all those feelings.”
He still carries those agonised feelings today. And it manifests in surprising ways. We visit Wicks at his home, where he spends all afternoon replying to members of the public who have reached out on Instagram with stories of emotional trauma. He tries to get back to each and every one. “Seven or eight hours on the phone – I can go on benders,” he says. “All day long, sending voice notes.”
It’s a lot. Possibly too much, says wife Rosie. “He has taken on so much that he doesn’t have downtime. He needs to have moments for himself.”
Wicks revisits his childhood home and reconnects with his parents. His mother has battled OCD all her life. And while his father is now clean of heroin, he continues to come to terms with his years as an absent parent. “I can remember thinking, ‘The only one suffering here is me’,” says his dad. “How selfish, how deluded can you be to think that?”
Facing My Childhood widens its scope beyond Wicks’s personal circumstances. We learn support services for the children of people with mental health issues are still hugely inadequate in the UK (the problem is presumably the same, or worse, in Ireland).
As an urgent warning as to the degree to which mental health issues can devastate families, the film thus makes its point powerfully. But it also speaks to the fact successful people are often driven by demons – and that, even when their dreams have come true, the one thing they cannot escape is the memory of the frightened child they used to be.
“Some days I don’t want to be the Body Coach,” says Wicks. “I don’t want to carry all these emotions. I just want to be Joe.”