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Dr Hilary Jones: ‘I always try to be kind and compassionate, and grateful for what I have’

He’s morning television’s favourite doctor, and it all began when he wrote on the off-chance to TV-am. In a letter to his younger self, he’s reflecting on a lifetime of giving health advice, and the power of aiming high

Dr Hilary Jones MBE was born in London in 1953, and qualified as a doctor at the Royal Free Hospital. In 1989, he appeared on TV-am on a two-week trial and, three decades later he’s still on our screens dishing out health advice. He’s also written several health-related books on everything from stress to menopause, and last year published his first novel, Frontline. In his Letter to My Younger Self he describes a happy childhood and bell-bottomed adolescence, and how he always let his girlfriends pay on dates.

I was lucky enough to go to a good school, by and large. We had a really good drama society and I really enjoyed acting. I was actually quite a wallflower at parties. I was a bit shy. I regretted not having a sister because I didn’t really understand girls, and rather put them on a pedestal. So being on stage allowed me to be more confident. It helped me get out of my shyness. What did I look like? I had a lot more hair then than I do now. I had very flared bell-bottom jeans and grey Cuban heel boots, so I was… not quite flower power but getting there.

If you met the 16-year-old me now you’d find someone who liked a joke. Someone who was friendly and would be quite happy to take you back to mum and dad, who would feed you well. I preferred to be outdoors, going off on trips with friends, camping, that sort of thing. I was pretty worry-free and pretty irresponsible. My girlfriends generally paid for me because I had no money. Not that I had many girlfriends, but the ones I did I never really paid my way with.

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My dad was an influence in the way I thought. He was from a working-class background and became a GP. He was extremely popular with all his patients in the area he worked. My parents had no class consciousness but they were very people-orientated. They ran an open house – they were very generous, and welcomed people of all creeds, colours, races and backgrounds. They taught me that it’s all about people, not their backgrounds and not about privilege.

Dr Hilary Jones
2000 as GMTV’s resident health expert Photo: ITV/Shutterstock

My life changed in the late Eighties. I’d been a GP for a while and I was starting to notice how medical stories were covered on TV. There was this tendency to talk to academic professors who were high up in their field, but they couldn’t always communicate their messages. I thought, why don’t they talk to a bog-standard GP who talks to patients using their own words and terminology. So I wrote to TV-am and said, give us a job! And they said they liked the idea, come and have an interview. They tried me out for two weeks. That was in 1989.

The pandemic has been the biggest, most challenging, public health story for 100 years. It’s polarised people hugely. People have become very tribal about it. Some are very violently for strict measures to protect the public, and others have been more hesitant about vaccination and resistant to the idea of the state having control over their lives. So it’s been interesting. It was important that we weren’t frivolous. The messages had to be clear, and there had to be scientific evidence for everything we said, because everything was investigated and analysed in great detail. 

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There are other subjects you can be a little bit more free with. Even things like prostate cancer or breast cancer, people who have suffered those illnesses can talk about their experiences in a way that makes people laugh, but offers important messages at the same time. It was impossible to do that with a pandemic, with so many people hospitalised and losing their lives. It’s been a disappointment to many doctors that some people have been so resistant to taking preventative measures to avoid a potentially very nasty disease that you can pass to other people.

I never took [my heartthrob persona] too seriously. I think being a doctor keeps you grounded. I didn’t stop working in clinical medicine, so the TV image and media coverage never really went to my head. I think I stayed fairly sensible. People do come up to me but they’re usually nice and friendly, and say hi Doc, how’s it going? Sometimes I’ll be sitting on the train and somebody will come up and say, can I ask you about this colonoscopy I’m having next week? But I always give people the time of day, I never dismiss them.

I’ve always enjoyed writing. So when I was approached by a literary agent during lockdown and asked if I’d like to write a novel I thought it would be a lovely thing to do. The constant coverage of Covid was so overwhelming that I wanted to do something creative, where I could use my imagination and my love of words. I’ve absolutely loved writing it. It’s a kind of allegory. It’s called Frontline and it’s about the sacrifices frontline people have made during this pandemic, but it’s set in the First World War, when we had soldiers on the frontline making sacrifices. A lot of people have compared working in hospitals in the last 18 months to working in a war zone. It was fascinating thinking about the way people react to adversity and threats to their health. Some are very kind and caring and make sacrifices, and others become very selfish and angry. We’ve seen that during this pandemic.  

Dr Hilary Jones
1993 with his twins, Samantha and Rupert Photo: Bill Lovelace/ANL/Shutterstock

I would say to my younger self, don’t be fearful. If you really want to do something don’t let anyone say that’s not for you. Just go for it. Write to people about things you want to do, and don’t be afraid of rejection. I think a lot of people don’t approach the people in charge because they think they’ll say, you’ve got to be kidding, who do you think you are? But I got the job I do by just writing a letter all those years ago. Don’t be frightened of rejection, whether it’s for a job, a sporting event or approaching the most beautiful girl in the room. That was the mistake I made. I thought, I’m never gonna be good enough for her so I won’t ask her out. I never had enough confidence, and probably still haven’t. But I do say aim for the stars and your rocket might just take you into another galaxy.

I get on great with all my kids. I don’t think I’ve been strict enough – I’m more a pal than a dad – but they’ve turned out brilliantly. I’m really proud of all of them. None of them have gone off the rails. They’ve all achieved, they’ve all got jobs, and I’ve had a lot of fun with them. We’ve been on some great trekking holidays, I taught them to swim, to ride bikes. And we’ve had so many laughs.

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I tell my kids, always try to see the best in people, but be wary. I think being optimistic is far nicer than being pessimistic. I haven’t got time for negative people. I try and surround myself with people that make me feel happy. I don’t get too stressed out about anything and I always keep a sense of perspective. I know there are people worse off than me, and I’m very grateful to be where I am. And I never think, other people have more than me. Never think like that. I always try to be kind and compassionate and be grateful for what I do have, rather than resentful for what I don’t.

Lorraine Kelly and Dr Hilary Jones
2021 on set with Lorraine Kelly Photo: S Meddle/ITV/Shutterstock

I still see myself as quite young at heart. I think people are surprised when they meet me to think, oh, he’s a bit of a laugh really. Obviously there’s a persona as a doctor, giving serious messages. But I also still have a bit of that 16-year-old kid in me, and I’ve always believed the minute you stop being a kid, you’ve got one foot in the grave. I think we should hang on to that little bit of that kid in ourselves. When we lose that and become too grown up, it’s the beginning of the end. And I don’t want that.

If I could relive any moment in my life it would be when I was on holiday in the Alps on a ski trip. I was sitting in a cafe with my skis stuck in the snow, drinking a beer and the phone rang. And someone said, yeah, we really liked the audition you did and we’d like to try you out in the TV-am studios for a couple of weeks. And if all goes well, we’ll be giving you a contract. That was a very big day. And when I put the phone down I had a few more beers.

The paperback version of Frontline is out on May 12 (Welbeck, £8.99)

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