Helen Bullough meets the man with the serious job of creating the event that makes people smile and put their hands in their pockets

June 2018, and Tommy Nagra has just started a new job overseeing the TV and radio shows that raise vital funds for BBC Children in Need. He heads out to a project supported by the charity to find out how the donations are spent. 'It was the first time I’d ever been to a children’s hospice. I asked how the funding was used and was pointed to a project worker who had the best job description I had ever heard – Head of Joy – ensuring the precious time spent there was the most fun and joyous time for families going through the most challenging period in their lives. Without CiN that role wouldn’t have been possible. And that’s just one example of the difference the public helps us make.'

Today we’re in a busy Gail’s Bakery in Tommy’s hometown of Altrincham and he goes on to remind me why Children in Need, with its cuddly mascots Pudsey and Blush, has such a special place in UK charity and broadcasting. The stats cut through the lunchtime din. Dedicated to enabling every child and young person to be the very best they can be and fulfil their true potential, CiN has raised more than £1.2 billion since its inception and funds in excess of 1,800 charities and projects across the UK.

Great British Life: Pudsey, beloved face of the BBC's Children in Need appealPudsey, beloved face of the BBC's Children in Need appeal

In the North West, £8.4m of funding supports 158 separate projects, including helping 41,000 youngsters in Cheshire, from the Counselling and Family Centre Altrincham, to Sport Works Cheshire CIC in Warrington. What makes it unique among UK charities is its relationship with our national broadcaster. 'It really is the love child of the BBC,' smiles Tommy. 'It’s the BBC’s charity, born in 1980 out of our famous November telethon hosted by the inimitable Terry Wogan. More than £1million was raised in that one night and there needed to be a proper framework for sharing it out among grassroots charities across the UK.'

That genetic link with the BBC shapes Tommy’s role as director of content, where his conviviality and compassion combine with professional drive and determination to enormous effect. He works with household names such as The One Show, Strictly Come Dancing, DIY SOS, Blue Peter, Countryfile; radio shows across R1, R2 and the BBC’s local radio network and, of course, with the the annual Friday Night Appeal Show team behind the big event in November. There’s also his team based at MediaCity Salford, home to CiN since 2015. That dedicated group works year round planning each campaign and developing the inspiring stories we hear of the young people they support.

The TV events Tommy and his team deliver are memorable and moving and most of us can call to mind favourite moments. It might be the Countryfile Rambles and Calendar, which alone raised £5m in 2022. Or Matt Baker’s Great Rickshaw Relay. Last year Quinlan Dunne from Warrington was one of the five young people accompanying Matt, chosen for the Warrington to Wrexham leg. Quinlan had been supported by a CiN-funded child bereavement charity when he lost his brother River, singer with the band Viola Beach, in 2016. They raised more than £1.5million.

Great British Life: Alex Jones. Guy Levy/ BBCAlex Jones. Guy Levy/ BBC

And then, of course, there are the 24-hour celebrity endurance challenges. Following on from Joe Wicks's PE Challenge in 2020 and Sophie Ellis Bextor's 24-hour Kitchen Disco, who can forget the toll The Great Scott TreadMills challenge took on the Radio 2 DJ’s equilibrium last year? His calves burned for a day and a night as friends and colleagues including Jeremy Vine, Louis Theroux, Claudia Winkleman and Rylan cheered him on to a £1million-plus conclusion.

So where do the ideas come from for these? 'We are blessed by having creative brains across the BBC who work with my team to bring madcap ideas to life each year,' says Tommy.

One of the most memorable was local weather presenter Owain Wyn Evans’s extraordinary 24-hour drumathon in MediaCity in 2021 supported by BBC Breakfast and streamed live on BBC iPlayer. It was the most successful 24-hour fundraiser in the UK, breaking all records by raising close to £4million in one memorable day. 'Owain was authentic and personable but perhaps not as well known as some of our celebrity participants, so there was a sense of folks getting behind the underdog – the local weather guy,' says Tommy. We got amazing support from the whole drumming fraternity, the likes of Duran Duran and Dave Grohl sent video messages Mike Joyce from the Smiths, Steve White from Paul Weller's band and Clem Burke from Blondie took part – it was a magical day.'

Great British Life: Owain Wyn Evans and his 24-hour drum marathon for Childen in Need 2021. BBCOwain Wyn Evans and his 24-hour drum marathon for Childen in Need 2021. BBC

'The generosity of the viewing public and our supporters amazes us every year – especially when times are so challenging for so many people experiencing hardship.'

CiN night itself – November 17 this year – is a cornerstone of the TV year. Packed with comedy sketches and music, it’s welcomed a long line of celebrity presenters, ranging from Mel Giedroyc, Alex Scott, Jason Manford, Tess Daly and Graham Norton back to Joanna Lumley, Esther Rantzen and, of course, Sir Terry, the much-loved host for an extraordinary 35 years. Since 2011 it’s also featured a CiN choir, with children across the UK singing one song together. 'The choir is always a poignant moment,' says Tommy. 'It reminds me it’s our job to reflect all of the UK and make a difference everywhere we can with our funding.' Last year £35m was raised on the night itself last year, a figure subsequently increasing to more than £50m.

Tommy's job at the BBC, which he describes as 'a bit like air traffic control' is the first time in a long and distinguished broadcasting career he’s worked for a charity. 'I did media studies at Sheffield Uni back when no one really knew what that was and then got my first job in telly as what’s called a runner, a general assistant, on the new Good Morning with Anne and Nick show from Birmingham.' He moved up the BBC career ladder, including a spell producing documentaries at the MultiCultural Programmes Department in Birmingham before moving outside the Beeb to work as an executive producer for a host of independent production companies. 'For one project I lived and worked in New York and Jerusalem on a Channel 4 series focusing on young people and their attitudes to faith post 9/11,' he recalls.

Great British Life: Roman Kemp. Guy Levy/ BBCRoman Kemp. Guy Levy/ BBC

Those thoughtful and thought-provoking programmes led him back to the Beeb in 2008 as head of television for BBC Religion and Ethics in Manchester. His appointment made an impact – he was the first person of colour to hold the role and the first Sikh. 'I’m not a practising Sikh but would describe myself as having a strong spiritual side. My mum, who lives with us, is devout and I wake up to the sound of prayer every morning,' he says Alongside overseeing flagship religious shows like Songs of Praise, he executive-produced a string of award-winning documentaries including Hillsborough: Never Forgotten and tackled controversial subjects including grooming gangs and child exploitation.

He also secured a place on the sought-after Clore Leadership programme and credits that with his interest in the CiN role. 'Being a Clore Fellow enhanced my understanding of leadership and the importance of finding purpose, it’s what we all strive for – to make a difference. I did not think my experience would suit working for a charity but CiN is unique. I was drawn to it because of its combination of its broadcasting with a purpose.'

That purpose – CiN’s priority – aims to address the biggest issues young people are facing and Tommy has seen changes in the kind of support needed over the past five years.

Great British Life: Dr Ranj. Guy Levy/ BBCDr Ranj. Guy Levy/ BBC

'The first is that young people in the UK are experiencing higher mental health needs that ever, so we have our Million and Me initiative, allocating £10m to early action programmes that support children and young people with their emotional well-being and mental health before problems are established and need clinical intervention. The mental health crisis in young people is a real concern, exacerbated by the digital and social media landscape that permeates so much of everyday lives.'

The second is the cost of living crisis, threatening the financial stability of charities CiN supports as bills rocket, straight after a pandemic that also stretched finite resource. Many are struggling to keep their doors open. 'We also have a programme called Emergency Essentials, which provides fast turnaround essentials to families who need it most – it could be a bed, cooker or other white goods they just cannot afford. We have grant teams across the UK to ensure we stay on top of local needs and priorities but however much we fund, it’s never enough, it gets harder and harder each year to support the most vulnerable in society.'

The urgency Tommy clearly feels about the mission to help disadvantaged young people is matched by an almost overwhelming gratitude for donations. Major partners such as ASDA, Greggs and McDonald's raise millions across the year. But grassroots activities like the children’s Bake Sales that Blue Peter promotes, and local, sometimes eccentric, undertakings are just as appreciated. 'It’s not just about the big donations,' he stresses. 'Some people still send in their pocket money, or their plastic buckets full of change, we still get a few cheques. Every penny goes into one big pot towards the grand total and that’s humbling. Everyone doing their bit and giving whatever they can. I'm grateful to every single one of them.'

Great British Life: Jill Scott. Guy Levy/ BBCJill Scott. Guy Levy/ BBC

Looking ahead is a key priority for the charity and one of Tommy’s biggest preoccupations. 'We can’t stand still. We’ve already seen huge changes in the way people watch television so we have adapted accordingly. For example, the telethon is three hours long now, not eight. To make sure we can reach young people, we are working with new platforms and growing a digital-first presence with influencers as well as TV stars. CiN is a national treasure but we have to stay relevant and be where our audiences and supporters of the future are.'

Working in a high-profile role like this demands stamina and enormous emotional resilience as well as knowing what makes good telly that will raise millions. So how does the leader of this enormous undertaking recharge his batteries?

Tommy moved to 'Alty' 13 years ago, the main draw being the schools on offer for the three children (now aged 24, 22 and 21), he shares with wife Nikie. 'There was no market then,' he recalls. 'The high street was really quiet. But the market has kickstarted a revival of the centre; it’s full of independent coffee shops and great little quirky places now.'

He’s a coffee fan and café connoisseur: 'I like the market because it’s a place to people watch, socialise and enjoy great northern food. I always bump into someone. And Gran T’s and Blanchflower are among my favourite coffee shops.'

Great British Life: Ore Oduba. Guy Levy/ BBCOre Oduba. Guy Levy/ BBC

Weekends are all about football and live music. 'Altrincham has a vibrant live music scene so I might be in the Green Room, which is owned by a friend, or The Bowdon Rooms where there is an eclectic range of acts throughout the year. The Cheshire Tap has great live acoustic sets on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.'

He’s a huge Liverpool fan: 'If I’m not at Anfield, I’ll get my football fix watching Altrincham FC on Moss Lane.'

And for food? 'Dunham Massey is right on our doorstep and I love the relative tranquility. I’ve got a real sweet tooth and love the ice cream parlour housed in an old farmhouse serving up scoops made with double cream and whole milk – pure pleasure. When I moved here I lived in Yara, the Lebanese restaurant on Oxford Road. And a current favourite is Sigiriya in Hale, an incredible Sri Lankan restaurant.'

Great British Life: Jermaine Jenas. Guy Levy/ BBCJermaine Jenas. Guy Levy/ BBC This year's CiN, in light of rising needs and to inspire the nation to show their support, celebrities are sharing powerful personal stories of childhood to shine a light on the importance of the positive relationships provided by project workers in grassroots organisations working to help children and young people across the UK to thrive.

On The One Show and Morning Live, Jermaine Jenas, Alex Jones and Roman Kemp are calling on the public to Challenge Yourself and be SPOTacular while Joe Wicks urges the UK to take on the Pudsey Bearpee challenge, uniting to do 100 million Bearpees together to help vital funds.

The Countryfile Ramble for BBC Children in Need returns for a ninth year, with presenters Matt Baker, Anita Rani, Charlotte Smith and Margherita Taylor heading off to locations across the UK with an inspirational young person who has been supported by a BBC Children in Need-funded project to take on a ramble challenge. The public can join in by putting on their own sponsored rambles to help raise funds and John Craven will be catching up with some of them. The 2023 Countryfile Ramble special will air on BBC One and iPlayer on Sunday, October 29.

Great British Life: Dame Kelly Holmes. Guy Levy/ BBCDame Kelly Holmes. Guy Levy/ BBC

The SPOTacular campaign includes a bespoke range of merchandise, with official t-shirts designed by bestselling children’s author and illustrator of the Tom Gates series, Liz Pichon, created by George at ASDA.

It all leads to The Great SPOTacular Appeal Show on Friday, November 17, at 7pm on BBC One and iPlayer. And all the activity, of course, is firmly focussed on raising money to help the youngest members of families and communities. 'If I’m ever having a bad day I just think of the many inspiring young people and families who we support,' says Tommy. 'It levels you out, reminds you that we are blessed to be making a difference, helping young people to be the best they can be.'

Children in Need’s fundraising hub at childreninneed/fundraising has advice, tips and ideas on how to be a fundraiser.

For information on how to get involved with the Countryfile Ramble, visit the Ramble Hub at bbcchildreninneed.co.uk/shows/countryfile-ramble/

Anyone interested in becoming a corporate partner can email pudsey@bbc.co.uk

Great British Life: Big Zuu. Guy Levy/ BBCBig Zuu. Guy Levy/ BBC Great British Life: Oti Mabuse. Guy Levy/ BBCOti Mabuse. Guy Levy/ BBC