This month we had the pleasure of catching up with the wonderfully magnetic Joanna Adeyinka-Burford – Hampshire-born TV presenter, actor, author and mother of two. If you have little ones, you might recognise her from Cbeebies. She’s one of their treasured regulars. Zooming from her hotel room in Media City we chatted life, career, family (and cheese-eating.) The hardest part of the interview was transcribing around the laughter. Joanna seems to do a lot of that.

Tell us about your journey into performing and presenting.

I went to a performing arts school as a dancer but there was always this thing at the back of my mind… I would love to be a TV presenter. My mum suggested journalism to me, to which a 15 year old who knew nothing, just went, NO! I think I’ll just go to dance school instead. I should have perhaps listened to my mum. Always listen to your Mum right?! After dance school I came out as an actor. I spent about 8 years auditioning and then there was still that niggle... At the time I was with an acting agent and he just sort of looked at me and said, ‘Yeah. No. You’re too old.’ He was a lovely guy but I just thought, well this isn’t really going to work and so I went out on my own and just started to push loads of doors. I saw an advert for a competition to go to Australia and do a show backstage at Home & Away and I thought, well there’s an opportunity! I was at my friend’s house. We filmed this little audition. She pretended to be Marilyn. I ended up getting the job! I then put together another showreel, sent it off to people at CBBC, ended up going in and doing a screen test, nothing coming of it. Somebody contacted me about a pilot for Cbeebies. Again, didn’t get it. And then, two babies later I got invited to another audition. I’ve got this baby hanging off me, and I said, SURE! My sister came with me as I was still breast feeding and I got it! Off the back of that I’ve worked on and off for Cbeebies ever since. And it reminds me; don’t take no for an answer. If you want something - go and get it!

What do you love most about what you do?

I love what I do. I love being able to bring to life other people’s words; bringing those words off the page and making them accessible for everyone. I love being able to do that.

What is the last big challenge you’ve had to face?

Losing a really close friend. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve had to walk through.

And understanding just how to navigate grief because I think until you experience something like that, you just don’t know and you just don’t get it. You learn a lot as you walk through really tough things.

What was your first ever job?

I remember working in a car factory when I was 16 and basically, we had to package up car parts. It was the most mind-numbingly boring job which is maybe why, when I worked out what I wanted to do, I was like, no! I can’t go back to the car factory!

In another life, what would you be?

I wanted to be a pilot but I think I’m gonna go next step and say astronaut and just go to space! I wouldn’t want to stay there for months on end but I would just love to be able to go for a day trip. Or a heart surgeon. I don’t know.

Who inspires you?

My sister. She’s really driven. She’s superwoman. It’s almost like she’s got some kind of magic - the opposite of what kryptonite would be. Good kryptonite. She’s so visionary and there are no obstacles that will stop her. I love that sense of, go get it. I think we should all have a little bit of that in us.

What was your favourite TV programme growing up?

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Who would you invite to a hall of fame dinner party for 3?

Number One. Will Smith. Of course he’s coming. Michelle Obama. I think she’s gonna come too. And the Queen. The Queen is gonna have one-on-one granny chats with us all. She’s the guest of honour. I think we’d get on. My middle name’s Elizabeth as well so I figure we’ve got some things in common.

What scares you?

Not fulfilling my potential. Not just in terms of career but in terms of life. Whether that’s being there for friends or developing strong relationships with my children. Not living up to what I’m supposed to do - that scares me. I don’t mind what stage of life I die at but I want to know that when I die, I did as much as I could. It’s a driving force.

How do you deal with nerves and pressure?

I like nerves. The adrenaline gets me right on top of my game.

What is your worst habit?

Ok. Don’t judge me. When I’m cooking - cutting slices off the cheese and eating it.

The other day I bought some Port Salut. I’m making lunch for everybody and I’ve got the Port Salut (by the way no-one else is having Port Salut) and I’m literally just cutting chunks off and eating it. There’s none left for anyone else. That’s definitely my worst habit.

What makes you angry?

I don’t get angry very often.

Injustice. Kids being treating badly.

If I’m watching a movie (it’s not even real but it sparks something inside me obviously) when I see somebody cheat on their partner, it just boils my blood. It’s just wrong.

What makes you laugh?

People who wear sunglasses indoors.

What would you write on a post-it note to your younger self?

Go for it. Ignore the boys and know that you’re worth it. Blinkers on Joanna. Just keep going. Go for your goals. Know that you’re awesome. Don’t give up. Dream big. Push doors.

What is your proudest moment?

Seeing my kids every day being the incredible little human beings that they are.

What would be your advice to a young person wanting to get into TV broadcasting?

Work really hard. Don’t give up. Hone your craft. Go practice. Don’t just sit there and expect it to come to you. Learn. Take classes. Talk to people. Above all, be a nice person to work with. Because that makes a difference. It goes a long way, particularly in this industry.

At the same time, I would say upskill yourself in other areas. Be smart about it. Have something else that is going to be a good income stream to fund your dream. That’s something I never had. There are moments when I think it would be amazing if I was a qualified physiotherapist or something and I could use that to fund the things I love.

What lies ahead for you this year?

Career-wise, it’s really hard to foresee because being a freelancer I don’t even know what’s gonna be going on at the end of the next month! I’ve started to write some children’s books. I’d love to see them not just in the notes on my phone! I’d like to take some steps forward with those. For years now, I've wanted to help write and create content for children’s shows. Again, I’ve got ideas and I’d love to see some of those come off the page in some capacity.

I can’t wait to get out with my family and do things that I couldn’t do last year. Hopefully enjoy the world starting to come back to normal. Go to the beach.

Photography provided by Joanna Adeyinka-Burford

Interview by Charlotte Gascoyne for About Grace

  • About Grace

Updated: Apr 24

Little Angel Theatre

Little Angel Theatre has been a pocket-sized haven for puppetry and storytelling since it was first imagined and established in the sixties by puppet-making legends Lyndie and John Wright. Decades on, the 100-seater theatre continues to captivate the minds of its audiences - telling big stories with untethered charm.

Although Little Angel has garnered a not so little international reputation for its productions, the theatre remains firmly rooted in its treasured Islington community. Throughout the year, Little Angel organises local events and activities for the community and pursues a remarkable programme of outreach work in local schools. Moreover, they give away hundreds of tickets each season in order to engage underrepresented audiences. It’s an extraordinary little place with a big beating heart. We’re huge fans. Can you tell?!

So pour yourself a cuppa and take a seat - it’s time to meet the ladies at the helm, Artistic Director, Samantha Lane and Executive Director, Peta Swindall.

Peta Swindall and Samantha Lane

What does your puppet-self look like?

Sam: ‘It would definitely be made out of anything and everything you can grab around the house. A cup. A spoon. Some leftover wool. Some beads from a necklace that has fallen apart. A recycled hash of my home belongings.’

Peta: ‘I’d love to think of myself as some sort of beautiful, smooth moving marionette but in reality, I’m probably one of those rod puppets where the hands move a bit too much!’

Favourite Childhood Book

Peta: ‘The Chronicles of Narnia.’

Sam: ‘Jane Eyre.’

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Sam: ‘My children.’

Peta: ‘My journey to becoming an executive director.’

What do you love most about what you do?

Sam: ‘The variety in the job. One day I’m writing a funding application, the next day I’m working out how to make a zoom show. Then I’m on to thinking about what companies we want to programme and what artists we want to work with. No two days are the same and it always feels like it’s forward-facing which is ridiculously exciting.’

What has been the biggest challenge for Little Angel this year?

Peta: ‘One of the reasons why we’ve had to keep going, keep working, and keep producing is because we don’t have any regular core funding. A lot of people assume we’re an NPO or we have some big dowry. We don’t! So for us, when our doors shut and we had no box office, 80% of our income was just gone in an instant! And so, trying to build up that base of income to keep anything alive, that has definitely been the challenge.’

Little Angel Theatre

And the biggest achievement?

Sam: ‘It’s really hard to say because I am proud of everything the team has achieved in really challenging circumstances but I suppose it’s seeing the digital work we do so well. We had started to think digitally as an organisation pre-pandemic and I think it’s why we were able to hit the ground running because we had already started to think about how that looked and what we wanted to achieve with it. I couldn’t quite predict that it would take off and do so well. It’s incredible that it has! Our Christmas show, Mother Christmas had 12,000 views on Christmas Eve and now it’s had over 100,000 views and we’re in March! People are still watching a Christmas show and the views are constantly creeping up which is just great. I think it was also really important that we weren’t just trying to replicate the live experience through our digital work. Everything we have created and put on YouTube we’ve made specifically for that medium so it’s much shorter - making the digital work as accessible and as usable as possible.’

Why has it been so important to keep young audiences engaged?

Peta: ‘I think the mental health of young people is a massive concern for everybody and we wanted to create content that was not only something they could watch, but something they could watch and then do. So create, craft and share. All of that sort of thing is really great for their well-being. It’s great for boosting their confidence and for helping them with their learning.’

Sam: ‘And people could use what they had around them to create. It was something that was absolutely achievable in their own home. We’re obviously very conscious of the fact that digital deprivation is an issue so it was really important for us to continue to try and engage with our community on a local level as much as we could as well - creating more craft packs and running our Crafternoons when we were allowed to do that.’

Where the Bugaboo Lives (2021)

Describe Little Angel’s 60th Birthday season in under 10 words

Both: ‘Fun, Adventurous, Bold, Eclectic, Forward and Outward looking, Hybrid, Celebratory.’

What was your first-ever job?

Sam: ‘Washing up at a golf course.’

Peta: ‘A receptionist. It was really boring! Nobody really came in. It was the time when Bridget Jones’ Diaries came out so I just read!’

In another life what would you be?

Sam: ‘When I decided to do my degree at university I flipped a coin between applying to do theatre or law. The coin landed on theatre but I think genuinely if it had landed the other way, I would have chosen to do law. I think I was going through that, do I get a sensible job or do I just go and play again for another 3 years? I’m really pleased I decided to go and play. But there’s a chance that my life could have taken a very different trajectory.’

Which living person do you most admire?

Peta: ‘Michelle Obama. I’m reading Becoming. She’s quite inspirational and now she involves puppets in her life which has raised her in my estimation even further!’

Sam: ‘Chimamanda Adichie for both her fiction and also for her feminism.’ I literally love every single one of her books especially A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. I think I always identified with being a feminist but I guess I couldn’t quite articulate how and why. It just felt innately part of what I am. If anyone asks, why are you a feminist? I just want to hand them that book because she absolutely encompasses to me what it means to be female. She’s an incredible storyteller.’

On that note, what makes a good story?

Peta: ‘Something unexpected. A twist.’

Sam: ‘It’s very subjective. Something that hooks you. The beauty of theatre when you’re telling a story is that you have the opportunity to ‘hook’ in so many other ways – the music that you use, the set, the pace of the piece. For me, you could have something quite dull in terms of narrative but by using real theatricality, that story can come alive. What makes a good story? Theatre.’

Flyboy and the Robot (2020)

What makes you laugh?

Sam: ‘A good stand-up. My husband.’

Peta: ‘Being around friends and doing stupid stuff together. Oh and pets. Doing bonkers things.’

What makes you angry?

Peta: ‘People not listening. Or not wanting to listen. Over lockdown, I feel like our industry was not really being listened to.’

Sam: ‘Injustice.’

What’s your worst habit?

Sam: ‘Talking quickly and too much.’

Peta: ‘Checking emails too often. I’m a slave to emails. It’s bad. I should stop doing that.’

What scares you?

Sam: ‘Flying’

Peta: ‘People I love getting hurt. Whether that’s emotionally or physically.’

What is the current soundtrack to your life?

Sam: 'Because I decided to move in a pandemic and start a new life - Bright New Day from Blood Brothers.'

Peta: ‘In reality, it’s been a lot of Mr Tumble!’

What would you write on a Post-it Note to your younger self?

P: ‘Trust your instinct.’

S: ‘You made the right choice with theatre.’

What 3 things are you planning to do once lockdown ends?

Peta: ‘Seeing family. Seeing friends. Trying to go to the theatre.’

Sam: ‘Mines the same. Family, friends, theatre.’

Peta: ‘And hopefully a bit of a mash-up of all of them, together!’

Photography by Ellie Kurttz

Words by Charlotte Gascoyne for About Grace