Bobby Seagull is on the road for a two-week, 200-mile trip to the BBC.
Despite not having a butter-melt-in-your-mouth smile, Bobby Seagull admits that maths whiz was quite the nerd at school. “I was scolded by my teachers if they made a mistake,” grinned the publicist. “Sometimes, to show off, I would tell my teacher that the question was wrong and confusing for no reason!”
Gaining a scholarship to Eton, he later led Cambridge’s Emmanuel College to the University Challenge semi-finals, before being defeated by his friend and rival Eric Monkman, of whom more shortly.
He became a familiar face in quiz shows and documentaries.
It is not surprising, then, that the precocious student could elude his teachers.
“I have done nothing, either in history or in grammatical error in English,” he mentions with just a smidgeon of levity. “I once received eight weeks of detention in high school because I pointed out a mistake in the chemistry teacher’s work. I went on a silent protest to the limit in that class – I didn’t answer one question.”
Thankfully, that’s all in the past and – although in all likelihood a few former educators were disappointed – the maths genius has become one of the most popular faces on British TV and works as a part-time teacher.
It also makes a good case for BBC2’s new three-part travel series in which celebrities of all faiths put on their walking boots and backpacks and retreat in search of spiritual light.
For the fifth time, celebrities including singer Shane Lynch and actresses Su Pollard and Rita Simons have crossed more than 200 miles along the ancient pilgrimage route of Fatima in northern Portugal.
The final destination was the city of Fatima and the sanctuary where, in 1917, three boys claimed to have seen apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Bobby, 39, was brought up Catholic, but his faith “went away” and his life was “in the streets”.
Before participating in the new series, he said: “I would like to understand whether faith can play a big part in my life. I hope there will be a new Bobby at the end of this experience.
Bobby with Eric Monkman
Today it is clear that his way of thinking has changed. It just so happened that when he was in his 20s and working in an investment bank, his mother Jamma and aunt Geena made the same trip.
By chance he was even more at home – surrounded by artefacts and souvenirs from the journey to Fatima – when he was offered the chance to share a tour. “I was really moved. I felt like I was taking a stick,” he admits today.
“When you were young, you were expected to be religious. But when I worked in the city, life was busy. This was a great opportunity for me to understand what a particular religion meant to me.”
As fellow traveler and ex-Boyzone singer Shane says: “I think maybe Bobby got the most out of the whole thing. Bobby was murmuring. He really loved the story of Fatima, because he was there and shared it.”
Bobby says: “As a mathematician, rationalist and scientist, I have always considered my faith private. This is the first time I have publicly discussed it.”
Bobby is the second of four brothers, all of whom attended high-flying universities at either Oxford or Cambridge, and was brought up on a council estate in east London.
His eldest brother Davey won a place at Cambridge, despite attending a specialist school until he was 15, wheelchair-bound after being hit by a car as a toddler.
The accident shaped his whole life.
In fact, when Bobby was five, the family traveled to France to visit the shrine at Lourdes to say Davey’s prayers.
“My parents are very dangerous, very averse, very legalistic, and all traumatized by that experience, early on.
After gaining fame, Bobby received his doctorate at Cambridge Academy, wrote two books, regular newspaper columns, and campaigned for better numeracy and educational equality in schools.
He also managed to stay a math teacher. But he admits, it made it difficult to find a partner – so much so that, in the case of the filming tour, with Christiano Salis app.
“I had never thought of using it before,” he said.
“Great person first, faith second. And some of the people you meet on Christian apps are very religious – like some one hundred percent – when I’m someone who puts their faith back that can be a challenge.”
He adds: “They are the best people for me” [who recognise me but] who do not look properly because they want to know me. Some say ‘Oh mum or nan’ is a big fan.
“And the funniest one is always when they ask me for my buddy Eric Monkman’s number. That’s terrible – it’s only happened to me three times.
“They say, Uh, Bobby, are you still in touch with Eric? Yeah, I remember, I’ll say. “We talk a little every month or so.” “Can you get me his number?” I’m like in Canada! Come on, you can’t date him, date me in the UK!”
Rivals met on quiz shows and have since co-hosted radio documentaries including Genius Monk & Seagull Guide to Britain, despite beating a Canadian team from Wolfson College, Oxford – Bobby and his colleagues from Cambridge.
The young star, next to mum Jamma, with her family
Today Bobby lives in Stratford, London, down the road from East Ham where he grew up. She says her local library has made a “fundamental difference” to her life.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am today without that person,” he insists. “I know – you’re probably going to win with me in your pub quiz team – but it’s because every Saturday my father took me and my brothers to the library to read all the books about the Aztecs, the Victorians, or Roald Dahl’s. books Reading opened my eyes.
We’re speaking shortly after it was revealed that some books have been “censored” in fear of young readers being targeted for offending by long-ago words and phrases. Enid Blyton’s books have been removed from some libraries and trigger warnings on them, while Dahl’s stories have been removed from their publisher for fear of scandal. Bobby, a postman who loves Matilda Dahl, is involved. “The best way to move society forward is to confront our past, not hide it,” he said.
“I believe that the original text should always be preserved in terms of what the writer wrote at the time, so that society can understand what he was thinking. We have to consider how the company develops and adapts to have the original version – but also the edition, if people want it.
Which version does he read?
“Maybe I’ll buy one first and when I have children I’ll read them both and then I’ll answer their questions about the changes and why they happened.”
He is concerned about the rise in so-called ‘toxic masculinity’ and the influence of controversial social media on the impressionable minds of young people. Months before Andrew Tate saw the impact of his tirade against women hitting the headlines, Bobby saw firsthand the impact it had on his school. He tells me about a group of his Year 11 students imitating one of Tati’s hand gestures.
and I asked, “What are you doing?” They said to him, “Lord, this is power, and it gives us energy.”
Upon further inquiry, he realized that the students were subject to “perverse beliefs.”
The school later recruited students from the British-American Tate, 36, who was recently arrested in Romania on suspicion of rape and human trafficking, and was arrested as a potential victim of such news.
Bobby is basically a champion of social media and technology. but he thinks that young people should not be allowed full “fast access” to online platforms.
“When young people want to learn about math or other positive things, they will use YouTube and TikTok,” he says. “Banning social media will never help because another one will pop up. Society needs to learn how to nurture and educate our youth.”
Even when he’s not in school, Bobby champions math and education. “What I’ve had more than 15 minutes of fame is because I channeled it into something positive… and it gave me substance,” he said.
However, he does not regret his time at Lehman Brothers as a merchant banker.
“I’m very happy I got married, and I would make the same decision every day,” he said.
“When you were in the council, money was tight. So if you are mathematically inclined, there is the city, it beckons. When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, Bobby vacated the office selling his criminal scheme and pulled the house on the market.
“I’ve lost a thousand pounds on portions but I’ve gained 300 on chocolate,” she laughs.
He had been on a six-figure salary and spent a large part of it on restaurants, drinks and “driving” holidays. He was horrified by spending £1000 on a bottle of champagne and was soon dressed and eventually left the mortgage when it “didn’t make me happier”.
With Vicky Pattison, Nabil Abdulrashid, Su Pollard, Millie Knight, Shane Lynch and Rita Simons
Today, Bobby says he understands the importance of money, especially in a cost-of-living crisis. But he emphasizes that once you’ve hit a certain level of success, it’s the time spent with friends and family that becomes the most important. That’s why it’s so easy to lug around rough hotels and backpacks to enjoy posh holidays. That said, he admits that the two weeks of travel took him out of his “comfort zone.”
“I am a creature of comfort and routine. This travel required flexibility in daily schedules and eating habits,” she laughs.
At the climax of the show, Bobby carried a statue of the Virgin Mary in a procession of ten thousand people.
“My family has seen this before and it echoes a lot,” he said. “I think I’ve had the opportunity to take it for granted, it’s something I’ll never forget.”
There is no doubt that his experience of God will increase. He adds: “Faith is that the health of body or mind needs constant striving.”
- Tour: Via Portugal starts at 9pm on Friday on BBC2