This year is the 20th anniversary of Ben Fogle’s career in broadcasting. He was sent by the BBC to Taransay for Castaway – the first reality show on television – at the end of 1999 and he hasn’t looked back since. Now, he’s about to embark on a tour of the UK – at the Cresset on 19 March – in which he’ll be sharing some of his wilder escapades, as well as moments of unlooked-for humour. Words: Richard Barber
Well, it seemed a good moment,’ he says, ‘to pull all my experiences together for an evening of both drama and laughter. My hope is that it will be enlightening, educating and entertaining. There will also be a Q&A session at the end, often the most surprising part of the evening.’ Nor does he take this new enterprise lightly. ‘I regard it as next year’s Everest, a journey into the unknown.’
The effortlessly charming Mr Fogle, 45, has been described as a TV presenter, a writer, a conservationist, an adventurer. What’s the one word he’d choose? ‘I’d describe myself as a storyteller,’ he decides. And it’s no accident that the show is titled Tales of the Wilderness. ‘I think the thing of which I’m most proud is being appointed United Nations Patron of the Wilderness. I now meet everyone from environment ministers to presidents to prime ministers all around the world and share my experiences of life in the wild, everything from Himalayan mountains to remote corners of the ocean. And all of it stems from the time I spent a year on that Hebridean island.’
The fact remains that the 15-year-old Ben could never have dreamt he’d be sharing his sometimes hair-raising adventures with audiences up and down the land 30 years on. ‘I’m frequently asked how it’s possible for someone to have what’s turned into my eclectic career. And the simple answer is that I don’t know. It’s happened through a mix of luck and opportunity and determination.’ At one stage, he had ambitions to be an actor like his mother, Julia Foster, fondly remembered from 60s films such as Alfie in which she co-starred opposite Michael Caine and Half A Sixpence with Tommy Steele. More recently, she’s been back on stage in Alan Bennett’s new play, Allelujah! ‘I think this will be the nearest I’ve come to treading the boards. Every time I ask Mum whether she prefers screen work or the theatre, she always says the theatre. There’s nothing, in her opinion, to beat the instant response of a live audience.’
His Canadian father, Bruce Fogle, is a highprofile vet. ‘Dad’s pretty laid back. Mum, on the other hand, is very driven, very focused.’ And she’s always been Ben’s greatest and worst critic, he says. ‘I often don’t like her opinions but she has that maternal honesty. She’ll never say what I want her to say; she says what she genuinely feels. Either way, I’ll definitely tap into her experience when it comes to the structure and creation of my stage show.’ So what subjects will Ben be covering? ‘I’ll be talking about clearing mines in Iraq from where I’ll have recently returned just before the tour begins; swimming with crocodiles in Botswana; climbing Mount Everest; travelling with Princes William and Harry for conservation work in Africa; working at Longleat with Kate Humble on Animal Park and with John Craven on Countryfile for 10 years; taking part in the World Worm Charming Championship; and lots more besides. In short, it’s going to be a yomp through 20 hugely varied, highly enjoyable years.’
Unsurprisingly, his self-imposed life of high adventure has brought with it the kinds of brushes with death not experienced by most of us. He almost drowned in the Atlantic when his boat capsized. He suffered frostbite as he trekked across 500 miles of snow. Filming his TV series, Extreme Dreams, in Peru, he was bitten by a sand fly and developed leishmaniasis, a flesh-eating bug that kills tens of thousands of people each year. All of which must have driven his long-suffering wife, Marina, halfmad with worry. ‘Well yes!’ he admits. ‘Although I proposed to her on my return from rowing across the Atlantic with James Cracknell so she kind of knew what she was taking on.’ But things can go wrong. ‘Sadly, I know of far too many people who’ve lost their lives in pursuit of being what you might call pioneers. The Australian Steve Irwin, for instance, was killed by a stingray but look what he’d done for people’s understanding of the environment.’
None of it has changed Ben’s approach to life. ‘If anything, it’s given me more resilience to make the most of all the amazing opportunities out there.’ So what else does 2019 bring for Ben? For a start, there’s the first of a new series of children’s books, Mr Dog and the Rabbit Habit. ‘He’s a mutt, not a Labrador which is my favourite breed, and it’s designed for children between the ages of about eight to 11. Later on, he’ll have encounters with seals, hedgehogs, a whole selection of British wildlife. In some ways, it harks back to some of my favourite animal books: Watership Down, Toad of Toad Hall, anything by Beatrix Potter.’ On TV, there’s another C5 series of New Lives in the Wild, featuring people who have swapped home comforts in the UK for living in the wilderness somewhere in the world.
There’s also a companion series, New Jobs in the Wild, typically a 20-something female vet from Newcastle who’s decamped to Sri Lanka to set up a charity devoted to rescuing street dogs. At the end of January, he’s co-hosting a one-off ITV special with Sara Cox called Britain’s Top 100 Dogs, a live countdown with viewers voting on their favourite breed but including mixed breeds, cross breeds and mutts. ‘It’s open to all-comers,’ says Ben. You can vote for your favourite via the Kennel Club website. Having said all of that, Ben – in consultation with Marina – may be about to put his life on hold. ‘I’ve probably spent nine months away from home this year so it’s time to start considering spending time together as a family.’ Their son, Ludo, is nine; daughter Iona is seven. ‘It’s sometimes been hard for her. Inevitably, she’s had to do more of the child-rearing and then I come home – Captain Fun – and the children are all over me. It’s not fair on her if she’s seen as the one who does all the disciplining.’ Which is why he’s seriously considering taking a year’s sabbatical. But to which bit of the world?
‘I have a fascination with where the South Pacific meets Indonesia. And I’ve always been drawn to island life. As it happens, I’d be just as delighted to go up to the Arctic Circle but I noticed that Marina had put a line through anywhere cold and damp.’ And five years from now? ‘I’d be living in a little coastguard cottage with my family – it could be in Scotland; it could be in Cornwall or Devon – with six dogs. I’d be able to enjoy swimming and kayaking and paddle-boarding on the sea every day.’ A hopeless grin. ‘On the other hand, something tells me I’ll probably be in some remote corner of a jungle in somewhere like Papua New Guinea.’
● Ben Fogle’s Tales of the Wilderness tour comes to The Cresset on 19 March ● To book tickets for this and other live shows, visit www.cresset.co.uk