Celebrity interview: Ben Fogle on fear, family and his impending 40th

Ben Fogle.

Ben Fogle.

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As an adventurer and TV presenter, Ben Fogle is used to a world of danger, but he has one vulnerability - his family. He tells Gabrielle Fagan why...

Ben Fogle has faced countless extreme dangers. He’s crossed deserts and jungles, he’s rowed the Atlantic and he’s even swum with crocodiles, but he confesses there is one fear he will never overcome.

“Undoubtedly my biggest fear is leaving my children without a father,” he says simply. “I think back to when I was a child and that thought terrified me. I know my children will have the same feelings I had as a little boy and so I have that huge responsibility to go on the adventures and do what people think is dangerous, but always try to keep myself safe.

“That plays into any decision I make about a project and sometimes it’s a tricky balance to find because I’m always attracted to risk.”

The 39-year-old adventurer, who has two children, Ludo, three and Iona, two, with his wife Marina, has been taking on these risks since finding fame in 2000 in the BBC series, Castaway, where 36 people were marooned on a remote Scottish island.

In the 13 years since the show, Fogle has fallen overboard and almost drowned when he rowed the Atlantic with his partner in daredevil exploits, James Cracknell; he has endured intensive and toxic treatment to beat a near-fatal skin-eating disease that he contracted in the Peruvian jungle and then, barely recovered, he has endured a race to the South Pole.

Even he admits he pushed his luck too far last year though, when he filmed BBC Two series, Swimming With Crocodiles, and came up close and personal with ferocious Nile crocs in Botswana.

“In retrospect, that probably was a risk too far,” he says. “Our cameraman was attacked and had to put a camera in the croc’s jaws to give himself time to get away. Shortly after we left, someone else lost his arm doing exactly what I’d done. I was frightened at the time, although I believe you have to confront fear in life, but I probably wouldn’t do that sort of thing again.”

But there’s little sign of any let-up in his crammed diary. He will soon set off on travels to Siberia and Georgia in America; a new up-coming 3D series on Sky Atlantic, Storm City, took him to see the devastation following the earthquake in Haiti and tsunami in Japan, and his Channel Five series, New Lives In The Wild, about people who’ve given up city life and cut themselves off from civilisation, has just been re-commissioned.

However, now with his young family, Fogle says he is trying to ensure his periods away from home are not as frequent. He has relished a period in the UK filming his hugely successful Dorset-based ITV series, Harbour Lives, and admits his resolve to travel back to remote corners of the globe is severely challenged when Ludo pleads tearfully: ‘Don’t go away, Daddy’.

“It is heart-wrenching,” Fogle sighs. “I always knew when the children could actually say ‘don’t go’ that I’d really struggle.

“On the other hand, I can now explain to him about what I’m doing. So I say I have to ride a camel across a dessert, or swim with crocodiles – although I’m sure Ludo’s teacher thinks he’s a fantasist when he goes in and says ‘guess what my Daddy’s doing!’”

Ironically five months ago, during a period at home and apparently away from danger, Fogle’s health was dramatically threatened. During a trip to a pub his drink was allegedly spiked and he suffered a psychotic episode where he was ranting, hitting walls, and trying to jump out of windows. Doctors initially feared he’d had a seizure and Fogle himself thought he might have cancer.

He says: “It was definitely a life-changing moment which really shocked me and made me feel vulnerable in a way my adventures never have. I learnt so much about myself and others during that time, and the saying ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is so true,”

“What was so awful was I didn’t know what had happened to me and, of course, you assume the worst – I thought my body was suddenly letting me down and my first thought was cancer. Then the doctors started putting me through all these tests for mental illness because they thought I might have had a seizure.” He had to postpone a five-week trip to Middle East for a BBC show while the tests were completed.

“I actually held Iona while I was in that psychotic state and didn’t know what I was doing. That makes me hugely angry that someone put me under the influence of a very heavy drug as a joke and put my kids at risk.

“But you can’t let that consume you, all I hope is that it helps people realise what a big problem drink spiking is.”

He turns 40 in November and is relaxed about the milestone. He says: “I find it hard to believe I’m going to be that old as I certainly don’t feel it.

“Luckily, that whole mid life crisis thing happens when you feel you haven’t achieved all the goals you wanted or have wasted those years, but that’s certainly not true in my case.”

“I couldn’t really have squeezed in any more and I’ve done so much I’m sure there’s huge monumental moments I’ve just forgotten. In fact, there’s only two things I wanted to achieve before this big birthday which I haven’t done. Climbing Everest and swimming the Atlantic.

“Still I’m proud of all I’ve done and achieved in the last 40 years and I’m by no means finished.”

Ben Fogle is supporting the Nestle Breakfast Cereals Breakfast IQ campaign. to get the nation thinking about their breakfast choices.

To see how your breakfast matches up, visit: www.battleofthebreakfasts.co.uk

BBC drama being filmed at Leeds City Museum today