Illustration by Vanessa Dell

Ben Fogle: Pukka prince of fluff

He is the talentless golden retriever of television presenting

Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I mean this as no slight on my great uncle Robert but I’ve always found my old aunt’s taste in men to be a little wanting. 

When I was a small boy, I would stay with her most summers. During the day we’d groom the pony that lived in the garage and in the evenings — her with a glass of sherry and me with a hot Ribena — we’d sit down in front of the telly. Alan Titchmarsh, she told me twice, could mow her lawn any time he liked, and on Saturdays she always showed great interest in Matthew Kelly himself and none in whichever dinner lady it was that week who was about to emerge from the dry ice as a plus size Celine Dion. 

But there was someone else too. I can’t remember what the programme was — could have been about Land Rovers or dogs or Wellington Boots maybe, or rowing, mountaineering, or elephants. What I remember clearly though was those teeth and that extraordinary way of speaking. They were whiter than any teeth I’d ever seen and in spite of being a fully grown man, he had this cute little voice that always went up at the end of each sentence, like an 11-year-old English gentleman forever asking questions. 

Ben Fogle’s website tells me hosting Crufts featured, there was an appearance on Cash in the Attic too, and he set sail for Africa with big brother Windsor on a last colonial hurrah. Our future King — who’s sired three himself of course — subsequently suggested that Africans ought to have fewer babies as it was crowding out all those lions he and Ben like so much. 

But returning to that voice. I was interested to read, back in 2010, that what had long been Fogle’s trademark was becoming — so he reckoned anyway — his undoing. The Daily Telegraph reported that the telly regular, who self-identifies as an adventurer, claimed he’d been binned from Countryfile due to his “posh accent”. An easier thing to confront, I suppose, than the likelihood that you’re being canned because you’re deathly dull. 

The man is a golden retriever, dependably uninteresting and a bit dead behind the eyes

Of course, it’s not all about the voice but it isn’t entirely irrelevant. The truth is, Fogle represents a time that’s only just passing, when a media career could be forged on a good jawline, a bit of pukka talk, and some saccharine Englishness. As this particular herd goes, he’s one of the smaller sacred cows at the back but it’s a bit like Phil Spencer (with whom I once endured the most boring whisky I’ve had). Phil isn’t a bad man, it’s just that I’m sure there are more interesting estate agents in any given branch of Foxtons. 

Yesterday, Fogle re-entered my life. I was walking past the kitchen and my girlfriend was watching a programme which sees him staying with people, across the country, who have chosen to lead simple lives. 

Many of them are on islands — Ben likes islands. He would, he confirmed recently, like an island to call his own. He was standing there, blue eyes wandering, somewhere in the Irish “wilderness” — is it all wilderness to Ben beyond West London? He’d been shown his room. He looked at the camera. “It’s big,” he confirmed slowly. “Big and colourful.” 

I went to bed thinking about all those aspiring TV presenters, who could’ve been sent on the same journey, someone perhaps with an understanding of the place they were going or someone who really cared. 

Great documentaries are born out of a love for the subject but it always feels as though we’re meant to love Ben. The man is a golden retriever, dependably uninteresting and a bit dead behind the eyes. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with golden retrievers. Unless of course there was a goldie who consistently ended up lumbering through jobs that any number of spaniels could do much more effectively.

Ben likes dogs by the way. Naturally, he’s keen on black labradors and not so long ago in that sporting journal The Field, he noted admiringly — and again most observantly — that they remain “a top shooting dog”. Curiously, though, he’s had a bit of a conscious uncoupling with everything The Field represents since then. 

Back in 2018, Ben leapt onto a passing bandwagon calling for a Love Island contestant to be thrown off after it emerged they’d participated in big game hunting. “For full clarity,” Ben declared on Twitter, “I sometimes spend time with tribes who hunt as a part of their ‘hand to mouth existence’. Subsistence hunting is different to sport/trophy hunting, shooting and fox hunting.”

This represented an interesting volte face from a man who went head-to-head with Piers Morgan, two years previously, while kitted out in tweed, to defend his old pal Prince William for supporting trophy hunting. “By the way,” Fogle cautioned, “William was simply agreeing with a number of very senior conservationists.”

The sad thing is that he’d be a wonderful housemaster of a smart little prep school

Ben’s flip-lopping was noticed and a number of photos of him in waders, holding some spectacular piscatorial trophies of his own later emerged. I felt for the guy. Here was a Barbour model and a gundog fancier being made to denounce the very culture that had given him relevance in the first place. 

There’s not much I’m good for, but one thing I can sort is the opportunity for a C-lister to visit a shoot. I was in Siena and quite drunk when I made the offer. Initially he told his many Twitter followers that he’d happily accept and would make his mind up on his actual position after the event.

He never did come. “Guess he didn’t fancy it,” the old gamekeeper I’d roped in said when I went to see him the following year. “Always thought he was a funny bugger.” 

I guess Ben’s getting on now and — Countryfile aside — he’s got enough road to keep running for a decade or two. My old aunt’s still going and she’ll be tuning-in for whatever fluff he coughs up next. I wasn’t sure, though, when I saw something last month about him going up to Scotland to learn about how charming and parochial it is up there, if he even looked like he’s enjoying it much anymore. 

The sad thing is that he’d be a wonderful housemaster of a smart little prep school. Phil could be the headmaster, Kirsty would make a terrific matron, and then we’d have a bit more space for some talent on the telly.

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