No one was more surprised by the sensation that was Nine’s hit Ninja Warrior than co-host Ben Fordham, writes HOLLY BYRNES
Popular enduro series Australian Ninja Warrior is back with a vengeance
WHEN Ben Fordham first got a call from Nine management about a new show called Ninja
Warrior, the former Today show regular thought he was for the career high jump.
“I got this random phone call from someone at Channel 9 requesting that I come in and meet the bosses on level three,” he says.
“When you’re a worker bee and you’re told you’re going up to level three, it can only mean one of two things and because I didn’t have a defined role so much at the time … I would fill in for Karl [Stefanovic] on Today and David [Campbell] on Extra … the first thought I had was that I was getting the bullet.”
While he keeps busy juggling his full-time, toprating radio program on Sydney’s 2GB with recent shifts on Sky News, Fordham admits he was slightly panicked by the news.
“The lady on the phone wouldn’t tell me what it was about,” so the 41-year-old Walkley-winning journalist kicked into gear and started pumping her for information.
“She tried to calm me down by saying, ‘It’s not bad’ and I said, ‘Well if it’s not bad, just tell me what it is.’ And she said, ‘It’s Ninja Warrior.’ I’m embarrassed to say I’d never heard of it, even though it had been a worldwide phenomenon. I Googled it quickly, then stupidly said to her, ‘Do they want me to go on it?’ and she said, word for word, ‘No, you d***head, they want you to host it.”
Anyone who follows the father of two – Freddie and Pearl – on Instagram knows he’s a king of the kids; posting
videos of his children and a squad of neighbourhood kids from his street who he turned to next for an impromptu focus group on the show.
After baulking at the idea, sticking to his sense of himself as a serious newsman, it was the kids who convinced him otherwise. “Five out of six not only knew it, but loved it. That’s when I said to [Seven newsreader wife] Jodie [Speers], ‘I better do this thing because chances are it will be a massive success and I’ll be sitting on the couch watching it going, ‘I should have said yes.’”
It was probably the best call of his career, with Ninja averaging 2.505 million viewers nationally each episode – and launching the former A Current Affair reporter back into prime-time. Teaming with AFL Footy
Show host Rebecca Maddern and former English cricket captain Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff on Ninja, Fordham admits they were blindsided by the show’s success.
“When the first episode went to air, Jodie, myself and the kids were up in Queensland on holidays and the next morning, Rebecca and I were on the phone together as the ratings came through,” he recalls. “When she read out the ratings for the first night, they were literally double what Channel 9 had told us would be a pass mark.”
With 300 contestants, including 90 ninjas from the launch year returning this season to test themselves again on the intense obstacle course, Fordham says with the exception of few technical tweaks, the show’s essence remains the same.
“It’s a show that encourages people to get outside and have a crack … to pick yourself up and dust yourself off when things don’t always go to plan. There were some really strong messages in there about resilience and stepping outside your comfort zone,” he says.
“It’s about lifting people up who have a try and that for me is great.”
Adding to the show’s family appeal, Maddern will appear in the pre-recorded episodes heavily pregnant with her first child [a daughter, Ruby Mae born in April] – a conception Fordham jokes he wants credit for. “I introduced Bec to Freddie and Pearl and bored her witless with my photos and videos of the kids,” he says.
Working through her final trimester proved her own endurance test, her co-host explains. “There was one night I turned up filming and the door to the dressing room we shared to get ready for the show was locked and one of the producers said to me she was in there laying down on the floor, not well,” he says.
“Meanwhile you’ve got 50 ninjas on the course, 100 crew and millions of dollars worth of lighting and explosives ready to go and I said, ‘Guys, there’s a chance Bec’s not going to be there.’ But she picked herself up, 10 minutes before start time and just walked on out there … she was such a trooper.”
AUSTRALIAN NINJA WARRIOR
7PM, SUNDAY, MONDAY AND TUESDAY, FROM JULY 8 ON NINE