TV presenter Ben Cajee stormed Leeds Castle in Kent to join celebrations to mark its 900th anniversary, with the help of hundreds of happy young fans.
The CBeebies frontman officially opened the wooden Knights’ Stronghold adventure playground in the castle grounds, before spending time signing autographs and posing for selfies in front of the wooden representation of the castle, which is fitted with slides, firemen’s poles and zip wires.
Ben also had a chance to try a new adventure golf course in the castle grounds, but what thrilled him most was an invitation to meet two members of the resident falconry display team, an owl and a hawk.
“Wow, that was just amazing,” Ben tells me in a phone interview he conducts while walking in the Easter sunshine near his home in Manchester. “Those birds are seriously beautiful and having the hawk fly over and land on me was thrilling”.
Our conversation flits through Ben’s childhood, his various jobs, travel opportunities, his passion for sport and for helping young people get better chances in life, meeting his heroes, appearing on Blue Peter, and finally, thoughts of one day settling down.
We start with the origins of Ben’s unusual surname. It’s the result of a mixed ethnicity, his paternal grandparents hailing from South Africa and India. Add into that a sprinkling of Mauritius, Scottish and Dutch blood and it’s clear he’s immensely proud of his heritage.
Ben was born in Ipswich, but moved around a lot as a child, to Somerset, the Midlands and finally to Devon, which he considers home because it was where he spent his teenage years. He still returns there regularly.
After leaving school with A-levels, Ben went to Cardiff University to study journalism, media and cultural criticism. He loved the experience, but graduated in 2009, just as the crash began to hit business and found it impossible to find a career job, so worked in an M&S food hall, did some temping and worked in the admin department of a Welsh cancer trials unit for 12 months.
The travel bug then took hold and Ben and a friend spent time in New York, toured India and he worked in Kenya for six weeks, supporting various educational and conservation projects. It gave him a love of helping children and young people, which has stood him in good stead in his subsequent TV career. Returning to the UK in 2011, Ben began freelancing as a journalist and got a job with the International Cricket Council at Lords – an experience he thoroughly enjoyed because the game has always been a great passion of his, along with playing football and supporting his favourite team of West Ham. Then, out of the blue, came a phone call which was to change his life.
“I’d worked on a radio show at uni and someone picked up on it and called to ask me to audition for a presenting job they thought I’d be good at. I went for an audition in a hotel and although I wasn’t selected, one of the executive producers for CBeebies called me a week later to ask me to do a screen test. I got the job a few weeks later, in January 2015 and then started on the channel in April.”
Ben admits he was surprised to get the TV presenter role. He doesn’t come from a performing background, but has embraced those elements during his time at CBeebies – even appearing in the Christmas shows of The Snow Queen and Thumbelina. He’s gone on to present on CBBC and to lead community features for Match of the Day on BBC One.
Does he worry about being recognised as a TV star? “It’s weird, because sometimes I won’t get recognised at all, and other times it’ll happen loads. It’s always been a really positive experience, though and being able to interact with young people and their families is one of the best parts of the job. You don’t always get to see that when you’re in studio, so to be able to spend some time with the audience is great.”
Ben saw stardom from the other side, when he met Sir Paul McCartney while working at Lord’s during the Olympics. The reaction of the former Beatle surprised him.
“I told him I had loved ‘Band on the Run’ when I was a child and he was so nice, thanked me and asked what I was doing. I couldn’t believe it – here was I talking to one of my biggest heroes and he was asking ME what I was doing!”
Another childhood dream was achieved when Ben was asked to appear as a guest presenter on Blue Peter. The special badge he was given sits on his desk as a reminder of a special day.
“I’ve kept the script, too, so if I ever have children I can show it to them and tell them about one of my proudest moments,” he says.
For now, Ben’s life is busy with appearances on CBeebies, presenting on Match of the Day and “Kickabout”, and filling his rare leisure time with games of seven-a-side football, the odd cricket match and occasional round of golf.
He’s single, but “happy and content” with his lot and as we parted he was looking forward to spending Easter with friends in Devon, a simple pleasure far from his hectic on-screen life.