Zoe Ball on filming new gameshow Can't Touch This in Northern Ireland and why she loves an Ulster Fry
Ahead of her new show, Can't Touch This, which was filmed in Belfast and starts on BBC1 on Saturday night, Zoe Ball tells Una Brankin how she loves Northern Ireland and can't wait to visit the set of Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones fan Zoe Ball had such a good time making the BBC's new Saturday night gameshow in Belfast, she's planning to spend some quality time here with husband Norman Cook and their children during the next round of filming.
The popular Strictly Come Dancing spin-off presenter recently completed filming on Can't Touch This, an entertaining obstacle-course series produced at Titanic Quarter's T13 building by Stellify Media, a Northern Ireland-based independent production company.
The 10-part show is co-presented by Ashley Banjo (27), leader of the dance troupe Diversity, who won the third series of Britain's Got Talent in 2013.
"I love Belfast - the frustrating thing with filming is you don't get much time to explore, so I'm really hoping to bring the family over next time and hire a car and adventure along the coast," says Zoe. "I'd like to really get some quality time to discover the surroundings, and I'm also really keen to get a sneaky glimpse inside the Game of Thrones studio."
The fresh-faced 45-year-old last week returned from a month's holiday in the Caribbean island of St Lucia with Norman - aka DJ Fatboy Slim - and their six-year-old daughter Nelly. The couple's 16-year marriage survived a brief separation following Zoe's affair with a close friend of Cook in 2003, and a less serious Christmas kiss last December with a 22-year-old boyband member, at the festive wrap party for It Takes Two.
Can't Touch This marks a welcome return to prime time television for Zoe, daughter of former children's TV presenter Johnny Ball, and the first female host of The Radio 1 Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 1.
"I yelped with delight when I heard about Can't Touch This," she says. "It's epic on every front, like a life-size game of mousetrap for humans. Who wouldn't want to be fired from a catapult?
"It's ace that our contestants don't have to be the world's best athletes - they're all ages from 18 to 65. And I'm a huge fan of Ashley Banjo. Stopping him from leaping off onto the travellator is my main task. You'll watch it and want to have a go immediately. We are both so excited about this show."
Can't Touch This is a grand-scale game show with a very simple premise: if you touch the prize, you win the prize. Catapulted into a giant obstacle course, 16 contestants have to battle their way through unpredictable challenges while trying to touch prizes tantalisingly just out of reach. It's full of what the BBC describe as "epic fails", including some comic antics in the human catapult and foam pit.
Zoe adds: "There's a guy who doesn't make it out of the foam pit and he gets stuck in it, and then his pants come off. He's so gorgeous and it was hilarious. I think that was the most pain I've ever been in from laughing. It was just so, so funny.
"I think I'd be lucky to make it out of the first foam pit. I think I'd be all right until it got to the travellator. Then if you get dunked, it's so impossible to run and I'm not a graceful runner anyway. I'd be really good at the stack em' high thing.
"And the catapult - because no one's ever been catapulted before, you can't imagine what's going to happen to your body and you can feel the tension when the studio is so quiet. I love the crew's reaction to watching people do it and you know it's going to be a good fun show because you are willing everyone to do really well and you're laughing a lot, with them and not at them."
With her youthful looks and occasional irreverence, it's hard to believe Zoe's eldest, Woody, is now 16. She's full of praise for her handsome co-presenter Ashley and commentator, Sue Perkins, better known for the Great British Bake Off.
"Sue is so funny and she makes me laugh out loud but that is why she is a genius. A God-like genius. And Ashley, you know, there's an element of ridiculousness about him. He has a Great Dane and a Chihuahua and three chinchillas."
Can't Touch This is another lucrative long-term addition to Northern Ireland's film and television industry, with the team behind the show seeking a deal to produce it for other broadcasters outside the UK.
Developed and produced with funding support from Northern Ireland Screen, it was one of the programmes announced following the signing of the BBC and Northern Ireland Screen Partnership Agreement last March.
The joint agreement sees the BBC and Northern Ireland Screen working together to invest financially and creatively in developing an internationally competitive screen industry here.
International broadcasters buying the Can't Touch This format may also film in Northern Ireland using the specially constructed set.
Meanwhile, co-presenter Ashley Banjo is rumoured to be in talks with Simon Cowell to join the judging panel on Britain's Got Talent. The son of a former Nigerian-born boxer and English ballet dancer, Banjo hopes to return to his physics and biology degree when his dancing days are over.
The athletic Londoner married solicitor and dancer Francesca Abbot last summer, not long before filming began on Can't Touch This. "I've never quite seen anything like Can't Touch This - the sheer scale of it is immense," he says.
"The concept sounds so simple - 'touch the prize, win the prize' - but the course is anything but.
"And due to the chance element of some of the games, it really is anybody's guess who will win, no matter how young or fit you are. There are some incredible prizes on offer, including a brand new car, and the contestants are literally falling head over heels to try and win them.
"Zoe and I have been crying with laughter watching them try, but also really rooting for them to do well."
The former Sky 1 Got To Dance judge aims to become a scientist one day, but admits he has found his dream job, for the moment, in Can't Touch This
"Shooting this show was probably the most fun I've ever had," he adds. "I think what I enjoyed most was the people. A lot of the crew working in the show were from Belfast and they were just always up for a laugh.
"I even took on a few of the local crew in a dance battle in between filming takes. It was Essex versus Belfast - but once they got going, they out-jigged me all the way."
At six-foot-five, Banjo makes a good wingman for Zoe, who, at five-foot-ten, can wear her highest heels when they're presenting together. The former Live & Kicking host, who lives in a beachfront property in Western Esplanade, Hove, also praised the Belfast crew on Can't Touch This.
"Everyone makes you feel so welcome as soon as you touch down here and don't start me on the Ulster fry," she says. "I also love the Belfast accent and the lads taught us some local lingo, but my accent is shocking.
"We had quite long studio days and our local crew were the best. They had us proper belly laughing and dancing and joking around.
"You become a family pretty quick on shoots with big crews and I'm so looking forward to seeing them all again soon, fingers crossed."
- Can't Touch This is on BBC1, Saturday at 6.10pm
Province proves popular on screen
Another production filmed recently in Northern Ireland, the big-budget Hollywood movie High Rise, has hit cinemas to mostly positive reviews. Starring heart-throb Tom Hiddleston, of BBC's The Night Manager, along with Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons and Elizabeth Moss, the film adaptation of JG Ballard's chilling sci-fi novel was shot primarily in Bangor, Co Down last summer.
Hiddleston - rumoured to be in the running as the new James Bond - tweeted a photograph of himself from the set last August with co-star Luke Evans, the Welsh actor and singer.
Meanwhile, Mad Men's Aaron Staton, who played advertising agent and would-be writer Ken Cosgrove in the hit American drama, has begun filming here on BBC One's new Second World War drama series, My Mother and Other Strangers, written by Barry Devlin (Ballykissangel, Darling Buds of May).
Local actor and former Coronation Street star Charlie Lawson will be joining the cast of the BBC series alongside Kerr Logan of Game of Thrones who, like Charlie, will be familiar with the province.