Show People: Boy wonder of the box: Ben the boffin

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The Independent Culture
LIGHTS, cameras, monitors, dozens of people, and red cables that trail behind the action as it races from room to room. It's The Big Breakfast, it's organised mayhem, and it's live. In an armchair in the corner a 13-year-old with specs and mousy brown hair, brushed firmly down, holds a bunch of flowers.

On cue, he hands them to Gaby Roslin, the presenter. The crew ooh and aah and shout out 'Ben the Boffin]'. Lenny Henry, who's dropped in to plug his tour, calls 'Creep]'. The boy grins. He climbs the stairs to a bedroom, sits on the bed, surrounded by posters, with two television screens and sets of controls to his left, and waits for his slot. It's 7.30am; he looks only the tiniest bit apprehensive. He's the video-games reviewer.

Chris Evans strides into this room, that can hardly fit the two of them and a bed. The cameraman stands in the doorway. The girl with headphones stands outside shouting out bits of encouragement. Inside, Evans plays the jokey big brother, pulling faces, while Ben delivers his verdicts on the graphics and playability of the latest games. He gives each game a boredom rating: the lower the figure, the less boring the game. They finish the item by putting on silly wigs. Then Evans is off, to something else that is wacky, somewhere else in the house. That's Ben done for another week. He's been on the show since it started: probably the youngest critic in the business and certainly the most deadpan.

'When I first started I used to leave thinking: why did I do that, why didn't I do it this way?' He sits on the bed talking in a low, slightly nasal voice, like a librarian with a cold. 'It's easy to think like that in retrospect. But you've got four minutes to get three games in, and do competitions, charts, and funny gags. You have to be thinking really quickly.' He runs a finger under his glasses and rubs his eyes. He's been up since five.

The first thing he does in the morning is have a cold shower: 'which keeps me perky until about nine'. Then a car takes him from his parents' home in Chiswick to the converted cottages by a lock in east London. They rehearse his bit 'if I'm lucky' at 6.30 and he goes on about an hour later. Usually he's straight off to school in Ham. He takes his options on GCSEs later this year.

He gets recognised by the public now. 'But not in a particularly nice way. I'll be walking down the street and then suddenly I'll hear: 'Ben the Boffin, you wanker]' shouted across the street.' When he goes out now he takes off his glasses. 'That's the main thing that gets me recognised.' Trouble is, he explains, in his deliberate, humorous way, 'I'm very short-sighted and bump into things.'

He'd rather be a journalist than an actor, perhaps a sportswriter. Acting is 'a bit risky'. Still, he's done quite a bit. 'I've done a bit of acting, yeah, but it didn't prepare me at all for this.' His brown eyes dart across to the press officer. Ben is only meant to discuss things that are part of the Boffin character.

But if you don't watch Channel 4 on a Thursday morning, and have no idea who Ben the Boffin is, you may still have seen the remarkably self-possessed Ben Keyworth playing the short-sighted 11-year- old in Mark Peploe's thriller Afraid of the Dark (1992). Fanny Ardant played his mother, and James Fox his father. Time Out thought Keyworth, as the boy who tries to work out who's been killing blind people, was 'genuinely touching'.

This year Ben was one of the boys holidaying in Cornwall in the television adaptation of Mary Wesley's Harnessing Peacocks. He kept his specs on again (they are as important to him as they are to Woody Allen). The camera cut to him for the sort of shots where the child sees exactly what's going on and registers it in step with the audience. 'He's got a great stillness, he doesn't fidget,' says Joyce Nettles, casting director on Harnessing Peacocks. 'He looks at you when he's talking to you. He's interested and that makes him interesting.'

He got the job at The Big Breakfast thanks to the dad of a friend at his junior school, Strand-on-the-Green. Sammy Jacobs's dad worked for Channel 4 Daily and suggested Ben for The Big Breakfast pilot. It's not that Ben is a computer wizard. His big brother, Nick, and his twin sister, Ros, both beat him at computer games. 'Makes my image a bit shoddy.' But he's always been thought old for his age, which makes the Boffin image stick. 'Four going on 64,' says Sammy's mum.

Ben himself got his first Nintendo at 10, which, he adds drily, 'I was pleased with at the time'. But in the addictive world of computer games, he's no junkie. He likes to play rugby too. 'I don't honestly talk about computer games that much out of The Big Breakfast,' he says, 'because I can find sometimes that it does get a bit sort of . . . tedious.'

He prepares by reading a couple of magazines 'to see if they say anything', playing the games, and discussing them with his researcher. 'I used to speak to Chris (Evans) about what we were going to do, but now we just sort of go into it head first, and think it's turned out better.' He's funny, but is he influential? Julian Rignall, editor of the games magazine Mean Machines, thinks not. 'Zero credibility is a phrase that springs to mind.' Since 95 per cent of kids have access to video games, the idea that kids want to hear from a Boffin figure is 'just another toe-curling, cheesy stereotype that we have to put up with'.

What's striking about Ben isn't his braininess, but his sang-froid: he's less a mini Ignatieff, more a little Lynam. 'The trick is to be as relaxed as possible when you go on,' he says. 'Because Chris has pulled some funnies on me in the past, and if you're relaxed, you can take them a lot quicker and think of something back, whereas if you're nervous, you might just go 'Oh, dear' and freeze.'

'The Big Breakfast' continues on Channel 4, 7-9am, Mon to Fri.

(Photograph omitted)

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