The Blue Peter Years 1967 – 1978
After leaving Doctor Who, my acting career took a bit of a nose-dive, and I was only able to pick a few scraps of work, a couple of episodes of Z-Cars, and occasional other TV performances, but nothing to write home about. Out of the blue, I was asked to audition for Blue Peter, a children’s TV magazine programme which had been running for eight years on BBC 1. I met with Biddy Baxter, Edward Barnes and Rosemary Gill, the triumvirate of Editor and senior producers of the show, and after two interviews and a studio
audition, I was offered the role as Presenter, joining the two regulars John Noakes and Valerie Singleton.
In my mind, I took the job as a six-month stop-gap until the acting revived, but as it turned out, the job was so interesting and enjoyable, I signed a new contract, and eventually stayed with the show until 1978, ten and a half years later! Time does strange things, and now we three are collectively known, flatteringly, as The Dream Team
Blue Peter was a brilliant mixture of fun and hard work – i honestly believe that, in spite of the very poor cash remuneration, it was the best job in television. We dropped in to the best parts of people’s lives, getting to drive exotic vehicles and trains, ride horses and carriages, pilot boats and aircraft, you name it. And let’s face it, where else would you be taken to 27 different countries, sometimes for up to a month, and to be paid for having all those adventures. It was a magical and never-to-be-forgotten experience. Actually, Valerie Singleton had the best phrase for it – she said that the job “took us beyond the rope”; the analogy being with the ropes that cordon off private areas in stately homes. I think that does say it all.
Working on a live programme without autocue or talkback to the production gallery was initially very hard for me. But I soon got into the routine and it became second nature. The lack of autocue meant that we had to concentrate 100%, and learn the script very accurately. Except during interviews, there was no opportunity for improvisation, and the production values on the show were very high. Each show was as fully produced as any drama and rigidly controlled by the editor, Biddy. We also had to contend with her alterations in the running order, sometimes as late as a few seconds before going On Air. The adrenaline rush was huge, but the result was often very rewarding.
Sadly 2017 saw the passing of my wonderful colleague and close friend, John Noakes. He was a remarkable man and a unique TV Presenter. No one else comes close to him in the ability to take on any task, no matter how dangerous. His feat in climbing Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square up ladders strapped to the side of the column, and with a perilous overhang up to Nelson’s plinth, was probably the most remarkable of all his stunts. I don’t think he had the “fear gene” in his make-up! We remained friends to the end, occasionally we managed to work together (actually after BP we performed together in pantomimes as a double-act for seven or eight years) and I miss him.
I am often asked why John did “all the stunts” on Blue Peter, and although I acknowledge he did more than I, I did have my fair share of difficult and occasionally dangerous films. I made a number of rock-climbing films with the legendary (Sir) Chris Bonnington, I capsized sailing boats, and filmed several
times with Air-Sea Rescue. And when you add Jousting, Stunt Cars, Speedway, Trials-riding, Mountain rescue, Highland Games, Military Assault Courses, and American Grid-Iron Football, to name just a few, there really is quite a long list of very exciting and sometimes extreme films. And if you aren’t impressed by my walking the cable of the Forth Road Bridge with the Bridge inspector, then I give up!
John, Val and I got on very well together, as I did later working with Lesley Judd when she joined the show in 1972. It was a team effort, and the chemistry had to work or the show would fail. Obviously, working under the kind of pressure we did, there were times when we might fall out over something – it would have been extraordinary if we had not – but we would always make it up pretty quickly.
I am still in fairly regular contact with Valerie, and we remain friends. Unfortunately Lesley now lives in France and we have not kept in contact. However with the celebrations of the 60th Anniversary of Blue Peter coming up in October, I expect we shall all meet up again. It is such a shame that my old mate, John, will not be there.