My life changed considerably after joining Blue Peter. As an actor, keeping a dog really was not an option, because the nature of the job means that you are often away from home, and life is fairly unstable, to say the least!. I have always enjoyed dogs, and as a family we adopted our first dog, Rusty, when my parents moved to Derbyshire when I was ten years old. We always assumed he was a Cocker Spaniel, but I now know he was a black Field Spaniel – he was too big and too long in the body for a Cocker.
When I joined Blue Peter, I took over, as my on-screen pet, the dog who was the nation’s first surrogate pet, Petra, a five year old Border Collie/German Shepherd cross.
She was not fond of the studio, and so the editor, the formidable Biddy Baxter, suggested that it might be beneficial to the dog if I looked after her off-screen as well. It meant that she, in effect, became my dog, and she travelled with me to and from the studio, and often came on filming assignments too. It worked well, and so, for the next ten years, I and my family owned a dog. Petra was a nervous animal, and not very sociable with other dogs, but i grew very fond of her, and she with me, I think. I enjoyed her company, and she took to training very well, so it was a happy on and off-screen relationship. It was a sad time for me (and for the nation) when she died aged 15.
During my time on the BP programme, I worked with all sorts of animals, birds and reptiles. I made several films with the naturalist and wild-life photographer Graham Dangerfield. We filmed putting up nesting boxes for Barn Owls and Kestrels, and over the years enjoyed the fact that these endangered species become more numerous. We filmed together at his small private zoo in Hertfordshire, where he rescued Foxes, injured birds, Coypu, and Badgers, and many more.. he even kept Ocelots in a large cage
and occasionally they would, disconcertingly, come into the house and his office through the window. We even rescued and protected some Dormice. He had two or three injured Heron, which we would release into the wild when they recovered (as we did with any of the injured animals he saved.) There was one blind Heron that could never be released, and on many of the films we made, you could see a heron in the background – it was the blind one that we would take with us and place in a convenient spot, and then
take her back to the zoo after filming. For me, these were some of the most enjoyable and pleasing films I made, giving many memories i shall never forget.
Memorable other films included filming the first nesting pair of Ospreys at a then secret location in Scotland. Now Ospreys are flourishing again and it is due to the successful breeding of that first pair. I assisted with the treatment of a Tiger at London Zoo; I handled Pythons and Boas; I filmed and worked
with Falcons and Barn Owls, and even with an Eagle Owl; and long after Blue Peter, when hosting Countryside Arenas at the Royal Show at Stoneleigh and at the Royal Bath and West at Shepton Mallet, I regularly took part in the Falconry displays. Great fun.
Of course the most famous animal sequence on Blue Peter, was when we had the bay Elephant, Lulu , in the studio prior to our trip to Ceylon (Now Sri Lanka). We had rehearsed the item in a very straightforward way, and then when performing the show “live” Lulu did just what she wanted and caused one of the best unscripted chaotic sequences in TV history. The chaos was always going to happen after Biddy Baxter asked the handler to do the item without the stick with which he encouraged Lulu to do what was required. A small tap on the head and Lulu would follow him anywhere. Without the stick, she ran amok. I couldn’t stop laughing, John made the most of every opportunity for a gag, and Valerie tried her hardest to keep us all on the script. Wonderful stuff.
But Dogs have been the mainstay. My Wife, Kathryn, had always kept a Pekingese dog, as her Mother had at one time bred them. When we got together we gradually increased the number to two Pekes, and then moved on to keeping Newfoundlands! Some slight change in size, but the two breeds got on very well together – the Pekes often used the Newfies as pillows! At one time we had three Pekes and Two Newfies in the family.
But Newfoundlands are very high maintenance dogs, and after keeping three of them, we fell in love with Wire-Haired Dachshunds. We had looked after a friends’ bitch, and liked her so much we bought one of the puppies from her first litter. That was Hattie, and she was a beautiful Red bitch. We then bought a magnificent dog, Woody, and they mated, producing a litter of seven pups. We kept two of those, Dottie and Teddy, which were woolly blondes, a sort of Wheaten colour. They were all joined after a couple of
years by two more Pekes, Bea and Lillie. Sadly we lost Hattie, aged 12, in 2016. And we added one miniature Wire-haired Dachshund, Bertie in that same year.
Professionally, my life has been full of dogs since I left Blue Peter. In 1978 Iwas invited by the BBC to introduce a new type of competition, Dog Agility, to the World’s Greatest Dog Show, Crufts. The success of that discipline has been incredible. At one time it was the fastest growing sport in the country, and there are hundreds of Dog Training, Agility and Flyball clubs all around the country and abroad. I have been continuously involved with Crufts ever since (see Current Activities), celebrating 40 years as Presenter
and Commentator at the show for TV in March 2018.
I hosted the Country Pursuits Arena at the Royal Show ( sadly now defunct) for over 15 years, and also at The Royal Bath and West for six years. Agility was the curtain raiser and final event each day of the show and every year. Commentating on such an enjoyable event has always been a pleasure for me, and I have made many friends in the sport.
I was involved in the presentation and commentary in a number of other TV Dog programmes including 65 editions of Pets Go Public for Channel 5; Breed All About It for the Discovery Channel, and three series of
Superdogs for the BBC. I was also a judge on the series The Underdog Show for the BBC and CBBC.
I have only ever judged one pedigree class – Newfoundlands in Leeds back in 1990, I think it was. But I regularly am asked to judge Companion Dog shows which has mainly fun classes such as the dog with the waggiest tail, the most handsome dog, etc. And this year would have been my tenth as host of one of the two arenas at The Suffolk Dog Day (July annually). This is a massive fund-raiser for the Suffolk Foundation which supports many important local charities in Suffolk, and has raised in excess of half a million pounds over that period.. It is an event I am really happy to support, but because of an engagement to host the dog Arena at Countryfile Live at Blenheim Palace I had to forego the pleasure. I shall also have the pleasure of hosting the dog arena at the Malvern Autumn Show
I am also proud to Vice-Patron of Dogs for Good (formerly Dogs for the Disabled). I will be speaking at a couple of major events for them in 2018. I am also President of the Canine Supporters Charity, whose annual fundraiser, The Contest of Champions, takes place on the first weekend of April. In 2018 Tyler , the Bulldog won the title for an unprecedented 4th time in a row.
There have been numerous other dog events over the years including several for the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association ( I wrote Tess, The Story of a Guide Dog to celebrate the Associations’ 50th Anniversary, with photographs by the brilliant Fay Godwin). I hosted the Brentford Show for several years and at least ten years of All About Dogs at the Brentford Showground. Notcutts Garden Centres ran shows, also called All About Dogs, for three years which I hosted and judged, and I was also an Arena host at The Cold Wet Nose Show, The Wag and Bone Show, and Discover Dogs on numerous occasions. There have been many more smaller local shows – too many to mention.
I was Editor at Large for the monthly magazine Peter Purves’ Mad About Dogs and for a couple of years had my own column in Our Dogs Newspaper called Purves Unleashed, and I am a member of the Kennel