Children’s TV presenter whose can-do attitude marked him out from his more sensible Blue Peter co-hosts
Monday 29 May 2017
In 1977, the television presenter John Noakes, who has died aged 83, climbed Nelson’s Column without safety harness or insurance, for an episode of the BBC’s enduring children’s show Blue Peter. After shinning up one ladder, Noakes swung himself dauntlessly on to another, tilted 45 degrees from the vertical. “At this level,” said Noakes in a voiceover, “the plinth on which Nelson stands overhangs the column. I found myself literally hanging on from the ladder with nothing at all beneath me.” Nothing, that is, but a 52-metre drop to the slabs of Trafalgar Square. Truly, they don’t make television presenters like Noakes any more. “It’s a long way up, really,” he said as he stood on the plinth with Britain’s naval hero, a remark so refreshingly banal as to prove that Blue Peter was not always scripted.
During his 12 years as a Blue Peter presenter, Noakes often climbed things and, for a while, held the British civilian freefall parachuting record – 25,000 feet. Soon after Noakes joined Blue Peter in December 1965, his then co-presenter Christopher Trace, who had no head for heights, had baulked at taking part in an outside broadcast that included climbing to the top of a tower crane. The show’s producer Edward Barnes asked Noakes if he would do it instead: “Aye, all right, I’ll have a go.”
That daredevil can-do attitude stood him in good stead and marked him out from his more sensible co-presenters, such as Valerie Singleton, Peter Purves and Lesley Judd. There are some fans of the show who will always remember the moment that Noakes bared his bruised bottom after coming off his bobsleigh as he shot down the Cresta Run.
And then there were the animals. Initially, Noakes was charged with looking after Patch, puppy of the first Blue Peter dog Petra, before being given stewardship of Shep, a border collie, after Patch’s death in 1971. Shep remained proverbially beyond his control. As the pop parodists the Barron Knights put it in their 1978 novelty song Get Down, Shep, about Noakes’s relationship with the dog he called his “straight man”, “John could never be alone no matter where he went / Because Shep would always sniff around and soon pick up his scent.” Decades after he left the show, and long after the dog’s death in 1987, people would stop Noakes in the street and ask: “Where’s Shep?”
It is hard to explain the significance of Blue Peter during the golden age in which Noakes was its lord of misrule. There were only three TV stations and no dedicated children’s network, so Blue Peter was culturally central to its viewers in a way no kids’ TV show could be now. At the peak of its popularity, eight million watched the show, savouring its time-honoured format: a live demonstration of an activity (usually involving making a model from plastic bottles held together with sticky-back plastic), and a music or dance performance, followed by an edifying filmed report with one of the presenters and some risky live turn with an animal. A thousand letters a day arrived from children keen to earn one of the coveted Blue Peter badges, which made them the envy of their classmates. “It was a bit like an overgrown schoolboy’s job,” Noakes told an interviewer many years later. “I was Peter Pan really. I sometimes think I still am.”
Noakes was born in the village of Shelf, between Bradford and Halifax, in West Yorkshire. He was an only child and loved playing by himself in the woods or in the rain. His mother, he once said, thought he was mad. His parents divorced when John was nine and he was sent as a boarder to Rishworth school, Sowerby Bridge, where he was the rebel of Remove B, the class for under-achievers.
Although he excelled in cross-country running and gymnastics, he left school without qualifications, as a result of which he was turned down as a pilot by the RAF. Instead he trained as an engine fitter for the RAF and the airline BOAC, before deciding he wanted to become an actor. He attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, financing the lessons by working as a liftboy in a hotel and doing early morning cleaning work. After graduation, he joined a touring repertory company and was spotted by Blue Peter’s editor, Biddy Baxter, in a production of Hobson’s Choice at the Phoenix theatre in Leicester, where he was playing Willie Mossop, the gormless hero of Harold Brighouse’s play.
Baxter, who was on the lookout for a third Blue Peter presenter to join Singleton and Trace as the programme went twice weekly, recalled that Noakes was “incredibly fresh faced – he looked about 14”. He was actually 29 at the time. His winning Yorkshire accent (refreshing at a time when received pronunciation was still de rigueur for TV presenters), smiling eyes and quizzical expression “all combined to make the most compelling personality and one we were sure would be right for Blue Peter even before we had seen him on camera,” said Baxter.
Noakes was later dismissive of those Peter Pan years, saying that playing Mossop on stage had given him more satisfaction than the entire Blue Peter experience. “Given my time again,” he told Radio Times in 1999, “I wouldn’t have done Blue Peter. I’d done theatre for six years and was tired. But the pressure was terrible. One year I did nine weeks with only one and a half days off. I collapsed and couldn’t go on. That’s the nearest I came to a breakdown.” Noakes even turned on the woman who had plucked him from obscurity. “Biddy Baxter was an awful woman. I don’t want to talk about her. It would upset my lunch.”
His falling out with Baxter revolved in part around Shep. On leaving Blue Peter in 1978, Noakes wanted to make money from adverts featuring him and the famous collie. “I think it would have been immoral,” Baxter told the Guardian. “How can you have a Blue Peter presenter on commercial television advertising dog food so children think ‘I must buy this’?”
But after Blue Peter, Noakes was not short of work. Since 1976, he had presented Go With Noakes, a BBC children’s show featuring him in various outdoor adventures, such as motor racing, rowing, aerobatics and painting, accompanied by Shep. It lasted for five series until 1980. In 1979 he published a book of stories for children, The Flight of the Magic Clog.
In 1982, with his wife, Vicky, Noakes set off for the Caribbean in his own boat, intending to live there. Sailing had become a passion ever since he bought a boat to use at weekends while he was working on Blue Peter. Somewhere along the voyage, however, the boat was hit by a 60ft wave; the couple were rescued by the crew of a passing tanker. Noakes broke two ribs and suffered a deep cut above one eye that left a permanent scar. The Caribbean plan was shelved and ultimately he and Vicky decided to settle in Majorca.
In 1983 he presented The Dinosaur Trail, a seven-part documentary for ITV. There followed a long period of estrangement from television. He was not invited to the 25th anniversary party of Blue Peter, it was said, because he had threatened to “knock the block off” one of the producers.
In 1998 he returned to Blue Peter for a programme celebrating 40 years of the show, and was back again in January 2000 when Singleton, Purves and Noakes dug up the Blue Peter time capsule they had buried in 1971. In 1999, he presented a LWT series, Mad About Pets, with a new sidekick, a Dalmatian called Sigh. He also made appearances on Pet Rescue (2003), Britain’s Worst Celebrity Drivers (2005) and, with Peter Purves, on the quiz show Pointless Celebrities (2013).
In later years, Noakes enjoyed tap dancing and gardening. He took up painting watercolours of the almond and carob trees near his Majorcan home. “I had one exhibition and made £150, so I was chuffed.”
“I still regret not carrying on as an actor,” Noakes told one interviewer. “It was a wonderful life – you get paid to become somebody else and live in a fantasy world.” But the truth is that he did get paid to become someone else in his TV career, an alter ego he once called Idiot Noakes. “Idiot Noakes has an extrovert personality, is light-hearted and jokey. A bit of a buffoon who would do anything for a laugh or a few pence.” In reality, Noakes claimed, he was nothing like the persona millions of Britons of a certain age admired. “I switch the personality on when I turn up to do the job, and off when I leave.”
He is survived by Vicky.
• John Noakes, television presenter, actor and writer, born 6 March 1934; died 28 May 2017