Before hyperactive twenty-somethings, uncles used to be the model – lacking the stern authority of father-figures, managing to earn respect with lingering juvenile slapstick silliness; when I was the child watching, uncles were everywhere. Derek Griffiths and Brian Cant on ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’; Tony Hart on ‘Vision On’; Johnny Morris on ‘Animal Magic’; Roy Castle on ‘Record Breakers’; yes…Rolf Harris; and then there were John Noakes and Peter Purves on ‘Blue Peter’. With the news that Noakes has passed away at the age of 83, having mercifully evaded the pernicious net of malicious revisionism that hangs over his television era, those of my generation cannot help but recall how much he meant to us at the time.
John Noakes joined ‘Blue Peter’ as a very young-looking 30-year-old when his far-from spectacular acting career was floundering. Becoming the third member of the team in 1965, he was quite unlike anyone to have appeared on children’s TV previously. Christopher Trace and Valerie Singleton were very much in a 50s parental mould – RP-speaking, frightfully middle-class and sensible; they represented the norm. Noakes was Northern and didn’t hide his Yorkshire accent, for one thing; and he never talked down to the audience, communicating with them in their own language. It never looked as if Noakes’ mother took a comb to his hair, so he was definitely ‘one of us’.
John Noakes was also child-like in his anarchic recklessness, quickly earning a reputation as something of an amateur daredevil that saw him put in situations that would today provoke a cardiac arrest in most Health and Safety Officers. He climbed up one of the chimneys at Fulham Power Station, up Nelson’s Column, up the mast 127 feet above the deck of HMS Ganges; he skydived with the RAF; and had a lucky escape when tobogganing at 90mph. There was a fearlessness to him that seemed to echo the tree-climbing zest for life his core viewing public were encouraged to believe they would one day grow out of. He clearly hadn’t grown out of it, so there was hope for all of us.
It later emerged that Noakes’ popularity with the young audience was something of an irritant to his on-screen sidekick Peter Purves. Not that the two men didn’t get on – far from it; but it seems Purves resented having to play ‘the straight man’ to Noakes’ comedy character; perhaps that’s why Purves went for the cool dude look, straight out of Carnaby Street. It was then up to Valerie Singleton to play the responsible parent to an unruly rascal and a coiffured dandy, keeping the boys in order. Singleton was the studio representative of the show’s backstage editor Biddy Baxter, whose strict headmistress persona often clashed with Noakes’ instinctive rebel. But the off-screen tensions benefitted the programme, as Noakes became (and remains) the longest-serving presenter in its history, clocking-in at 12 years 6 months.
One of the more ingenious ideas ‘Blue Peter’ came up with was to introduce dogs and cats as surrogate pets for those children watching whose parents wouldn’t allow them to keep either (me included). It was also an astute move in that animals are one of the best ways in for children to learn about the cycle of life in that they die after a few short years. Petra and Jason were the original dog and cat members of the line-up and when the series decided to keep one of Petra’s puppies Patch as the second canine star of the show, Noakes was entrusted to look after him. The first lesson of the life cycle came for ‘Blue Peter’ viewers in 1971 when Patch suddenly died after catching a rare disease during location filming. A few months later, his replacement appeared and a legendary double-act was born in the process, John Noakes and Shep.
The Border collie appeared to be the perfect best friend for a man like John Noakes; he was just as silly and loveable as Noakes himself. In fact, the two were so inseparable that they even gained their own spin-off series, ‘Go with Noakes’, in which John and Shep went on their travels around the country, usually indulging in the more energetic rural pursuits. By the mid-70s, John Noakes was one of the most famous faces on British television and it was all-but impossible to imagine ‘Blue Peter’ without him. However, that moment came in June 1978, barely three months after Peter Purves had also walked; for the children watching, both ‘Blue Peter’ and children’s television would never be quite the same again.
The clash between Noakes and Biddy Baxter wasn’t eased by his departure; although Shep was technically ‘BBC property’, Noakes was told he could take Shep with him when he left the programme as long as he didn’t capitalise on their celebrity by advertising products on ITV. Noakes agreed and then promptly did a dog food commercial with a Shep lookalike, infuriating Baxter. The ill-feeling lasted a long time, with Noakes refusing to participate in any of the programme’s anniversary reunions until Baxter had herself retired. The feud was a shame in that both contributed hugely to the success of the show and made it one of the jewels in the BBC’s children’s crown during a genuine golden age.
In the years after his ‘Blue Peter’ career ended, Noakes appeared occasionally on TV, presenting a regional series called ‘Country Calendar’ for Yorkshire Television in the early 80s and then largely popping up as a guest blast from the past here and there. His public bitterness about his ‘Blue Peter’ years was, to those of us for whom he was a hero, a bit like finding out your dad had been having an affair throughout his marriage to your mum. It sours the memory a little, but can’t take away the warmth that memory continues to generate. Patch and Shep were my dogs, Jason was my cat, and John Noakes was my daft uncle. Just as they all were to everyone else my age. RIP.
© The Editor