Blue Peter at 60: ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been so frightened in my life… and I’ve fought the Daleks!’
- Credit: Archant
With the BBC children's show about to celebrate its birthday, Steven Russell gets misty-eyed as he meets one of his childhood heroes: ex-presenter Peter Purves
If Peter Purves sent any postcards this summer, they were probably postmarked 'Edinburgh'. He spent the best part of August at the famous fringe festival, co-starring in a play taking a nostalgic look at the era when sticky-backed plastic and coat-hanger advent crowns reigned supreme.
It was, of course, about the longest-running children's TV show in the world: Blue Peter. And Peter is one of a select band of just 37 people to have hosted the programme. With Valerie Singleton and the impish John Noakes he formed a trio that for many people is THE top BP presenting team of all time. (Gets my vote.)
The play Once Seen on Blue Peter – Makes, Bakes and Outtakes reunited Peter with fellow ex-presenters Janet Ellis, Peter Duncan, Mark Curry and Tim Vincent. It celebrated the forthcoming diamond anniversary and cast a wry look at the famous five's personal highlights and some of the amusing mishaps that occurred.
'I was playing an enhanced version of myself,' grins Peter. 'I'm not particularly scruffy, I'm not particularly untidy, and I'm never late – but all those three things were inherent in the character there, which was quite fun.'
The play at The Assembly Ballroom won four- and five-star reviews, and went down well with audiences.
Peter began acting as a schoolboy, with police series Z-Cars and 40-plus episodes as a Doctor Who companion among his later credits, but admits something new (such as this play) still sets the nerves jangling.
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With weekly repertory theatre, many moons ago, 'you learned to cope with nerves, doing a new play each Monday. Boy, did you ever! We did 96 plays in two years. I think I've described it as the most work, the worst paid and the most fun I've ever had in my life!'
We'll be seeing more of Peter, soon. He's made two films for Blue Peter. One involved The National Archives at Kew and, he thinks, will be transmitted within BP's birthday show on Tuesday (October 16). Another, with an Antiques Roadshow link, might well air next year.
He has an interview scheduled with Eamonn Holmes on talkRADIO, an appearance due on breakfast show Good Morning Britain, and a trip north to the birthday transmission from MediaCityUK in Salford.
By chance, he saw the first episode of Blue Peter in 1958. 'I was probably at home from college' – he trained as a teacher, initially – 'and happened to see it.'
Teaching soon gave way to his real passion, acting, and a busy if financially precarious decade or so that included temporarily living out of a van during a tour.
In 1965 Peter appeared on Doctor Who as a hillbilly visiting New York in episode three of serial The Chase. It was only the second season of the show. 'I had a scene with The Doctor, then with Daleks.' He was soon asked to join the cast – so in episode six reappeared as space pilot Steven Taylor!
'Nobody noticed!' says Peter, who grew some stubble to throw viewers.
Forty-something episodes later came a bolt from the blue when he learned his contract wasn't being renewed. Four weeks' notice and he was gone – as was his £30-an-episode fee. 'First Doctor' William Hartnell followed not long after – he wasn't well and struggled with his lines. Tough business.
Peter had odd jobs to keep the wolf from the door. Then came the phone call that changed his life: the chance to meet Blue Peter's Biddy Baxter.
He made his bow in November, 1967. With Peter having qualified as a lifeguard while a schoolboy, the show ran an item in which he taught John and Val some life-saving skills. 'And, at the end, we all said 'See you on Monday. Goodbye'.' That was it. He was in.
His first studio appearance 'was doing live, with no autocue, a chat about our solar system. Between me and about eight-and-a-half-million viewers. Terrifying! I don't think I've ever been so frightened in my life… and I've fought the Daleks!'
I recall Peter driving a car through the side of a furniture van, and learning to ride speedway on a motorbike with no brakes, but what's his main memory?
'I'm not sure, actually, how to answer that. But it was a joy to walk into Television Centre. Your head was high because the BBC was – then – without argument the best broadcasting company in the world.' He's not sure any one organisation can claim that crown nowadays.
It's definitely not the 'makes' that stick in the memory – the regular transformation of cardboard boxes, coat-hangers and ubiquitous sticky-back plastic into desk-tidies and other useful stuff. Peter wasn't a natural with them.
But what he calls 'one of the best jobs on television' was an addictive mix of fun and hard graft. It took him to 27 countries, too, on the BP summer expeditions – at a time when foreign travel was still an exotic novelty. Morocco came first and was new. Sri Lanka was superb. There was Mexico, too.
The studio work he doesn't remember that well, he admits. But among 100 or more fantastic experiences he recalls a glorious day on a crag, climbing with mountaineer Chris Bonington.
There's the visiting elephant Lulu, who poohed on the studio floor, stood on John Noakes's foot and then ran off – her keeper slipping over in the muck as she pulled him after her.
There was highly-strung BP dog Petra, who essentially became Peter's pet. She could be difficult with other dogs – always sought to be leader of the pack – but Petra settled in well with the family and he loved her.
John Noakes, who died last year in his adopted Majorca at 83, 'was a very good friend. He was ill for a while, but when it finally got very difficult for his wife and family, and went into a care home, he didn't last long after that. I remember his son saying 'It wasn't Johnny in the bed'. Great shame. Great shame. He was a unique presenter.
'Johnny was always looking for the joke. That was his nature, so if he could make something funny, he would. Doing a serious bit, if there was the possibility of a gag, he'd use it. He was a one-off.'
It was in the September of 1977 that Peter decided he'd leave the programme. Petra died that month, and the time felt right. He stayed on until Easter, 1978, and had his last show on March 23 – a bit tearful, a bit lump-in-throat.
'When I left, they gave me a little tranche of programmes to do (including an association with dog show Crufts that would last 30-plus years, motorbike competition Kickstart, sports show Stopwatch, and darts). I can't grumble. I do, but I shouldn't!' he laughs.
Work since has included directing pantomimes (the last in 2011, with Cannon and Ball), Countryfile Live at Blenheim Palace last year, and lots of audiobook work for Big Finish – including Doctor Who – The Early Adventures: The Dalek Occupation of Winter, released last week.
Is Peter surprised folk like me are still thrilled that Blue Peter is enjoying another round-number anniversary?
'A lot of people are surprised it's still running. They don't know it is, because it's moved onto (children's channel) CBBC, where it's the jewel in the crown, if you like.
'From the letters they get, they know it's well-watched. It doesn't always show up in overnight (viewing) figures, but people watch television in a very different way now. And children know where to find it. If they want to watch it, they watch it. And they get involved in the competitions.
'It's good. It hasn't really changed. Now the presenters are sort of given challenges by the audience, which they have to go out and achieve. Some of them are pretty tough. It's no different, I suppose, to what we were thrown by the producers: 'go and do so and so', and off you went and did it. So, no, I'm not surprised it retains the interest.'
Bet he's glad he didn't stay in teaching.
'Funnily enough I went on Friday to a reunion of my college year. There were 28 of us. The men were looking particularly wrinkly; the girls all looked amazing. But we were all aged between 78 and 82.' (Peter's 80 in February.)
Three of the men had been bandmates with him in a skiffle-type group they ran for a couple of years. 'We weren't all that good.' Still, they had a bit of a singsong to remember how things were.
One of the former college-mates 'said to me 'I remember you saying 'I'll teach for a year, to get qualified, and then I'm going on the stage'.' That's exactly what I did.'
Everyone else at the reunion had stayed in education. 'They're all sitting there with very nice pensions! Without exception, they became heads of department or head teachers.'
Ah, but if I said you could have your time again, you wouldn't trade the classroom for the career you've had in acting and presenting, would you?
'No.' A twinkle of the eye. 'Not for one second. Not for one second.'
* Blue Peter's 60th birthday live special is on the CBBC channel at 5pm on Tuesday, October 16
On BP editor Biddy Baxter
'My memories of her don't change. I found her very difficult to work with, really. You were certainly working for her rather than with her. She was very autocratic, so it was not the easiest situation to be in, but I liked the job. I thoroughly enjoyed the job. And if you stay with it for 10 and a half years it can't have been all that bad!
'The programme succeeded because of her and not in spite of her. She was very controlling, but maybe she was right. And the values she put forward for the programme were good – and they sustain, I think.'
Peter got £35 a show to start with – there were then two programmes a week. When he left, it had risen to £90 a show. 'Slow increments…' And non-negotiable.
'That's why we never felt valued by Biddy – because there was that attitude to us.' Presenters didn't get holiday pay or pension contributions, he says, and a year's contract was all the security you could count on.
'At the end of the year, the deal was 'Do I want to stay or do I want to go?' I wanted to stay. It wasn't about the money; it was about the work. It was a great job.'
All that said, in 1978 'a guaranteed 180 quid a week was really good money. Wasn't a fortune… but, in those days, when I bought my house it cost less than £10,000 – for a six-bedroom villa in Wandsworth'.
Adorable East Anglia
Peter and wife Kate came east gradually, he says. They moved to a Georgian house at Sibton, between Halesworth and Saxmundham, in November, 1999. Eleven years ago they moved to a house near Framlingham.
Living about 45-60 minutes from both Ipswich and Norwich is perfect.
'Suffolk, we just like it. It's so peaceful. It's a culture shock when I go elsewhere. Go down to London and you go 'Oh, no, please…''
Points about Peter
* Born February 10, 1939, near Preston
* First professional role in 1957 in repertory at Barrow in Furness, during school holidays
* Married Gilly. Son Matthew born 1963. He's working on EastEnders as first assistant director
* Married Kathryn (Kate, an actress) in 1982
* Grandson Sam is studying zoology at university