Dog-loving ‘Blue Peter’ host known for his have-a-go attitude
Obituary: Children’s TV presenter’s catchphrase on the show was ‘get down, Shep’
Blue Peter presenters John Noakes, Valerie Singleton and Peter Purves, with the usual canine guests, in August 1968. Photograph: PA Wire
John Noakes, television presenter, actor and writer, born March 6th, 1934; died May 28th, 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 onto 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.
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?”
Lord of misrule
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.
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 underachievers.
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.
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.”
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.
He is survived by Vicky.