Noak­sie scared the life out of me!

VA­LERIE SIN­GLE­TON on her boy­ish, big-hearted (and joy­ously bonkers) Blue Peter pal . . .

Daily Mail - - Life -

TO ME, John Noakes will al­ways be re­mem­bered as a fearless spirit, mis­chievous and wild, with his an­gelic Bea­tles hair­cut and his big heart. Boy­ish, ir­re­press­ible Noak­sie. He was an ever - last­ing school­boy, who of­ten re­ferred to his own time on Blue Peter as his ‘Peter Pan years’.

As his col­leagues on the show, we held our breath in amaze­ment, and some­times hor­ror , at the es­capades that John was pre­pared to try. He just never seemed to have any fear or re­alise what danger he so of­ten put him­self in.

Even his most fa­mous act of dare­dev­ilry — when he climbed to the top of Nel­son ’s Col­umn in Lon­don’s Trafal­gar Square — was more risky than any of us re­alised be­cause not only didn’t he have any safety ropes, but he wasn’t in­sured.

We all wit­nessed such courage ear­lier in 1971, on one of the pro­gramme’s sum­mer ex­pe­di­tions, to Mex­ico. While at a gau­cho dis­play where cow­boys demon­strated their horse­man­ship, we were nat­u­rally in­vited to have a go — to the great amuse­ment of the Mex­i­can au­di­ence.

John was mag­nif­i­cent, gal­lop­ing around the ring bare­back and whoop­ing as he hurled his som­brero in the air.

No­body could have guessed what only our co-pre­sen­ter Peter Purves and I knew: Noak­sie was ter­ri­fied of horses. As ever, though, he joined in with won­der­ful en­thu­si­asm, de­light­ing the watch­ing crowd.

John spe­cialised in feats of brav­ery that sim­ply would not be al­lowed on tele­vi­sion to­day . He de­fied ev­ery­thing our Health & Safety hide­bound so­ci­ety stands for . These were not stunts, how­ever. He wasn’t do­ing them for no­to­ri­ety. Whereas these days, thrillseek­ers climb build­ings and parachute off sky­scrapers to make a rep­u­ta­tion by show­ing off their pho­tos on the in­ter­net, John was never an ex­hi­bi­tion­ist.

In fact, he was quite the op­po­site — a sur­pris­ingly shy and mod­est man off-screen. He did those lu­natic climbs and freefalls be­cause that was the best way to tell the sto­ries to our young view­ers.

John was a great sto­ry­teller and a su­perb re­porter.

One of his ear­li­est ex­ploits was so danger­ous that when I first watched the video­tape, I went weak at the knees (it’s on YouTube and, if you want to watch it, you ’d bet­ter make sure you are sit­ting down first). John had been sent by our fear­some pro­ducer Biddy Bax­ter to join the naval rat­ings at the train­ing ship HMS Ganges in Shot­ley Gate, Suf­folk.

To the rhythm of the band of the Royal Marines, the boys shinned up the 143ft mast in for­ma­tion, spread­ing out along the spars and hang­ing from the rig­ging. Nat­u­rally, Noak­sie had no in­ten­tion of stay - ing on the ground. What could chil­dren at home learn from that?

So he vol­un­teered to be first up the mast, as the ‘But­ton Boy’ — racing up the rope lad­ders, scram­bling along the over­hangs with­out a har­ness or safety net to reach the first and sec­ond plat­forms, un­til he reached the top­most bar. Imagine how that mast must have swayed, not only in the wind, but with dozens of boys leap­ing all over it.

But John ’s climb wasn ’t over. With his arms clutched around the pole, he tried to clam­ber the last few feet with­out a lad­der , forc­ing him­self up with his knees and heels. How­ever , the climb had

ex­hausted him — and he be­gan to slide back. I re­mem­ber watch­ing the film through my fin­gers, like mil­lions of chil­dren at home.

Then he had to make way for a sailor, who scram­bled past him to vault to the mast’s pin­na­cle and sit on the ‘but­ton’ — the very top.

Through it all, John kept up his com­men­tary for view­ers. It was the most breath­tak­ingly brave piece of tele­vi­sion. I was so proud to be work­ing with him — even if I did think he was cer­ti­fi­able.

When he first joined Blue Peter, in 1965, I was pre­sent­ing with Christo­pher Trace, who didn’t care for heights. Once, Chris was asked to broad­cast from the cabin of a tower crane, which did not ap­peal to him at all. I would not have fan­cied it much my­self.

But Noak­sie was rub­bing his hands. ‘Aye, I’ll have a go at that,’ he said in his un­mis­take­able Hal­i­fax ac­cent. What he meant was: ‘You try and stop me!’

From then on, the as­sign­ments be­came ever more alarm­ing. He climbed a chim­ney tower and sat on the rim, swing­ing his legs as he chat­ted with a steeple­jack.

Then, of course, there was the time, in 1977, when he hauled him­self on to Nel­son’s plinth, 169ft above the ground, to help clean the pi­geon drop­pings off Bri­tain’s great­est naval hero. No safety nets, no in­sur­ance.

It was prob­a­bly one of the risk­ iest and mad­dest things he ever filmed. John him­self later said: ‘My biggest con­cern was that I’d fall off — there was just a lad­der stretch­ing into the sky, and at one point I had to climb over a plinth, which meant mov­ing at a 45­de­gree an­gle. It was so danger­ous. Then it

started snow­ing and hail­ing, and even the scaf­fold­ers were say­ing: “I think maybe we should go down.” ’

He also set a record for freefall parachut­ing. And I re­mem­ber — how could I ever for­get? — when he dropped his trousers to show us the horrific bruises he col­lected as he slid down the Cresta Run at St Moritz, hav­ing fallen off his bob­sleigh. Who else but John could get away in those days with strip­ping to his un­der­pants?

The rest of us, the grown-ups around him, we ex­pected to get older. But not our daft, lov­able, in­cred­i­bly brave John.

John’s wife Vicky rang me with the very sad news of his death. I’d known that Alzheimer’s dis­ease had been slowly claim­ing him, but the real shock was not just that John had died, but that he was 83. It seemed im­pos­si­ble for such a boy­ish per­son.

When, two years ago, he went miss­ing for a cou­ple of days while walk­ing near his home in Ma­jorca, it was a ter­ri­bly dif­fi­cult time for Vicky, who was al­ready mar­ried to him when he joined the pro­gramme.

Two months ago, for the sake of Vicky’s health, as well as his own, he was moved to a care home in Eng­land, where he was well looked af­ter.

I knew then that the end was near. But I still couldn’t think of him as old be­cause, in my mind, he was still the per­pet­ual way­ward young­ster of Blue Peter.

John’s death will hit Peter Purves par­tic­u­larly hard. The two were such great friends, like brothers. Pete, who joined the show in 1967, was five years John’s ju­nior but, some­how, he al­ways seemed like the older sib­ling — a bit more re­spon­si­ble, slightly more re­li­able about learn­ing his lines.

John was a trained actor, but he found that in the ex­cite­ment of live broad­cast­ing, he tended to for­get what he was sup­posed to say.

He tried scrawl­ing prompt cards and tap­ing them un­der the cam­eras in the stu­dio, but then he could never re­mem­ber which cam­era he was sup­posed to be look­ing at.


was con­stantly feed­ing him lines, steer­ing him back into the script and, of course, try­ing not to suc­cumb to the gig­gles. Some­times, I didn’t dare look at them, be­cause I knew they’d start me laugh­ing and I’d be lost.

Hon­estly, there were days when it would have been eas­ier to present the show with the cast of Monty Python.

Even though John was our res­i­dent dare­devil, there were no re­stric­tions about what items we could and couldn’t present on Blue Peter. We wanted the boys and girls at home to feel that any­thing was pos­si­ble for them.

So I of­ten did re­ports on en­gi­neer­ing and sci­ence, and John would try his hand at cook­ery and look­ing af­ter our ‘Blue Peter baby’, Daniel, who made sev­eral ap­pear­ances to teach view­ers how a baby de­vel­ops.

It was chaos, of course, and noth­ing turned out as it was meant to, but the mes­sage was clear. If the bravest man on tele­vi­sion could don a pi­nafore and whisk some eggs, then it must be all right for boys to help mum in the kitchen — and maybe grow up to be chefs.

To­day, Blue Peter is still run­ning, though it’s no longer the national in­sti­tu­tion it once was. Its au­di­ences on the CBBC chil­dren’s chan­nel are about 1 to 2 per cent of the nine mil­lion we once drew. That’s in­evitable, in the age of stream­ing video and catch- up TV when ev­ery­one is watch­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent.

But it sad­dens me that the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren don’t have Blue Peter as it used to be, a de­pend­able source of knowl­edge and en­ter­tain­ment in ev­ery­body’s lives.

It isn’t just that to­day’s un­der-12s play video games, of­ten alarm­ingly vi­o­lent ones, in­stead of more in­no­cent pas­times. No one ex­pects young peo­ple to make toys from sticky-backed plas­tic in the 21st cen­tury.

But the gen­er­a­tion nur­tured by Blue Peter still loves that tra­di­tion of make-do-and-mend and hand­i­crafts. Per­haps that’s why TV shows such as The Great Bri­tish Bake Off and Sew­ing Bee are so pop­u­lar now.

What John, Peter and I tried to pro­vide was a tele­vi­sion fam­ily. I be­lieve we suc­ceeded, be­cause so many peo­ple tell me that we seemed like friends when they were grow­ing up. For lots of un­der­priv­i­leged chil­dren, our ad­ven­tures abroad gave them some­thing to dream about and as­pire to ex­pe­ri­ence for them­selves.

It’s tes­ta­ment to the early ap­peal and charm of the pro­gramme that, even to­day, when­ever I meet peo­ple they still ask af­ter John and Pete.

Our an­i­mals — my gor­geous, placid Si­amese cat Ja­son and, of course, John’s beloved dogs Patch and Shep — were sur­ro­gate pets for mil­lions of chil­dren who were de­nied their own. You can’t get that sense of love and be­long­ing from a video game.

Per­haps it’s in­evitable that TV au­di­ences have changed so much. Ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one grows up. Ex­cept John Noakes.

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