Noaksie scared the life out of me!
VALERIE SINGLETON on her boyish, big-hearted (and joyously bonkers) Blue Peter pal . . .
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.