Blue Peter legend reflects on golden age

It's hard to believe Peter Purves is a grandfather, is on the eve of his 70th birthday, and is about to publish his autobiography.

Steven Russell

It's hard to believe Peter Purves is a grandfather, is on the eve of his 70th birthday, and is about to publish his autobiography.

Steven Russell, aged five when the presenter made his Blue Peter debut, enjoyed a fireside chat with one of his childhood heroes

IT'S a time of high celebration for ex-Blue Peter presenter Peter Purves. Actress wife Kathryn is wowing West End audiences in Sunset Boulevard, the couple marked their 27th wedding anniversary a couple of days ago, and he's 70. Just for good measure, he launchedhis autobiography on the day he blows out his candles (February 10). Its title, Here's One I Wrote Earlier . . ., is a play on the Blue Peter catchphrase Here's One I Made Earlier - uttered by the presenters as they showed young viewers how to turn unwanted cardboard boxes, old coathangers and some sticky-back plastic into desk tidies and tinselly advent crowns. Ironically enough, Peter wasn't a natural when it came to the “makes”, a staple of the BP formula, so he didn't do that many during his decade or so on the show.

The actor-turned-presenter is a bit nervous about how the book will be received. Frankly, he's wondering if anyone will be interested.

Er, yes they will. He's from the golden age of children's TV - part of the dream team that included John Noakes and Valerie Singleton (later replaced by Lesley Judd) and which pulled in millions of viewers.

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Publication has caught the eye of the media. Peter will be on breakfast TV on his birthday, on the Paul O'Grady show in the spring, and is lined up for Libby Purves's Midweek programme on Radio 4 and Simon Mayo's slot on Radio 5 Live. Yes, people most definitely are interested.

His book adds flesh to the bones of the story of a boy born to a Preston tailor and his wife. It chronicles the reasons he quit a teaching job to follow his heart's desire and documents the sacrifices he had to make to keep that dream alive: temporarily living out of a van during a tour, the rented flats, the gruelling slog of repertory theatre, the fill-in jobs that kept heads above water when acting roles were thin, the rejection and disappointment.

It explains how he landed a role as one of William Hartnell's assistants in Dr Who in the 1960s, and how the axing of his character was a bolt from the blue. It describes how he got the Blue Peter job, and unravels the mystery about why he was approached by the BBC.

Peter talks about the time his relationship with John Noakes temporarily cooled, and the reasons why he decided to leave after 10 glorious years.

The money on the show wasn't anything to write home about, but Blue Peter was a wonderful mixture of fun and hard work - “one of the best jobs on television” - and it took him to 27 countries.

It was the sense of anticipation and hoo-hah concerning the 50th birthday of the show - first broadcast on October 16, 1958 - that prompted him to start committing memories to paper.

Peter doesn't deny sometimes straying from the path of marital fidelity, and he talks about the disappointments of showbusiness, but mostly it's a celebration of a happy life and career.

“Really, it was the end of the period of limited television,” he says of his days on Blue Peter. “You couldn't record it. You saw it when it was on or you didn't see it; so kids literally did rush home to watch it and we got massive audiences: eight million or so in the winter.

“One of the things I am finding about the whole thing is that people are talking to me quite deeply about how the programme affected them. It's not boasting to say we touched a lot of lives, and I'm really proud of that.”

It's hard to pick out a favourite Blue Peter moment, but those summer expeditions - many of them made at a time when foreign travel was truly an exotic novelty - are all up there. “Morocco was wonderful because it was the first and was new in every way. Sri Lanka was superb . . . Mexico . . . The studio stuff I don't remember very well. People have shown me photographs of me with someone . . . no recollection whatsoever!

“I've enjoyed such a lot. A glorious day on a crag, climbing with (mountaineer) Chris Bonington . . . What joy. I could name 100 different, fantastic, experiences.”

The price to pay was the tight control exercised by legendary editor Biddy Baxter and her production team to create and maintain the kind of programme they wanted. Presenters had their place and were expected to keep to it.

“That was the thorn in the side. It wasn't big enough to make me leave the show - the show was too good - and I loved the work. I was paid to do something I hadn't expected to enjoy. I hadn't intended to be a television presenter. I took it for six months; did not want to be typecast, because I'd already been typecast to a certain extent in Dr Who. But I didn't realise the option was on their side, and they could keep me on; which they did for another six months, and then it was a year, and so on.

“Every year I had the opportunity of turning it down; every year I was offered such lousy money I wanted to turn it down, but I was enjoying the job so much.”

After training as a teacher, Peter had found the lure of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd too difficult to resist, and went on the stage. It was tough, but he overcame the hardships and uncertainty to land roles in series such as Z Cars before his big break on Dr Who. Blue Peter followed, though not until after more spells out of work.

Nowadays, the world seems full of young wannabes dreaming of celebrity and fortune. Peter, who teaches television presentation three days a month at the London Academy of Radio, Film and Television, sees it all the time.

“People want their 15 minutes of fame. They don't understand it's hard work. They think it's a doddle. It isn't.”

“What I say at the beginning of the course is that this is the most competitive business in the world. If you are good enough, and lucky enough, you might make it. That's the truth of the matter. And at the start, if you're not committed 100%, it's not for you.

“Once I start getting them to do pieces to camera - having written an outline and then having to deliver it - they start to realise 'This is hard.' One out of every 50 that I see might make a career out of it” - if they work hard and get the lucky breaks.

What does he think of children's programmes today?

“I think the sad thing is that children could, if they wished, spend all day watching cartoons. The advantage for the audience during the period I worked in children's TV was that children got a fairly good, broad viewing. They saw the children's programmes because they were on at a set time, and either side of it there would be the news and what have you. They may just get a glimpse of it.

“I just don't feel that children get such a broad view of the world as they used to. There are some kids who know an awful lot, and I really don't know if children get a worse education in schools or not, but my view of it is they don't write very well, they don't spell very well, they don't add up very well. Take away the computers and the calculators, where are they then?”

When Peter left BP, he thought he might return to acting, but telly wasn't ready to let him go. The Beeb offered him a lot of work, and it wasn't easy to turn down.

Then there's been more than 25 years of directing pantomimes. Last Christmas it was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in Hull, starring The Grumbleweeds, Vicki Michelle, (of 'Allo, 'Allo fame) and James Mackenzie (Raven, in the BBC children's programme).

One of the things he's open about in the book is his atheism. “The nail in the coffin for me was being in Ethiopia.” Relief was poured in to ease the effects of famine. “All that effort, and these poor people, and the animals, die. I'm sorry: nothing's 'in charge' of this; this is just 'happening'.”

His conclusion: “God was invented by people who needed a crutch. I don't believe he exists.”

Peter's also honest about some extra-marital flings, though these aren't dwelt on. “It's not an expos� book; I wasn't prepared to write that kind of book.”

Still, it can't have been easy even mentioning them. “There are certain things one can write about which won't cause distress. My ex-wife, who knew about all my affairs, she accepted it. I know we got divorced, but it was not recriminatory in that way. We were children of the sixties. It was a different time, a different age, and people would view it very differently now. If I wanted to write a kiss-and-tell book, I'd have written a kiss-and-tell book. I didn't want to do that.”

There's a brief nod to his yonks-ago night with co-presenter Valerie Singleton, which sets tongues wagging when she unexpectedly revealed it in the newspapers last June.

What the book's really about is the sheer joy he's experienced during the making of 2,500-plus TV programmes. Then there's family, a nice quiet life in Suffolk, his dogs, work to keep him busy, and his friends - including, still, John, Val and Lesley.

“It's all been great fun. I've been very fortunate - a very, very lucky man.”

Weblink: www.peterpurves.com

Here's One I Wrote Earlier . . . is published by Green Umbrella Publishing at �18.99 hardback.

Peter Purves will be signing copies at Waterstones in Colchester High Street on Friday, March 20, from noon until 2pm

Peter Purves: Who, Blue and much more too

Born February 10, 1939, near Preston

First professional role in 1957: in repertory at Barrow in Furness, during school holidays.

Trained as a maths teacher and worked in London

Quit to return to Barrow theatre company

Married first wife Gilly

Son Matthew born 1963

Later adopted a daughter, Lisa

Left for London

1965: One-off appearance in Dr Who

Was soon signed as one of the Doctor's companions: Steven Taylor

Appeared in 44 episodes with original Doctor, William Hartnell

Character axed and he left the show in the summer of 1966

November, 1967: First appearance on Blue Peter

Final appearance: March 23, 1978

Presented many other BBC shows, including Kickstart, Stopwatch, Crufts and darts

Married second wife Kathryn (Kate) on February 5, 1982

They'd met in panto at Guildford in 1978 - Cinderella - where Kathryn played Dandini

After moving to Suffolk he spent six years as a founder member of the board of the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, including two years as chairman

Son Matthew works in TV, on the directing side

Grandson Sam is nearly 11

Peter and Kate have lived in their second Suffolk home - a 17th Century timber-framed farmhouse - for about 18 months. They came to the county from a Tudor rectory in Northamptonshire. A red-brick Georgian home at Sibton caught their eye at about the turn of the millennium. Their current home is not far away, and Peter says Suffolk has brought them a circle of good friends.