Why I decided to leave Blue Peter

In these final edited extracts from his new autobiography, Peter Purves explains how he made the decision to leave Blue Peter after 10 years, recalls one of the classic moments from the show, and reveals there was life after twice-weekly derring-do and studio 'makes'.

Steven Russell

ALL good things come to an end. In these final edited extracts from his new autobiography, Peter Purves explains how he made the decision to leave Blue Peter after 10 years, recalls one of the classic moments from the show, and reveals there was life after twice-weekly derring-do and studio 'makes'. His decision was made after his last Blue Peter summer trip - to Brazil, in 1977

JOHN (legendary presenter Noakes) continued with his part of the trip to Menaus and on the great Amazon River. It was the first time that we had not really operated as a team, but more as individuals, and that had also been the case with the whole year previous on the programme.

I didn't film very much, and John had been a bit preoccupied with his concurrent series of Go with Noakes. Lesley (presenter Judd) and I had also been involved in a Blue Peter Special Assignment series on twin towns. One way or another, there seemed to be a change in the air.

After I got home to the UK, I went on holiday with the family, and on my return, I thought “I've had enough of this. It's time to move on.” It was a big decision - I'd had a regular income for 10 years, and you don't throw that away too lightly. And in any case there were still only three TV channels, so it wasn't as if there were a lot of different opportunities out there. In the end I telephoned Edward Barnes, who by this time was head of children's programmes for the BBC, and asked if I could have a chat with him.

A few days later I sat in his office at Television Centre and said I had been thinking it was time for a change and that I wanted to leave the show and he replied that, strangely enough, he and Biddy [Baxter, Blue Peter's editor] had been thinking the same thing, but weren't sure what that change should be. He thought for a while, and then asked if I would be happy to stay with the programme until Easter - it was now September. I didn't need much persuading with that, and I agreed.

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Petra (Peter's Blue Peter dog) died in September 1977 and I had to announce it on the programme - that was a really sad time.

- On joining Blue Peter, Peter inherited a pet - Petra

On joining Blue Peter, I inherited a pet. Petra had joined the programme three or four years earlier, and she became my on-screen dog. She was regularly brought to the studio by a lady from Sussex, Edith Menezes, who had looked after her from the start, and also looked after Jason, the Siamese cat. Petra had never been fond of the studio - she was quite a highly-strung dog, and she really didn't like being on the set. Obviously that's where she had to be, and Biddy came up with the idea that if she actually went home with me, and I was to bring her to the studio, she might find that continuity more acceptable, and she might start to be more relaxed. So I took on the role of Petra's owner, and she came to live with me, and the family, on the edge of Wandsworth Common.

I was appalled to see a recent [newspaper] article showing a picture of me and Petra, and the caption said “Peter Purves simulates liking Petra”. There was no simulation there at all. I loved Petra, although she wasn't a very nice dog. She had been bought from a pet shop, a ringer, in fact, for the first puppy that died after one appearance on the programme. She developed distemper as a puppy, and when her second teeth grew, they were pretty spongy and fell out. She was also quite aggressive towards other dogs, and always wanted to be top dog. When we had other dogs in the studio, she had to be watched like a hawk; otherwise we could have had a fight on our hands.

Most viewers thought she was a German Shepherd, but actually she was a sort of Collie/GSD, and not a very good example at that. Having said that, she was lovely with me, and I took her most places with me when I was filming, just as John did with his dogs, Patch and Shep.

Patch, by the way was one of Petra's puppies, and had a similar temperament. Petra also settled in well with my family, and was a fantastic house guard, something to be applauded as I had been burgled a couple of times in 1967 and '68, and I doubt that anyone would have ever entered the house with the apparent Hound of the Baskervilles in residence.

I hope I gave her a happy life, and in later years when she developed diabetes, and poor eyesight, I gave her the medication, care and love she deserved. She was the nation's pet, and I applaud the programme, and Biddy in particular, for creating the idea of a surrogate pet for all those children living in properties where pets were disallowed. It was a great idea, and I was proud to be a part of it.

- Ask viewers of a certain age for their favourite Blue Peter memory and it's likely to involve an elephant called Lulu

Mostly we worked from Lime Grove Studios in the first two years, with occasional forays to the old Riverside at Hammersmith, and even more rare visits to the TV Centre itself. Studio G at Lime Grove was on the second floor and a slow and smallish goods lift was needed to transport the larger items to it. One of the largest items came up in the lift just before the summer of 1969. It was a baby elephant called Lulu.

Our summer filming trip that year was to Sri Lanka (then still called Ceylon) and, to reflect what we might see, Lulu was brought to the studio from Chessington Zoo with her keeper, Alex, and his assistant, Martin. The item was straightforward enough. We would introduce Lulu, and talk about the work elephants do in Ceylon, what they eat and drink, how they live, and so on, and then, with a thank you, wrap up the show and trail our summer holiday. Simple enough, you would think.

We rehearsed the whole show during the day and everything went well at the dress rehearsal, which began at approximately 4pm. Lulu was quite compliant - she had a big chain around her neck that Alex held with one hand, and in the other he held a three-foot-long stick with a bulbous end, and to emphasise what he wanted Lulu to do, he would tap her with it on the forehead. After which Lulu obeyed his instructions. But after we finished at 4.30pm, Biddy came down onto the studio floor from the production gallery and said to Alex that she thought the stick he used looked a little bit cruel, and could he do the programme without it.

At 5.10pm the show went live. I have no recall about anything else in the programme, but at the end of the show we came to the item about Ceylon and Lulu. Lulu walked onto the set with Alex holding the chain but without the stick. It started well enough, until we came to give Lulu a drink of water from a bucket. In went the trunk, the water went into the mouth, the tail raised and the pee came out in a fierce drizzle. In those days the studio floor was painted a neutral colour with water paint, and, where the water went, it became like an ice-rink.

In spite of the mess we carried on, and fed Lulu a couple of buns. So far we were still approximately on the script. Then we thanked Lulu and Alex and they started to leave. At which point, Lulu's back end faced our principal camera, and she pooed. John was close enough to have to move, whereupon Lulu trod on his foot, and he stepped back into the poo.

I couldn't stop laughing, Johnny had no idea what to say and Valerie tried gallantly to keep the show going. By this time, Lulu had almost left the shot, when she decided to turn round and come back to us. Alex could do nothing except let her come. She stayed a moment or two whilst we said a few more lines that were in the script, and we asked Alex to take her out again. He tried, bless him, but just when we thought they had gone, Lulu turned round again and came back towards us at a small run. Alex hung on gamely to the chain shouting “Martin, my stick”, as he was pulled through the slippery pee and poo, into which he slipped and was dragged off the set towards the swiftly-moving-back cameras.

Somehow we managed to wrap up the show quickly and that was that. Biddy came rushing down on the floor afterwards, horrified, but we were all, presenters, camera and sound crew, still in stitches. Poor old Alex was mortified, but he wasn't to know that his contribution to the golden era of television would never be forgotten.

For years I have honestly believed this was a “live” performance. I have to say that I am disappointed that my memory is wrong. Biddy Baxter has always insisted it was recorded and I have to admit she is right and my memory is at fault. In fact the entire programme was recorded as if it was live, on Wednesday July 2nd 1969 and transmitted the following day, exactly as it all happened in real time. It was absolutely hilarious, and a later editor, Richard Marson, confirms the fact of the recording in his excellent Blue Peter 50th Anniversary Book. But live or recorded, who cares - it was a wonderful piece of television history that could never have been scripted.

- Presenting Blue Peter had been the experience of a lifetime, though, as with any job, there were aspects that grated

One sad memory remains. In all the time I worked on the show, I was never allowed to believe I was part of the team, and I think that went for John, Lesley and Val as well. I was part of the in-vision team, at the sharp end, but none of us were ever allowed or invited to be a part of the production team. Biddy's rule was such that we were almost deliberately excluded from the office set-up. If we turned up in the office, which I soon learned not to do, we were not made welcome at all - we felt like intruders . . .

It was as if we were taken totally for granted, and it made me smart. Isn't it a shame that producers treat their performers in such an offhand way - life could be so pleasurable if only they could let it. In my next life I will be a producer, but I will be a nice one, with an understanding that performers are not machines, and have probably more to offer than is often allowed.

- Then came Peter's farewell

All too soon, the best job in television came to an end. My last appearance on the show was the 23rd March 1978, and it was a tearful moment indeed for me, and I think for Lesley and John too. Watching a compilation of my “best bits”, I really got a lump in my throat and wondered if I had done the right thing. But it was time for a change, Petra had gone, and I suppose a little of my enthusiasm for the programme had gone with her. I was ready for the next part of my life.

And funnily enough it had already begun. Because I had handled the majority of the dog items on Blue Peter, and because I had, in 1976, devised a special segment involving children for the coverage of Crufts Dog Show, I was asked to introduce in 1978, the first demonstration in the UK of Agility at Crufts for the BBC. This would lead to a 31-year involvement with BBC events at the show.

- 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