John Noakes: The action man of Blue Peter

John Noakes and Shep
Image caption One man and his dog; Noakes with Shep

John Noakes was the action man of Blue Peter.

His daredevil stunts were a major feature in what many saw as the programme's golden years.

He became famous for his relationship with Shep, the dog that would never get down.

But he later claimed his television persona was faked and was a bitter critic of the programme's culture under its long-serving editor, Biddy Baxter.

He was born John Bottomley, the son of a mill worker, on 6 March 1934 in the village of Shelf, close to Halifax in Yorkshire.

His parents divorced when he was nine, and Noakes lived with his grandmother before going to a local fee-paying school, on a scholarship. He quarrelled with his father and left home at 16 to join the RAF as a mechanic.

A year later he changed his surname to Noakes, after a well-known Canadian trumpeter of the time, Alfie Noakes, who became his stepfather. In the few interviews that he did, Noakes always refused to reveal his original surname on the grounds he didn't like it.

Image caption Noakes (r) in what many consider Blue Peter's classic presenter line-up

He left the RAF and went to work at Heathrow as an aircraft fitter for BOAC but he was already becoming interested in acting.

A series of mundane jobs provided the money to attend acting school and he made his first professional appearance in a summer show with Cyril Fletcher.

He spent six months in the Broadway production of Arnold Wesker's Chips with Everything before moving back to work in rep in Surrey, where he met his wife, Vicky.

In 1965 he was appearing in a play in Leicester when Blue Peter's editor, Biddy Baxter, spotted his photograph in a local paper.

At the age of 31, ancient by the standards of modern children's presenters, he passed the audition making his first appearance on 30 December 1965.

Classic line-up

He became instantly recognisable, not least because his Yorkshire accent was at odds with the Received Pronunciation that was the norm in the 1960s BBC.

His first task was to conquer the nervousness engendered by having to perform on live TV so he decided to invent a character behind which he could hide.

"Idiot Noakes has an extrovert personality, is light-hearted and jokey. A bit of a buffoon who would do anything for a laugh or a few pence. I switch the personality on when I turn up to do the job, and off when I leave."

Image caption An elephant with a weak bladder was a classic Noakes moment

He never stopped being an actor. In later years he admitted that the incontinent baby elephant, one of the programme's more memorable moments, had not actually stood on his foot as he pretended at the time.

Noakes initially teamed up with two existing presenters, Christopher Trace and Valerie Singleton.

When Trace left, he was replaced by Peter Purves, completing what many fans claim was the classic Blue Peter presenter line-up.

Where Purves was the school swot and Singleton the prim head girl, Noakes was the boy at the back of the class disrupting the lesson.

Excitable

He threw himself into the various challenges which came his way; white-water rafting, climbing the mast at HMS Ganges and travelling up the Amazon were some of the high spots.

One white-knuckle ride on a bobsleigh down the Cresta Run resulted in a crash which left him bruised and concussed after finishing the descent on his backside.

And he entered the Guinness Book of Records after becoming the first civilian in Britain to make a five-mile-high freefall parachute drop with the RAF.

Image caption Noakes in freefall in 1973

He had no fear of heights and, in one memorable broadcast, climbed Nelson's Column on a series of rickety wooden ladders in order to help workmen clean up pigeon mess.

Like other presenters he was expected to have an animal and, in 1966, Patch arrived in the studio, the son of Petra, another Blue Peter dog.

Patch died suddenly at the age of five and Noakes broke down in tears when he went on set to give his young audience the sad news.

Punishing schedule

But Patch's demise opened the door for Shep, an enthusiastic black-and-white border collie who became Noakes's new companion.

The new dog was as excitable as his master's alter ego and Noakes's cries of "Get down, Shep" became a familiar catchphrase.

During his final two years with the programme, he travelled the country with Shep in a series called Go With Noakes but, behind the scenes at Blue Peter, a furious row was developing between Noakes and his editor, Biddy Baxter.

A formidable character, she had very clear ideas of how her presenters should behave, refusing to allow them any editorial input and insisting they work from scripts rather than an autocue.

Image caption His stunts became a feature of the programme

His co-presenter, Valerie Singleton, later recalled in an interview that Noakes was the only person capable of standing up to Biddy Baxter and getting away with it.

Noakes complained of long hours and poor pay, later saying that he had once worked for a nine-week period with just a day and a half off.

The demands were huge; a twice-weekly live programme coupled with a punishing schedule of location films all took their toll.

His feud with Baxter would continue to simmer. In 2008 he initially turned down an invitation to attend a reception at Buckingham Palace to mark 50 years of Blue Peter.

Reunited

"Biddy was a very difficult woman," he said. "She was a bully who treated me like some country yokel from Yorkshire. I couldn't abide her then, so I won't pretend I am looking forward to rubbing shoulders with her now."

He finally relented after the Queen sent him a personal message naming him as her favourite presenter.

Baxter herself, who has received high praise for making Blue Peter into the success it was, has always denied knowledge of any rift between Noakes and herself.

Image caption Noakes (c) reunited with the old team in 2000

Noakes quit the programme in 1978 sparking a huge row over the future of his partnership with Shep.

He had been told he would be allowed to keep the dog, which technically belonged to the BBC, but he was not to use Shep in any future advertising.

Once he had left, Noakes duly recruited a similar-looking dog to do a series of pet food commercials.

After leaving Blue Peter, Noakes worked for a further 18 months on Go With Noakes, before setting off with his wife on a round-the-world yacht trip.

The couple's voyage ended when their boat was badly damaged by a giant wave off the coast of North Africa and they ended up in Mallorca, where they eventually made a home.

Noakes continued with some television work, presenting a 1983 children's documentary series for ITV but he failed to make it back into the mainstream.

There was one memorable and tearful appearance on a BBC programme called Fax in 1987 where he announced the death, a few days before, of his beloved Shep.

He was reunited with Purves and Singleton in 2000 when the three came together to dig up a time capsule that they had buried during a Blue Peter episode in 1971.

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