The sad news of the death of John Noakes, after years of living with Alzheimer’s disease, brought with it the surprise, to me at least, that he was 83.
When I watched Blue Peter as a child and pre-teen in the Seventies, Noakes to me was a cheeky, cute, older lad. He seemed maybe 21 tops, if I’d thought about it (which I didn’t).
In reality, he was 10 years older than my parents (who were very young, of course. And still are very, very youthful). Born in Shelf, near Halifax, Noakes was an RAF engineer turned actor, and already 31 when he joined the show in 1965, just a year younger than his boss Biddy Baxter, the legendary Blue Peter editor who discovered him while he was in repertory theatre, playing Willie Mossop in Hobson’s Choice in Leicester.
By 1977, when he climbed Nelson’s Column without a harness, he was 43. He left the show a year later, and recalled his Blue Peter years as “a Peter Pan existence, a bit like an overgrown school boy’s job”.
His death has inevitably prompted meanders down memory lane back to the heyday of children’s TV, when you’d get home from school to catch Jackanory, then maybe Scooby Doo, Blue Peter, Newsround, Roobarb and Custard, then the news at 6.
This was all on BBC1, filling the time slots now occupied by antiques shows and Pointless. They were children’s programmes, yes, but watched by toddlers to teens, and by parents wandering through to the living room while making the tea or kicking off shoes after work (back in the days when work finished at 5pm).
Blue Peter took us down into the ground to see huge sewers and train tunnels, up to the top of the tallest buildings and higher still to planes and parachutes. It went across the world for its appeals and into our back gardens to show us how to make bird feeders. It encouraged sport, dancing, crafting and creativity, invention and kindness and fun. It gave us pets.
Was there a better way of using the nation’s prime TV channel at teatime? Blue Peter was inclusive long before the concept became a box-ticking buzzword. It was an ageless place where adults behaved like children, and children were celebrated, whether it was for being a maths genius or a karate champion or for writing a poem or making a balloon toy.
These values no doubt still underpin Blue Peter today, but I don’t know for sure because, since 2012, it’s been aired on the children’s designated CBBC channel.
The separating of children’s and adult TV was a massive mistake, and we are are all the poorer for it. We need more John Noakeses on BBC1, hosting shows made chiefly for children, allowing our little ones and youngsters to take their rightful place together (probably in the kitchen-diner these days) at the heart of the day.
We need more overgrown school boys with artless charm and a have-a-go attitude (admittedly to the point of foolhardiness) inspiring us all to grasp life with a childlike joy, whatever our age. Most of all, we all need to Be More Noakes.