Children’s TV Presenters should be seen and not heard. Then the Noakes bloke came along. Nick George picks up the sticky-backed plastic….
It was one of those rumours that start in school and nobody questions whether it is true or not. The rumour is so huge it defies disbelief, it’s just too big to be a lie.
It is 1972 in a Cheshire schoolroom, lunchtime, and I had just been told that John Noakes was quitting Blue Peter because he was fed up with Peter Purves. My ‘just scraped through the eleven plus and into state Grammer’ brain is pretty well stunned by this bit of info, and at that age I tended to believe most everything said to me by someone with a relatively posh accent. Noakesy, the rumour asserted, was to defect to ITV, where he was going to be the chief presenter for Magpie.
All of us in the schoolroom at lunchtime break could quite understand how John might get irked by Peter. After all, how many times had we seen film of John Noakes throwing himself out of an aircraft with the Red Devils/climb Nelson’s column with a pigeon poo scraper in one hand/attempt to drink fermented camel’s milk in Morocco, while meanwhile back in the studio Peter would be risking a paper cut whilst fashioning a papier mache tunnel for the Blue Peter train set?
We could all see that John and Valerie got on pretty well together, and there didn’t seem to be any visible tension between John and Peter. But the only time Peter seemed to get out of the cosy BBC was on an educational visit to the Science Museum or to see how birds are painted onto glaze by hand at some pottery with a Royal warrant in the Midlands. Purves wasn’t doing his share in our estimation, and we reckoned that this must have been what piqued John Noakes too.
How was John going to fit into the alien culture of a show like Magpie though? We couldn’t figure it out. None of us watched Magpie except for the funky song and airbrush title illustrations, however we were all well aware of the tone of the show. It was older than us, it was a hangover from Glastonbury and the King’s Road, a cultural country so distant that we couldn’t relate to it. Although Magpie had featured Marc Bolan and T-Rex when they started to get famous, and we liked that.
You couldn’t imagine a Lord of Glam Rock like Marc appearing on Blue Peter, perched ever so politely on the couch and stroking Petra’s neck, then explaining to Val how he was inspired to write the lyrics for “Metal Guru”. Well, John would definitely have to be the chief presenter if he moved to Magpie. He’d earned it as far as we were concerned. His style of Fair Isle sweaters and Army and Navy shoes didn’t include a sequin anywhere as far as we could see, but his presentation skills had always been ahead of the pack.
John, to us, was a grown up Dennis the Menace.
Shep was of course a better behaved Gnasher. John was living proof that an ordinary bloke with a regional accent could do some fairly out of the ordinary stuff and usually enjoy it. Noakesy had even showed his bare bum at least twice on television, so he did have that racy aspect which would help him fit in on the other channel. We were with John all the way as he belted down the Cresta Run in a bobsleigh. We’d trained with him in sub-zero temperatures.
Like John, we had paid close attention to everything the driver and brakeman had said. Alongside John we had learned to shift our weight to help the momentum, and had heeded the advice to keep our hands well clear of the sled’s razor sharp steel racing blades. Well rehearsed, we rocked in time with the crew as they got that sled moving. Faultlessly, we tucked our feet up just in time as that four-man bullet got rolling, off and away on this, the fastest and most dangerous and challenging of all bobsleigh runs in the world. Whoosh and roar of that manned missile taking its first curve. John’s narration screaming at us that the noise was deafening, the speed breathtaking. We knew this, we were there with him.
Then; we gasped and lurched sideways on the living room floor in sympathy, horror and excitement when John yells in his voiceover ‘ …and then! A chance in a million!! We hit a hole in the ice wall!!! ‘ Footage of bobsleigh careening out of control at over ninety miles an hour. Blokes in jumpsuits and crash helmets spilling out. Action Men with wildly flailing limbs, thrown helplessly about at terrifying velocity. Surely Palitoy could expect extra work in the injured joints and broken foot section of their Field Hospital. John Noakes, trained to the max as part of this bobsleigh crew, finished the Cresta Run hurtling along the ice and over the finish line flat on his back with his buttocks acting as a brake. Our reaction to this was mixed thoughts of Ooh, we felt that one and You lucky, lucky bastard.
Cut back to the Blue Peter studio< and Peter’s saying something like John, that must have hurt a bit ( master of the Southern under-statement was that Purves ). John, still fired up on the adrenalin of reliving the Cresta Run, leaps up from the couch and drops his pants on live telly to show every kid in Britain that his right cheek is just one huge bruise in livid tones of grey. ‘ Whoo, I bet that still stings ‘ we muttered at this in our millions, not in the least bit shocked at seeing a bit of Noakesy’s bare arse. It was a privilege, we were witnesses to the wounds of a hero.
Valerie is taken aback but looks like she’s going to burst out laughing. Peter’s face is a picture of Home Counties shock and disapproval, eyes flicking off camera for directions, to what I now as an adult assume to have been the producer’s control room at the back. ‘ That does, um, look rather like it hurt ‘ says somebody, which could have been Freda the Tortoise for all I can remember. And John caps it with; ‘ You should see the other one! That’s got an enormous scab!’
span style=”font-size: large;”>John never joined Magpie, we all know that now. The rumour around school died quite quickly. Giving it a good think, it just wasn’t probable that John Noakes could share a studio with Susan making clothes peg holders out of your dad’s old kaftan, and that guy Mick getting out into the nice parts of the country to pay surprise visits to his mates in rehab.
I was growing out of kid’s television when ‘Go with Noakes’ first aired, and for me the ‘Ilkley Moor bar tat’ brass band theme didn’t help. We were all becoming faux-cynical teenagers, the mood was being set nationally for the emergence of punk rock. I did laugh at the ‘get down Shep!’ jokes, as it was becoming uncomfortable to recall that we had once lionised John Noakes, even if he did pronounce hard a’s like us. Later though, I wasn’t upset or outraged to learn from the tabloids that John’s Pennine Way hike was all a fix, his backpack stuffed with newspapers not camping kit. They only filmed John walking sections of the route apparently, which realistically was kind to Shep as the collie was getting on a bit by then.
By some accounts John Noakes eventually got tired of, and angry with the Beeb. He may have had a lot of justification for this, as he had discovered long after his departure from Blue Peter that he hadn’t been insured by the show’s producers in the event of an accident. What were they thinking of, these people? Did they think that if Noakesy bought it in a big way then there were plenty more of his type Oop North to replace him? That we wouldn’t notice, and after a brief tear was shed for John, forget him without a backward glance? Not a chance.
There was the tragedy of John and his wife grounding their yacht shortly after setting forth on the adventure of a lifetime. The irony of that accident was vast. By then I had lived in London for a few years, and had become heartily sick of people making fun of my accent and origins. I could easily understand John Noakes’s desire to get away from it all. Apparently, when this bloke from Halifax first joined the team of Christopher Trace and Valerie Singleton way back in the early sixties, more than a few Southern mothers had written to the BBC to complain about John’s strong Yorkshire accent. They feared that it would somehow infect their own allegedly wwell-spoken offspring, and that playgrounds around Surrey would be filled with cries of eeeeh! ayup! and by ‘eck!Invisible barriers to people with regional accents still exist in Britain, and can only have been more pervasive in the time that Noakesy was making a name for himself.
However, if John Noakes had ever discovered his way blocked by one of those infamous glass ceilings, I doubt very much it would have bothered him for too long. John, with that big daredevil grin of his, would have just sky-dived straight down through it and landed squarely on his feet without a scratch, ready to have another go at it all over again ( with maybe a bruise or two to show for his adventures ).
Some notes on nokes…
John-a-Nokes ( ie: John of the Oaks) and his mate Tom-a-Stiles were one commonly used as fictitious names in law proceedings during the 18th century. A happy little couple have taken on this line of work of late. John and Jane Doe.
James Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaisms (1885) defines the word ‘nokes’ as a simpleton – a derivation of the word noke, an oak.