It wasn’t just his heart-in-mouth antics, Noakes’s enthusiasm and childlike curiosity made him an inspiration to those of us who presented Blue Peter after him
‘It’s hard to acknowledge the loss of someone who seemed eternal.’ Photograph: Ben Smith/REX/ShutterstockThere is a legendary tale about John Noakes’s approach to appearing on Blue Peter. In the early days of the programme, before the advent of the autocue, the script was hand-delivered to the presenters’ homes the night before transmission. The more nerdy or nervous presenter (ie me) would attempt to learn their lines, ready for a hectic day of rehearsal, which led to a terrifyingly immovable deadline: the live show. Noakes would allegedly arrive in the studio with his envelope still sealed. Then he’d open it, tear out all the pages where his name didn’t appear and get to work. Whether that’s true or not (and I rather hope it is), he was never less than professional on screen. He never short-changed the audience or presented an item lazily. I encountered him first as a viewer, delighted by his anarchic approach and unfaked enthusiasm. If the presenters were an onscreen family, he was my big brother, a little bit more grown-up and therefore allowed to be cheeky to adults and climb things that were out of bounds. Later, our paths crossed at one of the many celebrations of the show’s longevity. He didn’t disappoint. He claimed to have regretted his time as presenter, but I suspect that was the assumed grump of a teenager pretending not to enjoy himself, as he turned up to all the parties and represented the show many times on quizzes and panels. He joined children’s TV at the right time. It had started as a small offering, presented by posh people speaking slowly. They weren’t to blame, everyone was nervous of this new medium and the effect it might have on the innocent, viewing child. By the mid-1960s, programme makers had grown up with television and were consequently unafraid of it, and more willing to experiment. People like Johnny Morris and Tony Hart appeared on screen, looking and sounding real. Blue Peter’s editor, Biddy Baxter, spotted Noakes on stage (a great many of the BP roster started our careers as actors, me included) and recognised that his charm and energy (and probably his bravado, too) were ideally suited to a show that sought primarily to entertain its viewers and thus, possibly, educate them by proxy. Noakes’s natural curiosity, his courage – and his willingness to confess if he felt afraid, tired or excited; if he felt anything, come to that – all combined in a presenting style that set the tone for everyone that followed him. It might have looked effortless, but he always looked at the right camera, understood the rigours of a live transmission and asked the right questions in interviews. He seemed to relish any unusual challenge or a difficult interviewee, and he was as delighted as any child would be if things went wrong or if authority wrinkled its nose in disapproval. It’s tempting to say he was childish, but he took serious things seriously when required. He didn’t lark about when exhorting viewers to support the appeals or when showing them how to care for animals (not for nothing is his name synonymous with a beloved dog) and in among the many celebrated, heart-in-mouth escapades, some of the most charming films of his era show him and Peter Purves getting to grips with looking after a baby. Other presenters can do what he did. Many are as brave, as energetic, as likeable. To a certain extent, presenting is a learnable skill and so long as you look at the right camera and don’t gabble, people won’t complain (much). But very few, hardly anyone in fact, will have his charisma or his ability to get through the glass of the screen. If we mourn him today, it’s because we’re losing him twice. His death is utterly painful and wrenching for his family and friends, of course, who have watched a loved one succumb to Alzheimer’s. For those who knew him as a twice-weekly friend, he was an inspiration to feel the fear and jump anyway. He was a clown who nevertheless kept his appointment with us without fail and helped us see the world through delighted, open eyes. It’s hard to acknowledge the loss of someone who seemed eternal. In losing him we grieve, more than a little, for our childhoods, too.