This Is Not A
Gone With Noakes
Actor and broadcaster
b. 6 March 1934, d. 28 May 2017
It's probably impossible to explain to those of a younger vintage than me the part John Noakes played in the childhoods of millions of kids growing up in the Greater England of the sixties and seventies.
The first problem would be getting them to believe that for many, many years, there were only three television channels. And, perforce, no dedicated channels for children's programmes. The lickluns had to make do with about an hour late each weekday afternoon and an hour or two on Saturdays (with possibly an improving drama serial on Sunday teatime).
The programmes themselves, by and large, didn't challenge the unwritten assumptions of society which those who flattered themselves with the title 'grown-ups' wished to inculcate in their young audiences. Perhaps the epitome of such wholesome fare was Blue Peter which appeared (during the period I'm going to be talking about) twice a week - Mondays and Thursdays - for most of each year. The early presenters were models of the BBC catalogue of archetypes: frightfully middle-class and frighteningly well-spoken.
At the very end of 1965, into this rather staid (and, for working-class brats such as meself, somewhat intimidating) milieu stepped John Noakes. A young-looking (although he was older than his new colleagues), almost boisterous (especially by comparison) Yorkshireman with a clear North-country accent and an outgoing - almost anarchic - personality, Noakes was the long-needed seasoning for the tepid Brown Windsor soup which Blue Peter had exemplified up to that point.
Alongside the avuncular Christopher Trace (whose private life belied the beige cardigan image he exuded on screen), the private-school head-girl image of Valerie Singleton and (after he had replaced Trace in 1967) the grammar school sub-prefect that was Peter Purves, John Noakes stood out as a free spirit, a try-anything-once daredevil, both up in the air and with feet on the ground at the same time.
With Singleton and Purves (and, later, with Lesley Judd replacing Singleton in the 'parson's daughter' rôle), he formed perhaps the most well-matched line-up of presenters for any kids' programme - or show of any kind - in British television history. Noakes' joie de vivre enlivened the programme - and the lives of its viewers - for twelve and a half years.
I had long since moved on from watching Blue Peter by the time of his departure in July 1978, and so - although recognising the significance of the event - it didn't have much of an impact on me.
It was in a slightly different arena where John Noakes did have the greatest impact on my life. Contemporaneously with his stint with Blue Peter and for a couple of years after leaving it, he featured in thirty-one episodes of Go With Noakes, in which he continued at greater length the adventures for which he had become famous.
(These had included - in no particular order of 'ouch!' - going up Nelson's Column in London without any safety equipment whatsoever, sharing a studio with Lulu, a doubly-incontinent baby elephant, and - memorably - going down a large part of the Cresta Run on his arse after his bobsleigh decided to dissolve their partnership).
There were two memorable moments from Go With Noakes which lodged in my memory, both from the second series which aired in early 1977: the first one was the delighted shock when - with his having taken part in a 'friendly' rugby league game for the Castleford 'A' team - his voiceover announced, "With ten minutes to go, I was knackered!" A mild profanity on BBC kids' television! And this was a full year before the (comparatively) gritty realism of Grange Hill first appeared!
The second moment - and the one which had profound consequences for my own future - came in the very next programme, where Noakes (with his side-kick/straight man/amanuensis Shep the border collie watching with scatty anxiety from the bank) undertook the Liffey Descent, a canoe and kayak race over eighteen miles (and a number of weirs) on one of Ireland's great rivers.
It wasn't the race itself which attracted my interest, but an augmenting of an fascination I had already developed for the (to me) strange language that Ireland seemed to have. This interest had been whetted by the sight of the programme listings for RTÉ television and radio which I had seen in my father's copy of the Daily Mirror every day, and was further honed by the sight of that curious tongue on some of the signposts shown on the programme.
These experiences must have lodged pretty deeply in my subconscious and led - just a few years later - to my undertaking (and somehow attaining) a degree in Irish (Ach na labhair liom i nGaeilge anois; tá an chuid is mo aici caillte uaim fadó, is mór an trua (agus is mór an náire orm) é).
John Noakes' career after the early eighties was, to say the least, patchy. He had probably blotted his copybook with the BBC by refusing to be intimidated by Biddy Baxter, Blue Peter's editor-martinet. He made his bitterness about the way he was made to work - and the smallness of his rewards for doing so - public on a number of occasions down the years, and went on record as saying that he would have preferred never to have done Blue Peter at all. He claimed that his persona on the programme - which he referred to, not entirely bleakly, as 'the idiot Noakes' - was all an act, and not what he himself was at all. If so, it was a masterly performance not only in his convincing his audience to the contrary (and young audiences are always quick to spot a fake), but in maintaining it over such a long period of time.
He had other problems to face as well; an attempt to sail around the world nearly ended in tragedy thanks to a thirty-foot wave hitting his boat. He and his wife chose instead to settle in Mallorca, where they remained forever afterwards. And - most famously and sadly - he spent the last few years of his life in the black fog of Alzheimer's, always a cruel fate, but even more so for someone who had been so lively, so sharp and so much of an entertainer for at least one whole generation of children.
We surely won't see his like again. Sail on, John, and thank you.