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Peter Purves interview

 

 

 

Digger talks to Peter Purves

Peter Purves was one third of the most popular line-up of Blue Peter presenters, Peter, John and Val. In the heyday of the programme in the sixties and early seventies, these three were compulsive viewing for tens of millions of Britain's youngsters, showing us how to make things from old boxes and bits of plastic, discussing the latest trends for kids or entertaining us with their daring stunts. Peter was also Doctor Who's companion, Steven Taylor, during the early pioneering William Hartnell years. 

Since leaving Blue Peter, Peter carved-out a name for himself as a commentator on events like Crufts, darts and biking and Peter has been very involved in theatrical production and direction as well as appearing in pantomimes himself. He achieved a 'great honour' when he appeared in a parody training video on the Alan Partridge show!

Digger managed to catch-up with Peter and here is that interview.



Peter Purves


 

 

Digger: How did you get involved with pantomime production?

Peter: It all started when Johnnie Noakes and I left Blue Peter. We were invited to do pantomime. Paul Elliott asked us to do Cinderella and it's the only opportunity I ever get to work in the theatre! And I've done it ever since. After the first two I started directing and I've directed over thirty now. This year I am directing Wendi Peters (Coronation Street) in Snow White. 

Digger: And you've made a name for yourself there. And what's this link you've got with The Chuckle Brothers?

Peter: Most adult audiences who come to see them go away saying "I didn't expect to enjoy that". They get dragged along by the kids because the kids see them on Chucklevision, which I must say I don't find particularly funny, but in the theatre, yes, they're very funny. And I enjoy working with them very much.

Digger: It's a fantastic genre isn't it, pantomime? You've got the history obviously, but also there's the fact that there are jokes and lines aimed squarely at the adults that are over the children's heads but the children have plenty to enjoy.

Peter: Yes, I think you have to put something in for the adults. But the shows have to stay clean. I get very irritated by smutty comedians. It alienates the parents as well because they're embarrassed for their children. "What's that mean, mum?" It's not good.

Digger: How did you 'get into' acting and what/when was the defining moment that made you decide you were an actor?

Peter: I was about nine I think. I probably knew well before that that I wanted to be an actor, growing up in Blackpool. I went to lots of shows, mostly variety shows but also plays at the Grand Theatre. I saw all the big stars of the day because Blackpool had seventeen theatres at that time. 

Digger: Seventeen? Good grief! 

 

  

Peter on Doctor Who 

 

and John Noakes on Blue Peter

 

 

Peter: ..... I'd go to the shows for kids on the pier on Saturday mornings and occasionally I'd get the opportunity to take part. I was always the first on stage. It was a showing off thing.

Digger: You weren't shy?

Peter: Oh, no no. Well, yes, but not in those circumstances - shyness is a strange thing, you can be shy and extrovert. I think I am, but there you go. Early on I found that I liked what happened in theatres and on stage. And when I was nine I was cast in our school play and I played Robin Hood. You can't have better than that, can you?!! The following year I played Alan Breck in Kidnapped and again you can't get a better part for a kid. 

Digger: Was Robin Hood on telly at the time with Richard Greene? 

Peter: No, we didn't have telly then. I'm very old! (Digger laughs) We got our first TV in 1953 to watch the Coronation and the cup final.

Digger: Oh, you're one of THOSE families! I've heard about them.

Peter: What was I?.......I was fourteen in 1953......

Digger: So it was a great time to be growing up in Blackpool?

Peter: ... Absolutely. Stanley Matthews was at his peak. I went to school with Jimmy Arnfield, who unfortunately has got mouth cancer. It's rather sad............... so school plays started me off and from then I wanted to be on the stage. That's the be all and end of it. As soon as I realised people could make a living from it, that's what I wanted to do. I remember being laughed at by my elocution teacher at school. "What do you want to be?" "An actor." "Ha ha. Fine!" And then he proceeded to put on rather bad mini productions of Shakespeare.

Digger: I'm sure he didn't get much further whereas you showed him a thing or two, didn't you?

Peter: Being an elocution teacher in Blackpool was hardly the pinnacle, was it?

Digger: The irony was that in the early sixties film and TV were falling over themselves for accents with all the kitchen sink dramas. 

Peter: Oh yeah, yeah, funnily enough when I started acting I didn't have much of an accent, I forced it away. I've got a bit of an accent but it's probably nothing like as strong as it was when I was at school. I consciously didn't speak with an accent. My grandmother spoke beautiful English. She used to stop me flattening my vowels. I'd say "Bla-a-ackpool" and she'd say "No, it's Blackpool."

Digger: Who were/are your acting inspirations, both male and female?

Peter: Well..............Marlon  Brando. On the Waterfront was probably the most inspirational thing I've ever seen. Em..... oh dear, it's very difficult!..... Funnily enough I loved Eve Marie Saint in the same movie. Funny how I grew up seeing and enjoying lots of movies - I mean I was very small when I saw Gone With The Wind. 

Digger: That was from 1939.

Peter: Well, I didn't see it in 1939 as I was a bit young!.... Obviously people like Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot....

 

 


Peter with his Newfoundland, Kent


   

Peter as Steven Taylor in Doctor Who 

 

 

and with Val and John on Blue Peter

 

Digger: They had some very sexy ladies in those days. 

Peter: Absolutely. And then early on contemporary people like John Hurt who came out of drama school and was two or three years older than me I think. And I was always impressed with him. And Bill Hartnell in his way, he made a number of good movies. This Sporting Life with Richard Harris. All of these people come to mind although I've never been a hero worshipper - I'd just get on and do it myself anyway. But things like On The Waterfront I thought "I wanna be that, I wanna be a film star."

Digger: Gaining fame as a Doctor Who assistant and then as a presenter on Blue Peter, what were the positives and negatives of being hugely famous nationally?

Peter: There weren't many negatives really. The press didn't intrude much. 

Digger: Anneke Wills said the same, she said we weren't bothered when we went into a pub. 

Peter: Absolutely right. The fame game had not started then and the cult of celebrity. Which is just as well because that gets in the way of doing good work. You want to be known for the work rather than you.

Digger: What are your enduring memories of Doctor Who?

Peter: Oh, I enjoyed a lot of it. It was hard work - we did them in a week and with all the technical requirements of it which were actually greater then than now. They do them in short takes these days but we'd start rehearsing on the Monday, do a technical rehearsal with the technical boffins, lighting and sound man and various studio personnel and the producer and director (who'd obviously been there all week) on the Friday. And on the Saturday you'd rehearse in the studio all day, camera rehearsals with a break for tea or dinner and then we recorded it Saturday night without breaks. The only time we had a break was if we were bringing the Tardis in or out. The 'Special Effect'!! (Digger laughs.) And the production levels were so huge then because the director had to be quite brilliant. It's not like a director nowadays where they shoot it once and then shoot it from another angle and then another and then cuts his best bits together. That's how they do it. He had to know the shots beforehand and he knew if it was a close-up, a big close-up, a two-shot, a three-shot, a group shot or whatever. And of course our wide shots were never that wide. It was important because the cameramen had to know which lens to use, they had a turret on the front of their camera with four lenses on it. When the camera wasn't being used they had to adjust to the next lens they needed. They were virtually the original cameras with very slow lenses and fixed focus.

 

 

The Chuckle Brothers

 

Digger: I remember those cameras on the intro to Grandstand. Programmes from that time did tend to be very close-up didn't they? 

Peter: They had to be. And consequently, your sets were very small. What was the point of having a big set? In those days the sets were mostly, or seemed mostly cardboard. They didn't move all the time like they did on Crossroads, but they were on the rickety side.

Digger: They're getting confused with Crossroads. Someone did some research on hundreds of hours of tape of Doctor Who and found five seconds of wobbly sets.

Peter: Yeah, yeah, that's about right.  

Digger: How much fun was it being on Blue Peter and how would you describe your fellow presenters? What were your funniest moments? What were your scariest? If you'd like to take this as..........

Peter: A general blanket Blue Peter question?! To actually start doing it was absolutely terrifying. It was live, when the music started I rather wished I hadn't signed the contract. (Digger laughs) It was that scary. 

Digger: Val had been around for a while with Christopher Trace. 

Peter: Oh yes, Val had been there quite a while and Johnnie but he never got any better at remembering his lines and all that. He was always hopeless.  

Digger: Which was part of his charm.

Peter: Exactly. And noone ever rebuked him for it or should they. And my position was that I arrived and nobody explained that I had been engaged as the heavy foil to his action man. It would have made no difference as I still would have taken the job but I was a bit disappointed when I realised it. I would have liked a bit more of the action. 

Digger: Have you got that sort of physical courage?  

Peter: Em.........yes, not quite the same as Johnnie. I don't think he had any fear. I don't think he thought about the dangers whereas I thought about them and then did it. Johnnie had a fear of one thing and that was horses. There were a couple of films where I stood in for him. 

Digger: I can remember that famous one they used to do every year on the boat where the cadets would climb up the masts to the crow's nest. 

Peter: I couldn't have done that. I wouldn't have done that. You see, John is small, five feet eight inches or something like that and I'm six feet and big guys like me don't do things like gymnastics. They tend to be lighter and more compact if you like. I used to do all the rock climbing films and drove racing cars and things like that. The person who's remembered for doing all that is Johnnie because he did some spectacular ones. Like climbing Nelson's column. That was seriously scary. We both turned down a submarine escape and said we don't want to do that. I turned it down because I thought I would have trouble with equalising the pressure on my ears, even though I'm a good swimmer. I got on very well with Johnnie, very well with Val and very well with Lesley. We had a good time and a good rapport and I think it showed.

Digger: What were your funniest moments? 

Peter: Well, the elephant! That was brilliant - it was live in the studio and you can hear tittering and see some camera shake as well. There were lots of funny moments on the programme and we had some good laughs. One or two funny films that the producers ultimately frowned upon. Sergeant Major Hutton from the parachute regiment - we did a film about orienteering and we did a film about being a waiter so we did a film called the waiter's orienteering race with Sergeant Major Hutton appearing out of trees saying "That way!" and then a camel and a couple of bunny girls from the Playboy club turned up. It was hated by the producers but everyone who saw it that I heard from said it was the BEST film we had ever done. 

Digger: How would you describe swinging London in the 60s, what are your happiest recollections of that period and who were the most interesting people you met?

 


 

  
Jimmy Greaves

Marlon Brando
  
  
Charlie Cairoli

Marilyn Monroe

 

Peter: Crikey! Well they say if you can remember the sixties you weren't there. Well I can remember the sixties. It was a great time to be in London - the music scene was fantastic. I've never been a clubber - actually that's not true I used to go to jazz clubs but that was in the late 50s. I enjoyed Humph and I'd go along to the Albert Hall and bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and to see Clapton, Cream, Steppenwolf, Delaney and Bonnie on tour. Just great, great bands. My favourite bands - I never liked Dylan when he was acoustic but I liked him when he went electric although the aficionados said "Ugh!" and he has one of the best backing bands called The Band and they made one of my top twenty all-time favourite movies called The Last Waltz which Martin Scorsese directed and it's about their last concert in L.A. If you've never seen that movie it's a movie to see. The names that are in that concert are fantastic. The 60s were enjoyable - I was 27 in 1967 when I started on Blue Peter and I left it just after my 40th birthday. These days they start it much younger.  

Digger: People like me we grew up with you guys and you were like members of the family. The first thing you'd do when coming home from school was switching on Blue Peter. 

Peter: You have to bear in mind that there were only three channels then and if you missed it you couldn't see it again and your friends would all be talking about what you'd missed. It was never repeated. At that time people couldn't record things. I remember demonstrating the first domestic video recorder on Blue Peter in about 1976. 

Digger: They say Ringo Starr had the first one in the UK.

Peter: I was probably about the third or fourth. 

Digger: I remember those first ones with the big heavy clanking buttons.

Peter: It was a wood case. It was a Philips or Grundig machine.  

Digger: How many Blue Peters were wiped by the BBC in one of those 'culls'? 

Peter: I don't think any. Most of Doctor Who was wiped - about thirty of my forty four episodes were wiped but I don't think any Blue Peter. Much of our stuff was recorded on two-inch tape and when we went to colour it was one-inch tape and much easier to store. The old two-inch tapes they used to wipe because they'd re-used them. It wasn't just profligate, but yes in retrospect it was. Our archives disappeared - wonderful things like a brilliant series that Alan Bennett did in the sixties called On The Margin of which not one frame remains. It was stunningly funny stuff. He is an absolute genius and became a great playwright but at the time was a great performer. 

Digger: So what are your biggest accomplishments to-date and what are your biggest regrets?

Peter: I don't rate my accomplishments at all really. I was delighted to do ten and a half years of Blue Peter. I was thrilled to present Kick Start. I am delighted to still be presenting Crufts after 30 years. There's a lot of things I've enjoyed and had fun with but I don't think I have any great accomplishments. I've been lucky enough to have a career in the business I wanted to do, that's my greatest achievement. I don't think there's anything I'd change. There are perhaps one or two bridges I burned that I shouldn't have but I don't worry about those. I never look back anyway, I only talk about these things when I'm asked. 

Digger: Do you get paid when they show this elephant scene from Blue Peter?

Peter: Yes. 

Digger: Hooray! 

Peter: There's quite a few things like that which I get paid royalties for. Normally some company buys these programmes and clips for two or five years but we do get a royalty. 

Digger: Good. I know that the session musicians who recorded in the sixties were paid a session fee and that was it. They got seven shillings or whatever it was and nothing else after that even if the song is played three million times. 

Peter: You had to write it or be the principal singer to make money. A lot of people who were one hit wonders have continued to make money from it because it was such a good record.

Digger: Reg Presley from The Troggs made a fortune out of Love Is All Around which was released by Wet Wet Wet 30 years after he wrote and recorded the original. Rod Argent's Time Of The Season is the most played song on American radio - over three million airplays and rising, and Rod gets a royalty for every play.................. So who would you like to have worked with that you haven't done and on what sort of projects?

Peter: Well no, I never aspired to be a Shakespearian actor so there's nothing in that line. I'd have liked to have made movies but never got into the movie business at all, so that IS a regret. In terms of people, those I have worked with I have thoroughly enjoyed and I never thought "Oh gosh if I could have got that part I could have played with so and so". I never think like that.

Digger: Are dogs your biggest passion?

 

 

Peter's first appearance on Doctor Who 1965

 

Peter: Yes they are.

Digger: We're lucky in this country, aren't we, in that we have Crufts and the Boat Race and Wimbledon and all of these traditions and events?

Peter: Oh yes. I love all sport. I don't normally do it, I normally take the dogs out but I had a couch potato weekend this weekend and it was fantastic watching the television sport.

Digger: You don't have anybody nagging you saying this and that needs to be done?

Peter: Yes, but I'm watching television! I do enough stuff around the house so this weekend I watched the tennis, a bit of the Tour De France, a bit of the golf.

Digger: What are your favourite TV and music and film?

Peter: I like a lot of the film noir from the 30s and 40s. Casablanca, the Raymond Chandler scripts, The Big Sleep. Great, great movies. What else? Funnily enough I went and saw La Vie En Rose last night and it was staggeringly wonderful film. Marion Cotillard is stunning as Edith Piaf and ought to win an Oscar for her performance. Movies of all time, I do like one or two musicals like Singing In The Rain, the definitively beautifully made and produced wonderful performances. I like a lot of Fred Astaire's films. My wife was originally a dancer and singer. In terms of stage although it's terribly uncool to say so I think Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Evita and Tim Rice's lyrics are just fabulous and my wife played it in London for 18 months. It's stunning when that is sung wonderfully. 

 

 

  
Fred Astaire
Les Dawson
  
  
John Inman

Brigitte Bardot

 

Digger: Where are you based these days?

Peter: Suffolk. 

Digger: Because I'm in Northampton and I know you used to live up here. You seem to be moving around the country like me.

Peter: (Laughs) Yes, well I've got no roots. We see a house and say "We like that one, we'll have that." We have a lot of good friends in this area so we're not likely to move.

Digger: What makes you laugh?

Peter: I love good sight gags. Going back to the films, Buster Keaton - I love The General and The Navigator. Because the range of site gags in there is amazing. Consequently I like people like Jacques Tati - I think he's remarkably animated. I prefer Keaton to Chaplin because I found Chaplin rather unsubtle. I love Laurel and Hardy. I love the Marx Bothers.

Digger: What's that Marx Bothers film with the mirror gag?

Peter: It's Duck Soup. I like A Night At The Opera when they're all on the liner and in the cabin. There's about 25 people in the room and the maid comes to the door and says "Can I clean the room?" and Groucho says (Groucho impersonation) "I doubt you can even get in the room." And then 25 people tumble out into the corridor. I just like that sort of stuff. I like to like people and the reason I liked Keaton was because he was so good-looking as well. Totally believable and I thought he was real. I used to love circus, not the animals acts particularly but in Blackpool we were fortunate to have a clown called Charlie Cairoli  and Charlie was very, very funny. 

Digger: I remember his catchphrase. He'd say "Right Children?" and they'd all reply "Right Charlie."

Peter: That's right, because he had his own show didn't he? But that was not the same as seeing him live in the circus where he did wonderful slosh scenes. That's why I like pantomime because you can do that sort of stuff too which is always good.  

Digger: It's a peculiarly British thing, isn't it, pantomime? But it feels as though it's got an Italian influence or something going on there doesn't it?

Peter: Yes:

Digger: What's this thing about women dressing-up as men and men dressing-up as women?

Peter: Oh, I don't know! I don't go there! I've no idea why it works, but the best dames don't look like women. People like Les Dawson, there was never any thought that it wasn't Les Dawson and he was a master at it. That's sort of why I never liked Danny La Rue, I don't particularly like that side of it. But I used to enjoy John Inman playing the dame in pantomime and directed him a few times. 

Digger: There's something about a woman in tights slapping her thigh that's quite erotic too.

Peter: Doesn't do it for me! 

Digger: What make you angry?

Peter: Stupidity, I don't suffer fools very well. This current government who have just lied and cheated over the past ten years. I get pretty angry. It's not that I'm a great Tory, I've always been a Labour voter . The two parties are indistinguishable these days and have betrayed every principal and sadly the one person who could support my view in the Labour party is the one I could stand least of all and that was Prescott. A total idiot and he used to drive me crazy and I couldn't understand how he retained his place in the party. Religion makes me angry but I don't get overheated about it but I really dislike it and am a confirmed atheist and I believe most of the world's troubles are caused by people who have some abounding faith in some stupid superstition. It also makes me sad and depresses me immensely that people can be so stupid. Defending this, that and the other based on total myths and nonsense. 

Digger: Who would you have at a dinner party with guests from any time, real or fictional, dead or alive? 

Peter: (Thinks long and hard)............... Brando MIGHT be there. I didn't like what Brando became but I loved what he was. I certainly at one time would have liked Jimmy Greaves to have been there having been a Spurs supporter for many years. He was just brilliant and sadly he wasn't there when Spurs won the 'double'. Maybe I would have Stan Matthews too. I met him in front of our hotel when I was six or seven in Blackpool - he owned a hotel a few doors up from ours. And he was playing wonderfully for Blackpool at the time so that would be before the 1948 Cup Final.  I think I would have enjoyed Marilyn Monroe - she was delicious and I think she would have been great fun and a great party animal. Having just seen this film last night, I think I would have liked Edith Piaf, a strange woman and she probably would have driven everyone insane. 

Digger: But it would have only been for one evening............ You do need a few people to get things going. 

 

   The Marx Brothers

 

  
Edith Piaf

Buster Keaton


Sir Stanley Matthews

 

 

Peter: Oh, absolutely. I would have liked Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick around my dinner table. Woody because I have always thought him a genius, and in his early movies, (and radio recordings) was absolutely hilarious. Kubrick because I don't think he ever shot a bad frame of film. 2001, A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove are two of my top twenty films of all time. And Buster Keaton too would have had to be there - a flawed genius but the funniest, cleverest silent screen actor of them all. To hear those three interact would be an absolute delight.

Digger: Good party!.... So what would you still like to achieve? 

Peter: I don't have any particular ambitions left. I'd still like to be a film star but I don't have a cat in hell's chance of that happening. I don't have a burning ambition. I'd like to work a little bit more than I do, but at my age it's not so bad that I'm still earning a bob or two. 

Digger: What do you think of children's TV today compared to the 60s and 70s? 

Peter: I think for the reasons I mentioned earlier, how the directors worked on Doctor Who, it is severely under-produced compared to what we used to do. Although Blue Peter still manages to sustain a level that seems reasonable. I don't see it very often but when I do I think that's okay. I think that the producers and the people working on the shows then were more skilled and had more experience at their fingertips whereas today if you can point a camera in the right direction and you can edit properly then you can do just about anything.  It's very easy to make TV programmes now whereas it was very hard. I'm not saying it shouldn't be easy, but the people now are not as good.  Sometimes it does show. I don't like the lackadaisical approach where things aren't scripted or rehearsed and the people performing or presenting are just left to waffle their way through it. I just don't think it's good enough and I think people deserve better than that but there's not the money for it to be better than that. 

Digger: I've noticed some terrible mistakes on captions. 

Peter: Terrible. They're often put on live aren't they? And that can be a problem.

Digger: I also get emails from TV and newspaper 'researchers' asking for help and their research consists of typing in a word in Google, finding my website and emailing me for help or information. I tell them my hourly rate and I don't usually hear from them again.

Peter: Why should you do their work for nothing?

Digger: What would Val, John and Peter have made of the internet, iPods and Sat Nav if they had been given a sneak glimpse of the future back in the 60s?

Peter: We'd have loved them and we'd have been the first to show them, a bit like Tomorrow's World. I can't keep up with the technology now though. I can't handle an iPod. Sat Nav's fine although I don't need it because I've been everywhere now. It pinpoints the odd house for me. But we'd have loved them all then and had great fun demonstrating them. 

Digger: You could work an iPod.......

Peter: I can't be bothered. It will hold 3,000 records but I haven't got that many.

Digger: But I have one that holds 1,000 and I have all of my favourite tracks on it. My whole collection. Every track I like and it's very handy.

Peter: I would lose patience with having to load them up. There's a lot of music I would like to hear again though.

Digger: Well, if you got into iTunes which is Apple's music 'repository', you'll find it's quite fun just to browse and remember stuff you used to like and download them at 79p per track. It's all there.

Peter: Maybe you've convinced me to have a look. It won't hurt me.

Digger: What projects do you have lined-up?

Peter: I have some big dog shows to do, run by Notcutts Garden Centres. But in the meantime I have a holiday and I have five dogs that keep me busy. I take three of them to the beach every day and one's very old so it 's shortly going to be two. Even in the bad weather we manage to get down there.

Digger: Well Peter, many thanks for your time, it has been very enjoyable and it's very much appreciated, as has been your work over the years.

Peter: Thank you. You're welcome.

 

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My big thanks to Peter Purves for the interview.

For further reference:

www.peterpurves.com

www.imdb.com

 


Peter Purves.

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