John Noakes: TV Hero review – a nostalgic tribute to Blue Peter’s original daredevil

With his action-man antics, regional accent and natural demeanour, Noakes was your mate on TV. Plus, David Attenborough explores the legend of the real-life inspiration for Disney’s Dumbo

‘It wouldn’t happen now,” says Edward Barnes, who was deputy head of children’s programmes at the BBC in the 1970s. “Oh, a great deal of what we did we’d be in prison for now.” Dear me, this sounds a bit worrying ...

Don’t worry, though. He’s not talking about those kinds of crimes, he’s talking about crimes against health and safety; the best kind of crimes, some might say.

Edward was more of a planner than the person who actually carried out the deeds. That man was John Noakes, who died this year and is remembered in John Noakes: TV Hero (BBC2, Saturday). It is extraordinary and brilliant watching – rewatching for some of us – Noakes’s Blue Peter stunts today. Such as the scaling of Nelson’s column, up a wobbly ladder, then beyond the overhang to get on to the parapet, and up your man Horatio himself to clean the guano from his head. I see no poo. No harness or rope either. Nothing but a massive pair of cojones – JN’s, not HN’s.

And climbing tall masts, jumping out of aeroplanes or on to trapezes or rapidly moving animals, hurtling down ice ... you just wouldn’t see that from a children’s TV presenter nowadays, would you?

Incidentally, there’s an interesting revelation about that sky dive, from former RAF Falcons camera operator Doug Fletcher. Noakes wasn’t wearing a microphone; it might have interfered with his oxygen supply. So the breathless commentary – “and we’re out in space, it’s unbelievable, 25,000 feet” – with the atmosphere whistling past? Dubbed in later. Who knew, Blue Peter: fake news. (As for John Craven, he just made it all up as he went along.) Still, different times and all that, and Noakes was ahead of his.

It wasn’t just the daredevil action man stuff. John was different from other people on TV. He had a regional accent when everyone else on TV spoke like the Queen. He was irreverent and spontaneous and seemed to be natural, even if it was an act and – as his wife says – he was introverted and shy in real life.

He also played a big part in one of the most memorable television events ever. I’m talking about Lulu defecating live in a BBC studio, of course – Lulu the baby elephant from Chessington zoo, not Lulu the diminutive singer from Glasgow. While Peter Purves and Valerie Singleton didn’t know what to do, John turned it into a brilliant bit of ad-lib variety, chasing Lulu, pretending to be stood on, sliding around in her wee, jazz hands, everything.

That was a bit before my Blue Peter time. I was John Noakes-Peter Purves-Lesley Judd era. Peter looked, sounded and was like everyone else on TV, he never did much for me. Lesley, I was a little bit in love with. John was my mate, just as everyone else thought he was. Watching this is just like bumping into a childhood friend and immediately re-clicking, a reminder of why and how much you liked them in the first place. Nice one.

More fake news, plus another elephant obviously, in Attenborough and the Giant Elephant (BBC1, Sunday). He was called Jumbo, a Victorian superstar who came to London zoo from Africa, toured America and met his end in a Canadian railway tragedy.

That – the end of the story – is where the fake news comes in. He charged heroically at an approaching locomotive, in order to save the life of a young elephant he was with, said reports at the time. That’s all very romantic, but sadly not true, discovers David Attenborough, with his Sherlock Holmes hat on. I mean playing detective, not wearing a deerstalker, sadly. Sir David’s no stranger to fake news himself, of course. Remember Frozen Planet’s polar bears, filmed in a zoo?

Anyway, Jumbo was hit ignominiously from behind, while boarding another train. Bad luck, not heroism. But it’s a fascinating life story, one that includes royalty, alcoholism and terrible night rages. Jumbo, it is said, was the inspiration for Disney’s Dumbo, though Jumbo couldn’t fly, even if he might have thought he could after a few whiskys with his keeper, a strange fellow called Matthew Scott.

Etymologically interesting, too. Named after the Swahili greeting usually written Jambo, he’s the reason jumbo came to mean something very big. Jumbo jet, jumbo sausage, hello jet, hello sausage ... although it’s possible there could be an element of fake news in that, too.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Blue Peter’s daredevil: John Noakes obituary
Children’s TV presenter whose can-do attitude marked him out from his more sensible Blue Peter co-hosts

Stuart Jeffries

29, May, 2017 @10:21 AM

Article image
Blue Planet II review: to an Octopus's garden in the shade, for a fight
David Attenborough’s underwater world is always full of surprising wonders and this episode, Green Seas, is the best yet

Sam Wollaston

27, Nov, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Blue Planet II review: the ocean as you've never seen it before
Bird-eating fish, surfing dolphins, rafts of sea otters … there are some extraordinary things going on under the sea, as David Attenborough’s brilliant new series reveals

Sam Wollaston

29, Oct, 2017 @9:00 PM

Article image
Natural World: Attenborough and the Empire of the Ants review – another fascinating insight into the insect world
Our greatest naturalist gives the impression he would spend all day watching ants fight, if he could. Plus: Still Open All Hours catches the mood of the post-Christmas lull

Tim Dowling

29, Dec, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Dynasties review: A leader called David who is ever fearful of a coup – remind you of anything?
The opening episode of David Attenborough’s new series follows the power struggles within a troop of chimpanzees and reveals just how little divides us from our primate cousins

Lucy Mangan

11, Nov, 2018 @9:30 PM

Article image
The Queen’s Green Planet review – a right royal conservation effort
David Attenborough visits the garden of Buckingham Palace for a natter with Her Majesty about nature, her nascent forestry project – and James I’s horticultural errors

Sam Wollaston

16, Apr, 2018 @9:00 PM

Article image
The Hollow Crown: Henry VI Part 1 – a bit Game of Thrones? Absolutely!
Director Dominic Cooke trims down and sexes up Henry VI to great effect but Shakespeare’s language shines through. Plus, Attenborough at 90

Sam Wollaston

09, May, 2016 @6:20 AM

Article image
Planet Earth II review: Attenborough’s rollercoaster wildlife tour returns
Ten years after the original Planet Earth series, it’s back. This week, the theme is islands – starring a lonesome sloth, warring komodos and killer snakes

Sam Wollaston

07, Nov, 2016 @7:13 AM

Article image
People Just Do Nothing review – Kurupt FM's original pirate material
Idiotic hubris, crushing realisation and denial should be depressing, but in the fifth and final BBC series, these tragicomic characters transform it all into something joyous

Tim Dowling

12, Nov, 2018 @10:00 PM

Article image
TV review: Kingdom of Plants
Plants are as aggressive and competitive as polar bears – when you speed them up

Sam Wollaston

26, May, 2012 @6:00 PM