Television presenter

Born: March 6 1934;

Died: May 28 2017

JOHN Noakes, who has died aged 83, was the longest-serving and probably the most popular presenter of Blue Peter, the BBC’s children’s programme on which he undertook the “action man” part.

Noakes, at least in his on-camera persona, was a cheerful Yorkshireman game for any daredevil exploit: driving racing cars, white-water rafting, sky-diving from an RAF Hercules at a height of five miles, scaling Nelson’s column with a steeplejack (twice), as well as attempting the bobsleigh run at St Moritz and tackling an incontinent baby elephant – both with deleterious results.

In many of his excursions he was accompanied by his faithful, if boisterous, border collie, Shep: his cry of “Get down, Shep!” became such a frequent punctuation to his pieces to camera that it became a playground catchphrase and, in 1978, a novelty hit record for the Barron Knights.

Noakes made his first appearance on the programme in December 1965 and left it in 1978. At a time when there were only three television channels in Britain, Blue Peter, which was shown just after children had returned from school, regularly drew audiences of six to eight million viewers. He had been spotted by the programme’s fearsome producer, Biddy Baxter, in a newspaper photograph of his appearance in a production of Hobson’s Choice in Leicester. She asked to BBC to audition him, describing him as “very promising … young, attractive and unaffected, and a complete contrast to Christopher Trace”.

Noakes did not take immediately to the job, to which he was deliberately eased in after Christmas (to avoid disruption). He described feeling “stripped naked” and intimidated by the “glass eye” of the camera and even resorted to visiting a hypnotist and a faith healer to overcome his anxiety about live television. He later maintained that much of his character on-screen was no more than a performance. His persona, which he described as “Idiot Noakes”, was “light-hearted and jokey. A bit of a buffoon who would do anything for a laugh or a few pence. I switch the personality on when I turn up to do the job, and off when I leave.”

If so, it was a remarkably convincing and popular role. The BBC left him out of the programme’s summer expedition in 1966, but “Idiot Noakes” came into his own when Trace (who was scared of heights) was reluctant to climb a crane for an outside broadcast. The producers turned to Noakes, who replied: “Aye, all right, I’ll have a go.”

Thereafter, he was the obvious member of the team for tackling any daring, foolhardy or downright stupid location shoot, spending much of his time clinging to mountains, oil rigs and other high structures, and in peril on the sea, pot-holing or half-way up the Amazon. After Trace’s departure, the triumvirate of Noakes, Peter Purves and Valerie Singleton (and later, Lesley Judd) were widely regarded as the show’s classic line-up, with Noakes in the daredevil role; and it was to become the template for all presenting teams thereafter.

Despite his success, Noakes remained ambivalent about his time with Blue Peter, claiming that he had been under-paid and uninsured when undertaking many of his most memorable stunts for the show. The BBC’s risk assessments often consisted simply of the words “John may die.” He once claimed to have had just a day and a half off during a nine-week stint of filming, and was openly scathing about Baxter, whom he called “a very difficult woman”.

“She was a bully who treated me like some country yokel from Yorkshire,” he said. “I couldn’t abide her.” He claimed, too, that he had been happier during his three-week performance in Hobson’s Choice, the play which had brought him to Baxter’s attention, than in his 12 and a half years with Blue Peter. In one interview he lamented that he had not carried on as an actor – “a wonderful life. You get paid to be someone else and live in a fantasy world.”

He might have done – he claimed that Laurence Olivier had been interested in casting him at the National Theatre – had it not been for the fact that he had worked steadily in theatre for six years and was tired when the BBC first approached him, and the additional point that he had resorted to his native accent for the part in Hobson’s Choice. When Olivier tried to establish whether the actor could manage other accents, he was told by a teacher at the Guildhall (where Noakes had trained) that it had taken them two years to drum it out of him the first time round.

He was born John Bottomley on March 6 1934 at Shelf, a village halfway between Bradford and Halifax in West Yorkshire. His father Arthur was a dyer’s agent who worked for local mills, but he and Noakes’s mother Sallie divorced when John was nine. John went to live with his grandmother for a while before gaining a scholarship to Rishworth, a local boarding school whose other old boys include Ed Sheeran.

John’s long suit at school was cross-country running. He left without any qualifications and, in his late teens, adopted the name of his step-father, the Canadian jazz trumpeter Alfie Noakes. He had hoped to become a pilot but, lacking the exam results, instead trained as a fitter with the RAF. By this stage he had become interested in acting, and secured a place at the Guildhall in London – working at a variety of menial jobs, including as a cleaner, in order to support himself while he trained.

When he left the Guildhall he had a relatively successful, if low-profile, acting career, getting his first job in a summer show with Cyril Fletcher and spending six months on Broadway in Arnold Wesker’s Chips with Everything. He married, in 1965, Vicky, a solicitor’s daughter from Surrey, with whom he had a son, Mark.

After Blue Peter, on which his memorable moments included grappling with a baby elephant called Lulu, who relieved herself on set and whom Noakes claimed had stood on his foot (he later admitted he had made this up to add to the drama), he took on a very similar role for Go with Noakes, which ran for five series between 1976 and 1980. In it, he and Shep would tackle a variety of rugged, outdoorsy pursuits; sailing, motor racing and scaling tall structures.

His disenchantment with Blue Peter was compounded when, after he left in 1978, he found that he could not appear in a dog food commercial with Shep (who was technically owned by the BBC, though he lived with Noakes). After a blazing row that descended into further arguments over who was responsible for paying for the dog’s food, Shep was eventually rehomed.

Noakes then appeared in the advert (for Spiller’s dog food) with a remarkably similar looking collie called “Skip”. He continued to resent what he saw as the theft of his pet by Blue Peter’s producers who had, in those days, a horror of commercial promotion which bordered on monomania (Sellotape was invariably “sticky-backed plastic”, while the cornflake boxes used in craft projects had the word “Kellogg’s” carefully obscured). For her part, Biddy Baxter thought exploiting children’s affection for Noakes and Shep for commercial gain was “immoral”.

His affection for the dog, however, was entirely unfeigned. Noakes had cried on screen when his first Blue Peter dog, Patch, died in 1971; he did the same on the children’s programme Fax in 1987 when announcing that Shep, a “super fella” who had been with him for much longer, had died.

Though he made a couple more television appearances, on ITV’s short-lived Mad About Pets in 2003, and on celebrity editions of the quiz shows The Weakest Link and Pointless, Noakes largely retired from TV in the mid-1980s. In 1979, he produced a children’s book entitled The Flight of the Magic Clog. While his television career was comparatively brief, he was an iconic figure for the generation that had grown up during the 1960s and ’70s; Noakes’s regional accent and direct manner were in marked contrast to the stuffy attitudes which prevailed before he started on Blue Peter, and he had a considerable influence on future broadcasters.

Sailing had become a passion, and he and his wife made a couple of abortive efforts to sail around the world. In 1982, they set off for the Caribbean, with the idea of settling there, but their yacht was capsized by a giant wave off the coast of North Africa. Instead, they set up home in the port village of Andratx on Majorca, where they ran a boat rental business and Noakes devoted himself to sailing and painting. He also trained as a languages teacher, using the Michel Thomas method of direct immersion in the languages, and was apparently an impressive tutor.

Two years ago, his wife reported that he had gone missing during one of the hottest days of the year, and a 10-hour manhunt was launched for him on the island. He was eventually found, disoriented and dehydrated, in a storm drain into which he had fallen. In dealing with the press attention surrounding this misadventure, his wife Vicky revealed that he had been suffering from the symptoms of dementia for several years.

John Noakes died on Sunday morning. He is survived by his wife and their son.