Peter Purves returning to panto in Harpenden

FROM space pilot to sticky-back plastic, dog shows to darts, the career of television legend Peter Purves has been anything but predictable.

Having made his TV debut as Steven Taylor, futuristic companion to original Doctor Who William Hartnell in 1966, he went on to enjoy a 10-year reign as a Blue Peter presenter during the show’s golden age, before enjoying stints as the frontman for the likes of Stopwatch, Kick Start and Crufts.

Now he’s returning to the stage to appear in his first pantomime since 1985, appearing as Alderman Fitzwarren in Dick Whittington at Harpenden Public Halls.

Peter was happy to chat about his long and varied career during a break from rehearsals earlier this autumn: “This is the first time I’ve been in a pantomime for years. The last time was about 1986 in Guildford; I did Robinson Crusoe, which was the last time Robinson Crusoe was done anywhere because you can’t do it anymore.

“Pantomime was one of the first things I did after leaving Blue Peter, although I had a number of television programmes going on at the same time. I did a show called Stopwatch which was a sports programme in Manchester, and we also did a holidays/days out thing for kids called We’re Going Places.

“But pantomime was virtually the only acting I’ve done since Doctor Who. I’ve done a couple of bits, I did EastEnders once for three episodes, but it was the first thing I did after Blue Peter in 1978. I was in six or seven, and I directed some of those. The first one I directed was in Torquay in 1981, and then I directed every year after that, sometimes two a year, not often, and I directed 33 in total.”

The decision to start acting again came easily: “I thought I really would like to do some acting again. I’m getting on. I’m 73 you know, and you’ve got to think about what you can do, and the amount of television work I do is very small. I do quite a lot of Doctor Who audio plays and I’m in quite a lot of demand for that, which is nice, and we do a lot of DVD backings for some of the older releases, commentaries and that, and I facilitate some of those. So that keeps me a little bit busy, and I teach television presentation in London, which is a way of giving something back really. I do about five days a month on that, and then odd bits, but I’m not hugely busy and there was the whole thing of yeah I’d like to act again. When this came up and [producer-director] Chris [Law] said do you want to play Alderman Fitzwarren I said yeah that’s a great idea I’d love to.”

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Although he lives in Suffolk, Peter is quite familiar with this part of Hertfordshire: “I used to do a lot on Blue Peter with Graham Dangerfield, the naturalist, who lived in Wheathampstead, so I came out here quite a lot. We filmed all over the place actually.

“He had a mini-nature reserve of his own, a private one, in Wheathampstead up the hill, and prior to that in his mother’s house, she had a very big garden, he’d got cages of foxes, and a big apiary. His house was L-shaped, and there were ocelots in a cage outside the kitchen window. You’d be talking to him in the kitchen and ocelots would come up to the window. So I know the area quite well.”

Although his role in Doctor Who still leads to regular work, it is Peter’s epic spell as a Blue Peter presenter between 1967 and 1978 which people still remember him for, working alongside Valerie Singleton, John Noakes and Lesley Judd: “Over a long period from ’66 until about the end of ’78 there were only four presenters. They always talk about us being the dream team which I find very flattering really, but it’s quite nice as we were there for the longest period to have people latching onto us, there are probably three generations spread over this period. The ones who are just growing into it, the ones who are right in the middle of it and seeing it all and the ones who are growing out of it, so we did get a big spread and consequently everyone over the age of 40 in this country probably knows who I am.

“I joined Blue Peter in 1967. Chris Tracy had been in it for the first eight years and he’d gone, Valerie was the third girl and she’d been doing it since 1962, John Noakes joined in ’66 and I joined in ’67. I think from the late sixties through to the mid-eighties, before the proliferation of channels, I think that was the golden age of television.”

One of the most famous, and subsequently repeated, sequences during Peter’s time with the show featured Lulu the elephant wreaking havoc in the studio: “I always remembered the Lulu incident being live, but we did a recording of the show with no edits as if it was live. We did it at the same time that we would normally do, but on the Wednesday rather than the Thursday when it was transmitted, and it went out exactly as it was recorded, no tweaks or changes, nothing at all. That is something which for a very long time I said [producer Biddy] Baxter would not have put the thing out if it had been recorded, but she did put it out, very brave woman. You couldn’t script it.”

Having begun his career as a jobbing actor in rep, Peter’s enthusiasm for being back on stage is evident: “This [the panto] has been a joy, doing this. If I’m asked again I will almost certainly say yes. It is a pleasure, and some of the routines I know inside and out anyway. A pantomime’s a pantomime, and there are routines which are fairly stock in some ways, but only because I’ve directed so many. There are a couple of sketches in here which I’ve not done before, and I have no knowledge of them, but they’re not the same because Chris wrote them, so they’re different from the ones I’ve done before. But it’s good fun.

“You can’t explain pantomime to anyone who doesn’t know it. Try and explain it to an Australian or an American or a Swede, and they’d say, what are you talking about? A pantomime to the Danes is high art, it’s mime and dance. But our pantomimes are unique and it’s nice that this one’s fully traditional, we have a principal boy with legs and we’ve got a female dame, I like that.

I like pantos as they used to be, I’ve never been very fond of male principal boys, but that came in with the pop singers taking over. The script’s half the battle, and as long as the story’s clear you can play around with all the other bits as much as you like. If the gags are good, keep ’em, if they’re bad, chuck ’em out! Don’t be frightened or precious about it!”

Dick Whittington runs at Harpenden Public Halls from December 15-22, and also starts CBeebies’ Cerrie Burnell as The Fairy of the Bells. Tickets are priced from �10. Call the box office on 01582 767525.