Obituary: Christopher Trace
Tuesday 08 September 1992
16 OCTOBER 1958 and the very first edition of a children's television programme that was to become a household name, was presented by Miss Great Britain 1957, a beautiful blonde called Leila Williams and a tall, handsome 25-year-old actor, Christopher Trace.
No one then had any idea how long Blue Peter would last. It was planned to fill the gap for five- to eight-year-olds, who were growing out of Watch With Mother, but were too young to follow Studio E, the regular magazine programme. Fifteen minutes long, Blue Peter was transmitted every Thursday. Like all male presenters in those days Chris Trace wore a suit and a tie - he mostly played with trains whilst Leila Williams concentrated on dolls. This passion for trains was shared by the programme's originator and first producer, John Hunter Blair. Trace had spent his entire audition playing with the '00'-gauge layout in Hunter Blair's office. After that, there was no hope for any of the other candidates.
During his eight and a half years on the programme, Blue Peter developed, enlarging its scope and its viewing figures, becoming hugely successful. This success was in no small way due to Trace's skill as a presenter. Small children liked him because he was steady, reliable and adventurous - the perfect older brother.
All the programmes were 'live' and there was no autocue. Scripts were learned overnight and when Blue Peter expanded to 25 minutes, and then transmitted bi-weekly, this required not only a good memory but an agile mind and the ability to remain unflappable in front of the cameras no matter what mayhem was going on behind the scenes.
On one occasion, when the promised, playful, small lion cub turned out to be almost full-grown and ferocious, Trace carried on his interview, ignoring the snarls and the blood streaming down the arm of the cub's owner whilst the others, save the camera crew who were quaking behind their cameras, fled.
Like all great presenters, Trace would have barely batted an eyelid had a bomb dropped on the studio. He never fluffed his lines, threw himself by his ad libs or waffled off the subject. He had the authority of the professional, which gave the audience confidence and helped build up a very special trust with viewers of all ages.
Like Valerie Singleton, who took over from Leila Williams in 1962, Trace won his way into the hearts of millions of five- to eight-year-olds with his 'makes'. Apart from demonstrating his beloved 00-gauge locomotives he showed how to create a scenery for the layout, he built the famous Blue Peter sledge, a circus, bird- boxes, model planes, a do-it-yourself life-size Dalek: and when he trained the programme's first puppy, Petra, he made dog-beds and other essential accessories for pets. 'Here's one I made earlier' has been lovingly parodied by programmes from Monty Python to French and Saunders ever since, as has 'Now for something completely different . . .'
It was a fluke that Christopher Trace joined Blue Peter. After leaving school he had a variety of odd jobs including farm labouring. He joined the regular Army and soon won a commission. He left the army for the stage and began his television career fresh from acting as Charlton Heston's understudy in Ben Hur.
After a season of bi-weekly programmes Trace pointed out in his usual forceful way that he was 'bloody knackered' and that if we didn't get a third presenter to share the load he would leave. John Noakes became the third member of the team in 1966.
These were pioneering days of the programme and there was much filming as well as the studio-based items. Trace took part in Blue Peter's first two summer foreign filming assignments, to Norway in 1965 and in 1966 to Singapore and Borneo. His favourite film of all was flying with the RAF's legendary Red Arrows, but he was thankful to hand over the programme's action- man role to new boy Noakes - Trace suffered from vertigo and climbing anything higher than a stepladder was a nightmare.
In the summer of 1967 Trace had what seemed at the time to be the chance of a lifetime. He was asked to join Spectator, a feature film company, as writer and Production Manager. Huw Wheldon was aghast at the prospect. 'There will be no Blue Peter without Christopher Trace,' he prophesied. He was wrong, but sadly the venture failed after only two years and Trace lost his life savings. By now he had also been divorced by his wife Meg, a vivacious and attractive actress, mother of his two small children, Jonathan and Jessica, who had been the rock that gave him the stability he needed. After his marriage broke down, Trace never appeared to have quite the same driving force.
He spent the six following years in East Anglia working for BBC's Nationwide and for radio as a reporter and presenter and later presented BBC Norwich's breakfast show. But his golden years belonged to Blue Peter and Trace always reminisced fondly about his exploits, keeping in touch by phone whenever he had an idea he thought the programme could use.
One brainwave came to him whilst he was actually 'on air', revisiting the programme for Blue Peter's 20th-birthday celebrations in 1978. 'I'd like to give an award,' he said, to the astonishment of those around him. 'I'd like it to be given for an outstanding achievement.' Ever since, the Blue Peter Award for Outstanding Endeavour has become an annual event. The first winner in 1979 was an entire air station. It was awarded to the men and women of Culdrose for rescuing the victims of the Fastnet Yacht Race disaster.
By then Trace had quit the world of television and films to become storekeeper and general manager at an engineering factory in Hemel Hempstead. 'I've always been interested in making things and using my hands,' he said. 'This is just the job for me.' The factory was shut down for the whole day of Blue Peter's 20th anniversary and the entire workforce crowded into the canteen to watch on a portable television.
For the last five years of his life, Chris Trace had the good fortune to enjoy a special friendship with Susi Felton, who gave him much comfort during his prolonged and fatal illness. Susi gave Chris back his confidence as well as love. Their flat in Walthamstow became a focal point for his family and friends and, before the cancer exerted its final and terrible hold, Trace was once again broadcasting, as a regular guest on Radio 2's Are You Sitting Comfortably?, a wallow down television and radio's memory lane hosted by Leslie Crowther. He also organised a highly successful reunion of the TV Travellers, the showbiz cricket team that raised money for charity.
Christopher Trace had a tragically short life but in spite of vicissitudes that most people would have found intolerable he never lost his panache or his love of the world of broadcasting that brought him fame and lasting recognition.
His spirit was phenomenal. Those of us who visited him last week, in the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, could only marvel at the emaciated figure covered in drips and tubes, cracking jokes and holding court as if his side-ward was a television studio. 'Stop interviewing me]' he barked at Valerie Singleton, who was among those at his bedside two days before he died. And 'You'd all better bugger off now]' when he was too exhausted to talk any more. His first words to me - accompanied by a beaming smile - were 'God, she's here with her bloody obituary pen]'
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