THE AGREEABLE WORLD OF WALLACE ARNOLD: Never trust a man with a fringe, even on 'Blue Peter'

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The Independent Online
I am not a man to sadden easily. The second last time I shed a tear was when I heard that the young Mark Thatcher was lost in the desert. And the last time I cried was when I heard he'd been found. But it saddens me very deeply to read that Mr John Noakes (dread name!) has been casting aspersions on that most notable of television programmes, Blue Peter. Tears? Just a few.

Chin up, Wallace. Big blow! And again! All better! I hardly knew the man myself, but what I saw I'm afraid I never took to. Noakes arrived in 1966, desperately full of himself, all chummy badinage, ostentatious winks and matey thumbs-up signs to the camera. Never trust a man with a fringe, Old Mother Arnold used to say, and it is one adage that has never let me down: only 10 years ago, I attempted to read a book by Mr David Lodge, but threw in the towel shortly before page 11.

Along with my old friend and quaffing partner Norman Tebbit I was one of the original Blue Peter team of presenters. In those far-off days - the mid- to late-Fifties - we went out of our way to combine entertainment with the firm smack of education. Norman, I remember, was particularly adept with his hands, teaching the children to make a police truncheon out of balsa wood and a riot shield out of a length of sheet-metal, an old egg carton, and plenty of sticky-backed plastic. Two series later, and he was all ready to show them how to construct a tear-gas canister out of a squeezy bottle and half a pint of hydrochloric acid, but Biddy Baxter put her foot down, forcing him instead to make the town hall for a model railway set out of an old egg carton and a sign saying "Town Hall".

Norman was also in charge of the Blue Peter pit-bull terrier, Jemima, and oversaw the 1958 Blue Peter Christmas Charity Appeal, helping to go well over the pounds 10,000 we needed for a new Homosexual Detection Centre outside Brighton. He would also perform the daredevil stunts that were fast to become the hallmark of the programme - climbing to the top of Nelson's Column with an air-pistol to take a pot-shot at the pigeons, queuing overnight outside San Quentin prison to witness the controlled execution of a murder suspect, and so forth.

I was more in charge of Tales from History, which required a certain amount of dressing up. One week, I would be Queen Victoria, the next week Queen Elizabeth I, and the next week Queen Victoria. These were the days, you will remember, before Valerie Singleton arrived. Between us, we would tackle serious historical topics, such as how the British brought civilisation to India, how General Custer taught the Red Indian a lesson he'd never forget, how Robin Hood fought for a modest increase in social justice within the existing economic framework and how plucky King Richard II put down the Peasants' Revolt, cheered on by his loyal people.

Time moves on, alas, and after a series of disastrous experiments with other aspirant presenters (the young Roy Strong was rushed to Emergency when his moustache became caught in a scale model of a Traction Engine) Norman set forth on the long road to Westminster, making room for a new presenter.

The auditions were rigorous. Biddy was anxious to see whether aspirant presenters were capable of performing two feats at once. The young Ann Widdecombe, fresh down from Oxford, was asked to bounce on a trampoline whilst simultaneously preparing Freda, the Blue Peter tortoise, for her winter hibernation. Alas, Ann got her wires crossed, bouncing when she should have been stroking, and Freda ended up on a drip surrounded by her grieving family in the Blue Peter Animal Hospital.

Happily, we soon found Valerie Singleton, and the two of us got along like a house on fire, Val doing the donkey-work while I simply donned cap and pipe to read out a chapter of Sir Walter Scott in the last half of the show. But before long Biddy took me aside, telling me how she wished to inject "fresh blood" (dread liquid!) into the programme. She had, she said, come across a young fellow with the necessary "get up and go" and she wanted me to show him the ropes before - ahem - bowing out gracefully.

Our brief relationship was bitterly unhappy. I told Noakes that the British child liked nothing more than a stirring passage from our Empire story, followed by a chapter or two of Walter Scott, but would he listen? No: for him, it was all steeplejacks, pulleys, Northern accents and parachuting. Small wonder that British youth is in the state that it is! Hasn't Noakes caused enough damage already? Time, methinks, for him to put up or shut up.