Two years ago, Ben Miller was a PhD student at Cambridge, studying novel quantum mechanical effects in low-dimensional electron systems. Last month he was sharing a meal and drinking a beer in a Majorcan seaside village with none other than John Noakes, former Blue Peter star, daredevil and dog-lover. Tomorrow night Miller, aged 26, is appearing on stage at the Edinburgh festival in a one-man show called Gone With Noakes (what else?), a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the man and his work.
Abandoning a promising career in theoretical physics for the uncertain world of comedy is not a move likely to please parents. But when Miller gets an idea he evidently sticks to it. 'I'd been wondering for a while what had happened to John Noakes,' he explains. 'I started to get obsessed with this idea. The more I thought about it, the stranger it was. He was so famous, but no one knew where he was.'
Miller had started telling jokes on stage at Cambridge, and decided that he would make 'a funnier comedian than a mathematical physicist'. When he left Cambridge, he wrote jokes for Radio 4's Weekending and appeared in London comedy clubs. He also began to study Noakes's life, with the same rigour that he had applied to his electron systems.
'The first thing I did was go back to my Blue Peter annuals,' he says. 'I wondered why Noakes had stuck in people's brains, while Lesley Judd, Peter Purves, Valerie Singleton, Simon Groome, Tina Heath - all those people - hadn't' For some reason Noakes has won himself a special place in the collective psyche of the nation.
'I contacted people who had known John Noakes, and they were all keen to talk. Everyone had their own Noakes story: I spoke to someone who had shared a flat with Noakes; people who had worked on the show. I approached his agent who gave me loads of biographical information. I rang his school. I went to visit the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where Noakes had trained in the early Fifties and Sixties. I went to Halifax to look at the place where he was born.
'I thought, if I'm going to play this guy, I'm going to do my whole Robert de Niro bit and do all the things he would have done. So I found myself wandering around the Dales of Yorkshire, wondering what it was like to be John Noakes in 1958.
'It's immensely charming to go to the post office he must have gone to when he was 18,' he says, without perceptible irony.
Miller soon realised that John Noakes the man was quite different from John Noakes the relentlessly enthusiastic presenter. 'Noakes wasn't a TV presenter, he was a comic actor,' Ben says. 'He had developed a character for Blue Peter. He was the funny man to Peter Purves' straight man. All that stuff he used to do - (and here Miller goes into an affectionate parody of Noakes's nasal Northern whine) 'what, is it me? I hope YOU know what's coming next, 'cos I've got no idea' - it's all classic funny man.'
Before joining Blue Peter on 3 January 1966, when he was nearly 32, Noakes had been performing in rep and comic plays. He had even done a summer show with Cyril Fletcher, the comedian from That's Life. 'That's what Blue Peter has lacked ever since,' Ben laments. 'A comedian.'
While many viewers regarded Noakes as a figure of fun, a childhood icon who became ridiculous when we grew up, Miller, however, believes the joke is still on us.
'When we laugh at John, we're laughing out of the sense of embarrassment that we used to be so into Blue Peter,' he explains. 'John was always strictly playing to the adults in the balcony. 'He's trod on me foot]' Noakes said, with the elephant in the studio. The elephant hadn't trodden on his foot. And that's something he admitted, when I met him. I said, 'the elephant didn't tread on your foot, did it John?' And he said, 'No, it didn't come anywhere near me foot.' It's an old routine, and John mentioned an music hall comedian he'd copied it from.'
Miller's quest for authenticity took him last month to Majorca, where Noakes, now 58, lives a quiet life on a yacht with his wife Vicky. 'He was very cagey at first,' says Miller, remembering the moment when he first came face to face with his idol, who had buzzed across the harbour in a dinghy to meet him. 'I said to him: 'did you know there's been a lot of press about you in England?' He said: 'Oh really.' Just wasn't interested.' Miller won him round, however, and found a contented and humorous man, totally uninterested in ever returning into the limelight, but quite happy to help Miller to get still photographs for his show. 'We went to a restaurant he goes to, where he has invented a pizza called Blue Pizza. We ate a Blue Pizza and then went out and had quite a lot to drink.
'It was every twentysomething's dream. I went out and got pissed with John Noakes]'
The real Noakes, according to Miller, was 'sardonic, quiet, sceptical, occasionally exhibitionist. Very genuine, and very funny. After I met him the first time, he said: 'I'll drive you back to the bus stop.' I said: 'No, really John, there's no need.' 'No, no, I'll drive you there.' So he drove me. I was thinking, I'm in a car with John Noakes, this is brilliant. We drove to the bus stop and there were these women sitting there. I couldn't speak Spanish, and John said: 'Do you want me to ask them for you when the bus is going?' He's been living there for ten years. I said: 'Thanks, John, that'd be a great help.' And he winds down the window, looks at me, looks out the window and goes: 'WHAT TIME DOES THE BLOODY BUS GO?' ' Miller bellows with laughter. 'Hasn't learned a word of Spanish. Taking the piss to the last.'
Miller uses pictures he took on this jaunt to hilarious effect in his show, in which he plays a miserable and anally retentive librarian who gives a slideshow history of Noakes. To the librarian character, Noakes represents the virtues of honesty, good humour and constancy that he feels to be so lacking in the modern world.
As Miller expounds his next theory, one begins to worry that he is a little too close to the librarian character for comfort. 'Noakes did something no other funny man had ever done. He completely invented a straight character. And that was Shep. Go With Noakes was essentially a double act, with Shep as the straight man.' On 26 June 1978, after 12 years with the show, Noakes appeared on Blue Peter for the last time. Other projects, including a series called Noakes's Great Adventures, where John would take a film crew on yacht voyages around the world, fell through. In a very public row, Noakes wasn't invited to the Blue Peter 25th anniversary party. This was because he had threatened to knock the block off one of the producers if ever he saw him again.
'John's always been a maverick,' enthuses Ben Miller. 'He's always gone against the grain. You or I would be terrified of slagging off the BBC across the whole of the tabloid press. Noakes didn't care.' Turning his back on the whole sordid business, the redoubtable presenter set sail for the Caribbean with Vicky. 'They were shipwrecked off the coast of North Africa in July 1982,' says Miller, displaying his unparalleled expertise on the life of Noakes. 'Eventually they settled in Majorca, where they have been ever since.'
For Miller, Noakes symbolises a particular kind of Britishness. 'An obsession with the armed forces, one man able to cope with all terrains; self-deprecating, honest, distrustful of authority, good-looking, extremely fond of animals - he completely fitted in to British post-war society.
'I really respect the man, for what he's done,' the former scientist says in all seriousness. 'He's turned his back on everything. He's a hero.'
Gone With Noakes runs 14 Aug to 5 Sept, Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh. Ben Miller also appears in a double bill Killers and Get Up And Be Somebody, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, 29 Aug to 5 Sept
Those dogs in full
Petra, the substitute pet for all those children who hadn't got one of their own, was a mongrel who appeared in the studio for the first time in Christmas 1962. Her name was chosen in a competition. She died in 1977. Her eight puppies were born in 1965; the presenter John Noakes looked after the eighth puppy, Patch. Patch died in 1971 and was replaced by Shep, a Border Collie. When John Noakes left the programme in 1978 Shep went with him. After starring in Go With Noakes, he retired.
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