Peter Duncan had an early – and very literal – introduction to a glittering showbiz career. His parents were both performers who staged old time music hall shows on Brighton’s West Pier and pantomimes in Tunbridge Wells, and Duncan’s earliest memory is of lying in his cot by the side of the stage, gazing up at the lights.
“It could be a false memory, I suppose, but I’m convinced it’s real,” says the Blue Peter legend. “I remember generally being surrounded as a child by lots of glitter and hairspray – all the primary colours and the sparkle of growing up in the theatre. A glittering start, you could say.”
With pleasing symmetry, Duncan is talking to RadioTimes.com in the street outside the theatre where he is about to go on stage as Wilbur Turnblad in a UK tour of Hairspray. But the showbiz life was far from a given: for a kid who’d spent so much time in the wings, Duncan was in no hurry to get centre stage. He never appeared in any of his parents’ shows, and only discovered a passion for performing at school.
“It was really down to a couple of good English teachers,” he says. “When I went to a secondary modern school, for a rather poor education, I ended up doing the school play, playing Truffaldino in Servant of Two Masters, and rather enjoyed it.”
At 15, Duncan left school and got a job playing Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island at the Mermaid Theatre in London, before studying at the Italia Conti stage school. Or “sort of studying”, anyway.
“I went as a student for a couple of years,” he explains, “but I worked so much I didn’t really go that often. I only went when I didn’t have any work to do.”
That work was at the National Theatre, under Laurence Olivier, where he played various juvenile roles alongside such heavyweights as Anthony Hopkins, Derek Jacobi and Maggie Smith. “I knew they were obviously quite good at what they did but, at 16 or 17, I didn’t really register that they were important,” he says now. “They were generally friendly to a young lad. Olivier was the same, whenever you saw him.”
It wasn’t always the most nurturing environment, though. “I became the whipping boy of certain directors,” he recalls. “I wouldn’t call it bullying, but there was a lot of stuff that wouldn’t be allowed now. Someone like John Dexter would shout, ‘Duncan, you’re absolutely f***ing useless – you can’t even f***ing whistle!’ I didn’t really mind. It set you up for a tough industry.”
Throughout the 70s, Duncan juggled stage work with television roles in the likes of Play For Today, The Tomorrow People and Space 1999. On film, he played one of David Essex’s band in Stardust and, in 1980, made a brief but memorable appearance in Flash Gordon, dramatically flunking a test of manhood on the planet Arborea, and being poisoned by a tree monster then run through with Timothy Dalton’s sword for his troubles.
“When you make something like that, you never think it will still be around and being talked about in 2015,” he muses. Probably the reason it made such an impression, I venture, is because, as kids, we only knew him from Blue Peter (which he joined as a presenter the same year) – so seeing him on the big screen in a Hollywood sci-fi spectacular was as thrillingly incongruous as Johnny Ball turning up on the Death Star.
“That may be it. And that still goes on, even now. I’ll get reviews saying ‘Peter Duncan sings and dances and acts very well’, as if it’s a surprise. They’re not exactly saying, ‘Where the f*** have you been?’” he laughs, “but you rather hope they might have read a biog beforehand or something.”
Duncan – who was dating Lesley Manville during this period – had actually turned down Blue Peter a couple of years earlier. “I suppose I bottled out,” he admits. “I had a reasonably good career as an actor, and I thought it would change stuff.” But when presenter Christopher Wenner didn’t work out, Biddy Baxter – BP’s legendarily fierce editor – approached him again, and he decided he’d “have a go – see what evolved from it”.
Is it true, incidentally, that the BP audition involves interviewing someone while on a trampoline? “That’s generally it, yes. It’s a ritual they’ve always gone through. They want to see if you can talk and bounce at the same time. I think it’s probably so they can look at your body. Actually, that sounds a bit dodgy. So they can check your physicality. Especially if you’re female. Maybe.”
The new presenter was the subject of a minor tabloid kerfuffle when it was reported he had appeared nude in a ‘porn film’.
‘It was in the Daily Mail, surprisingly,” he says. “A few years earlier I’d made a really rather good psychological thriller about… I suppose you’d call it rendition now. It was about the conflict in Cyprus. I’d be very surprised if it counts as pornographic. I would show it to a scout troop, really. But of course the Mail couldn’t wait for any excuse to bash the BBC, even in those days.”
One of Duncan’s Blue Peter briefs was to replace John Noakes as the show’s resident action man. Over the next four years, he flew on a trapeze, put himself through the Royal Marines Endurance Course, ran the first London marathon, went helicopter-dunking, speed-skating and, perhaps most memorably, cleaned the face of Big Ben (okay, St Stephen’s Tower – don’t write in) without the aid of a safety harness.
Was he ever scared? “A bit,” he admits. “But I’ve always been a physical type. Even as a child I used to climb trees and do things I probably shouldn’t have done, as all kids do.”
After leaving Blue Peter in 1984, he cranked up the daredevil stunts for supercharged spin-off show Duncan Dares. (“I raced a truck against Bjorn from Abba,” he says, casually, as if this was the most natural thing in the world.) But the following year he was asked to return to BP after his replacement, the late Michael Sundin, failed to make the grade. During this second stint, viewers followed Duncan’s journey into fatherhood, with his first daughter, Lucy, stealing a march on even her dad’s showbiz start by appearing on the programme at just one day old.
Working without an autocue, Duncan was famous for wandering off-piste (“paraphrasing was my virtue,” he admits of his sometimes strained relationship with the script). But despite (or possibly because of) this, he remains one of Blue Peter’s most well-loved presenters – as evinced by his induction as RadioTimes.com’s inaugural TV Hero.
“I do sense an audience warmth when I come on stage, and generally people are very nice to me,” he says. “And I’m sure that comes from Blue Peter and the other TV show’s I’ve done. It’s a nice feeling.”
When he left Blue Peter (again), Duncan returned to the stage, with a new emphasis on musical theatre. He starred in Barnum and Me and My Girl, and earned an Olivier nomination for The Card. He also wrote and produced The Oxford Playhouse’s pantomime for eight years – “until someone new came along and got rid of me,” he notes, cheerily.
So, did Blue Peter, as he had once feared, “change stuff”? “It’s a bit hard to tell,” he says. “I know I wouldn’t do a job if I thought someone was booking me just because I’ve been on the telly. But I can’t really say what I’d be doing if I hadn’t done Blue Peter.”
In the early Noughties, Duncan and his wife Annie took their four children – Lucy, Katie, Georgia and Arthur – on three backpacking trips around the world for a series of well-received travel documentaries. It was these, along with a dash of residual Blue Peter goodwill, that Duncan credits with the somewhat out-of-left-field offer for him to become Britain’s Chief Scout, a role he held for five years from 2004.
“What they really wanted was someone to front the organisation,” he explains. “It became more of a figurehead, media job. And that’s done it the world of good because, while certain generations still make fun of it, scouting is now seen as quite a cool thing to do. Scouts hold their heads high.”
Duncan’s success in the role led to him being awarded the highest honour the United Kingdom can bestow. No, not a knighthood – any fool can get one of those – but a Gold Blue Peter Badge. It’s also a measure of the prestige the position now carries that, in 2009, Bear Grylls agreed to serve as his successor.
Actually, if you think about it… TV daredevil-turned-Chief Scout: Bear Grylls is basically the new Peter Duncan, isn’t he? Might we even go so far as to say the poor man’s Peter Duncan?
“I think so,” laughs Duncan. “With millions of pounds in his bank account, probably. No, I like Bear. I think he’s great – he does an enormous amount of good work, and it’s a great association for the Scouts.”
Today, alongside regular stage work – before Hairspray, he toured in the stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, and recently played Macduff in Macbeth at Regent’s Park Theatre – Duncan still occasionally proves his action man chops on TV shows like The Games and Tumble. He also dedicates a lot of time to his wife’s social enterprise, Neighbourhood Wives – a bid to create a ‘21st century version of Call the Midwife’, offering continuity of care to women throughout pregnancy, birth and beyond.
He’s still in touch with his old Blue Peter gang – Sarah Greene, Simon Groom and Janet Ellis. In fact he spent this morning with Ellis, he says, filming a TV programme about Abba. It’s not known if truck racing was involved. He looks back fondly on the 80s as “a rather liberal decade” in comparison to the somewhat “repressive” age we’re living through now. He admits there are still creative itches he needs to scratch but, on the whole, Duncan seems like a man who’s comfortable in his own skin: at 61, he still exudes the boyish charm that, to a generation of British kids, made him feel less like a presenter than a friend.
And that speaks to a truth about Blue Peter that is often misrepresented. While the programme is iconic, there seems to persist an idea among people of a certain age that it was only for middle class children, and was actually a bit square and dull; people trying to claim, basically, that they were too cool to watch it. But I’m from a working class family from Leeds, I tell Duncan, and my sister and I loved it. Does he think the middle class label is unfair?
“You’ve sussed it, really,” he says. “It’s only the chattering classes who say that, as it always is. Guardian readers will always say it’s middle class, that it doesn’t relate to working class kids, whatever all that bollocks is.
“In fact it was the opposite: Blue Peter was founded on accessibility – the idea that if you didn’t have your own garden, for example, we’d show you how to grow things in pots and on windowsills. It tried to take people out of their environment. Partly to inspire them, really. I mean, what did they expect us to do, film it in a sweatshop?”
Well, quite. That said, does he think the kids ever got a bit fidgety when they had to sit through an educational item on, say, Cornish tin mining, before getting to the stunts and pop stars and stuff?
“I daresay there were a few boring items I was involved with,” he smiles. “But I was just the presenter. One did one’s best to liven them up.”
And few did it better. For that – and so much more – the nation salutes you, Peter Duncan: actor, presenter, daredevil, boy scout, TV Hero.
Hairspray is touring until May. For dates, see hairsprayuktour.com