Peter Duncan on why he's backing Belfast Lyric's search for new talent
Ahead of auditions here to find the young stars for a new production based on the acclaimed Troubles memoir, the daredevil actor who once dangled hundreds of feet in the air to clean the clock face of Big Ben tells Helen Carson how the theatre opened up a world of opportunities for him
Former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan, the TV show's 'action man' in the Eighties, says growing up with the theatre gave him the confidence to take on any challenge.
And, ahead of the latest round of auditions for the stage production of Tony Macaulay's internationally acclaimed memoir Paperboy, Duncan, as patron of the British Youth Music Theatre, is backing a callout to young people here to get involved in the popular musical that is set in Belfast at the height of the Troubles.
Building on the success of the show at the Lyric Theatre last summer, British Youth Music Theatre is to bring it back to the city this year and is searching for its next big stars to take part.
With auditions taking place for the production in Londonderry on February 9, at the Lyric on February 10, and on the Shankill and Falls Roads on February 18, the former children's TV favourite says taking centre stage as a performer opened up a world of opportunities for him.
The 65-year-old award-winning actor grew up with the theatre and it was this background that helped him land his Blue Peter role in 1980, joining Sarah Greene and Simon Groom on the popular show.
There was some initial controversy about his appointment to the squeaky clean BBC programme when claims were made that he had appeared in a porn movie.
The BBC vehemently denied this, and it turned out Duncan had simply appeared nude in 1975 thriller The Lifetaker.
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Despite this he took to his new role with ease, following in the footsteps of the legendary Blue Peter presenter John Noakes.
And Duncan's fearless attitude came to the fore on some of the death-defying assignments he was given, the most famous of which involved cleaning the clock face of Big Ben.
The terrifying task, which saw Duncan dangling on a rope pulley hundreds of feet in the air with none of the high-tech safety gear required now, is currently doing the rounds on social media, and unsurprisingly, the event is still etched in his memory.
"It was a bit bonkers," he laughs. "It was a very different age of health and safety."
Despite hairy moments like that, the actor recalls his Blue Peter heyday with great enthusiasm.
"I was on Blue Peter for 10 years and it was probably my variety theatre background which made it appealing. It was live, like being on stage, and there was the journalistic aspect to it," he remembers.
"I was asked to do it before when John Noakes left, but joined two years later. It was great. I just dived into it. I've always kept it fresh by doing different things."
And yes, he does still have the famous green harlequin pattern two-piece suit designed by a viewer in a competition. "It's actually not far from me now in the attic so it's a bit musty. It's one of those things I have to keep and everyone asks me about it," he says.
Duncan grew up with parents who travelled all over Britain staging pantomimes and plays, which meant his school life was unsettled. "On Blue Peter I often had to tell historical stories, which amused me because I was a child who had a fragmented education."
A former pupil of the prestigious Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, Duncan finished his education at a boys' secondary school in London. One of his first stage roles was playing Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island for two years at Sir Laurence Olivier's National Theatre.
A prolific television actor in the Seventies, he was rarely off our screens, appearing in The Tomorrow People, Space 1999, Play For Today and Survivors, with starring roles in King Cinder for the BBC and The Flockton Flyer for ITV.
But living an actor's life from an early age served him well and after Blue Peter he went on to make TV travel documentaries with his family - his wife Annie Francis and their four now grown-up children Lucy (32), Katie (31), Georgia (30) and Arthur (27) - along with Blue Peter spin-off show Duncan Dares.
Since his TV heyday Duncan has appeared on reality and game shows, including Pointless in 2012 with former Blue Peter presenter Mark Curry, and he even made the semi-final of the BBC One circus show Tumble in 2014, as well as performing and writing for his first love - the theatre.
As a patron of the British Youth Music Theatre, he believes the stage is an inspiring place for young people. He says: "It's about self-expression. Standing on a stage in front of people doing things is a very democratising process. You don't have to be particularly well educated or clever. It sets your place in the world, whether you are singing or acting.
"When you're a young person and making your way in the world it is such a powerful thing and informs everything else in your life. It builds your confidence to express yourself in a certain way.
"School is the first place you learn to be with other people in life. In the theatre you are part of a fraternity.
"Young people come and work with the British Youth Music Theatre in the summer; while some do, they won't all go on to become actors, but that's not really the idea of it.
"It gives people an opportunity away from their world, especially if it's a difficult one, and that's why it's such a phenomenon."
And he adds: "It's a wonderful thing - I'm still romantic about showbiz after all these years."
While Duncan doesn't have family ties here, he's been a frequent visitor, whether appearing in a play or through his other role as former Chief Scout, which he handed over to Newtownards-born Bear Grylls in 2009.
"I grew up with it (the Troubles)," he says. "I followed it and was always trying to understand what was going on as a young man. It wasn't called the Troubles for nothing, it did trouble people. I suppose I had sympathy for those who seemed more oppressed than the other. I didn't always like what the British state did. I was understanding of Protestants and Catholics and why they did what they did.
"Each time I'd come back and see the change, how different it was," he adds. "Protestants and Catholics have been to the forefront of bringing kids up sharing (their future) and not living in a bubble. That is powerful motivation for not going back in the wrong direction and creating a divide between people."
Theatre work now keeps Duncan busy and he is currently playing the lead in a play written by daughter Katie. The Dame, which is based on his parents' lives, will run until the end of the month at London's Park Theatre - and it's had some high profile people in the audience.
"When the play finished the other night I was talking to people afterwards and saw a face I thought I recognised," he says. "It was the actor Ronald Pickup. I'd played his son in a programme on the telly in 1973 and we had a great chat about it. He very much enjoyed the show - you know how us actors love to get compliments from one another!"
Recently, Duncan and Katie were out in Islington when they saw Jeremy Corbyn, and this prompted another interesting encounter.
"Katie invited him to see the play and he said he would bring his wife," says Duncan. "Last Friday they turned up to see us. I liked him enormously, he is a natural, normal man who seems so far removed from the Westminster bubble."
And when it comes to his proudest career moments, Duncan says it was the Blue Peter appeal to help bring clean drinking water to remote communities in Indonesia.
"Travelling to Indonesia brought me into a bigger world that I knew about but hadn't been exposed to," he says.
"It was the beginning of all my travelling. I had to report on a situation where people had to walk very long distances to get water. Blue Peter was to the fore of this type of TV campaign. It had to be presented in a simple way for children. The programme was the first to do it with the participation of young people who engaged with the rest of the world."
Mostly, though, he remembers his Blue Peter days as incredibly happy. "I loved doing the challenges, having adventures, climbing up things, just generally having fun," he says. And he was part of the show's 60th birthday celebrations recently, getting together with more than 30 former presenters.
"Blue Peter has always had a positive influence, just like the other organisations I'm part of, like scouting or the theatre," he adds.
Paperboy auditions take place at the Playhouse Theatre, Derry, on February 9; Lyric Theatre, Belfast, on February 10; Spectrum Centre, Shankill Road, and Falls Leisure Centre, Falls Road, Belfast, on February 18. Performer and musician auditions can be booked online at www.britishyouthmusictheatre.org/auditions or tel: 020 8563 7725. Auditions are for young people aged 11-21, no experience necessary