When he takes to the stage this Saturday in the role of Alderman Fitzwarren in Dick Whittington at the Harpenden Public Halls, it will be the first time that Peter Purves has trodden the boards in 26 years. But, as the Blue Peter veteran explains, acting is where his heart lies.
“It’s something I love doing,” says the 73-year-old. “I started out as an actor and it’s really where my roots are. Television pigeonholes you rather, you end up being pushed in not necessarily the direction you’d like to be.”
But pantomime is very much where Peter would like to be – since leaving Blue Peter in 1978, after ten and a half years, he has directed 32 of them.
“I started doing them with John Noakes not long after leaving Blue Peter,” he says, “and I started directing them from the third one. I sort of picked up how to do it by osmosis, but I’m still learning even now. The last one I acted in was Robinson Crusoe in Guildford in 1986.
“My favourite pantomime of all is Cinderella because it’s the most magical one, and it’s the one that, as a director, gives you the most opportunities to do really clever things, and I love that. But two of the best shows I’ve directed have been Dick Whittington. One was a very big production in Hull with Cannon and Ball in 1991. They were brilliant and the show was fantastic. And the other one was with Hale and Pace at Southend in 2001-2002. They only ever did two pantomimes and I directed their first one. They were absolutely brilliant, it really was a fabulous show.”
Dick Whittington at Harpenden marks a welcome return to the front of stage for Peter. “I wasn’t directing one this year so I thought it would be fun,” he says. “It’s nice not to have all that responsibility for how it turns out. But, of course, I do poke my oar in every now and then.”
Peter plays the part of Alderman Fitzwarren, the London merchant who gives the young Dick Whittington his first job in London and takes him off on a voyage to Morocco. “He sort of guides the plot along to a certain extent,” Peter explains. “It’s quite a chunky part but it’s a comedy role. Basically, he’s a silly old fool – so it suits me down to the ground!
“I take pantomime very seriously,” continues Peter, who also starred in 44 episodes of Doctor Who in the 1960s as companion Steven Taylor, and has been the face and voice of Crufts for 34 years.
“It might sound a bit silly because pantomime is often considered a joke, but it’s the first theatre that many young children will ever see.
“If you do a bad job and it doesn’t work – if it’s smutty or whatever – then they’re not going to want to go again. I want kids to have a magical experience so they want to go back to the theatre.
“I saw loads of variety shows and all sorts when I was a kid, I lived in Blackpool and we had all the big names there. I prefer the traditional kind of pantomime. I think the cross-dressing is great – the principal boy with decent legs and then a big man playing the Dame.
“There’s no pretence that it’s not a man dressed up as a woman. I didn’t like people like Danny La Rue doing it – he could be wonderful but you don’t want a man trying to be a beautiful woman, you want someone like Les Dawson.”
Dick Whittington is at Harpenden Public Halls, Southdown Road, Harpenden from Saturday, December 15 to Saturday, December 22 at various times. Details: 01582 762880, www.harpendenpublichalls.co.uk