Among all the hullabaloo surrounding the 60th anniversary of Blue Peter, one of the longest-serving – and original – presenters barely gets a passing mention.
Christopher Trace (East 1949) co-presented the first 15-minute programme on October 16 1958 alongside Leila Williams, winner of Miss Great Britain in 1957. He remained on the show until July 1967. Only four of the 37 presenters have served longer, including the most famous tri of Peter Purves, John Noakes and Valerie Singleton.
Trace left Cranleigh early, much to the chagrin of David Loveday who noted he “had become stage struck”. He trained at Sandhurst and joined the army but after rising to the rank of lieutenant he quit the military to become an actor. That career never really took off, although he was Charlton Heston’s body double in the 1959 film epic Ben-Hur.
In the summer of 1958, Trace, then 25, auditioned for a then-unnamed new children’s TV show. The Independent later claimed he got the job because during the audition he showed much boyish enthusiasm for a model train set.
“The success of Blue Peter owed much to Trace’s natural broadcasting talent,” his obituary in the Independent said. “He was regarded by children as a zestful older brother and showed great aptitude for making things from cardboard and sticky-backed tape, which became a Blue Peter staple. His triumphs included a sledge, a life-size Dalek, bird boxes, model planes and a miniature circus.”
“I like kids and I get on with them,” he said at the time. “If you are straightforward to children they will be straightforward to you. They are all equal, all equally inquisitive and all want to learn things.”
All the programmes were live and there was no autocue. Scripts were learned overnight and when things went wrong the presenters had to think on their feet. Legendary Blue Peter producer Biddy Baxter said: “He had an agile mind and the ability to remain unflappable in front of the cameras, no matter what mayhem was going on behind the scenes. He never fluffed his lines and like all great presenters Trace would hardly have batted an eyelid had a bomb dropped on the studio.”
By 1965 he was co-presenting with Singleton and new boy Noakes, who was an instant hit with the audience. Trace, meanwhile, had gained a reputation for being difficult – he threatened to resign several times – and personal problems did not help. He was eventually eased out.
He had a spell as writer for a film company, but in 1971 was declared bankrupt and was forced to take work as a minicab driver. He eventually returned on BBC’s Nationwide, presenting regional programmes in East Anglia and the breakfast radio show on BBC Norwich. In the mid-1970s he again quit TV to become store keeper and general manager at a factory in Hemel Hempstead.
He appeared on the 20th anniversary show in 1978 when, to the shock of the producers, he announced that he would like to give out an Outstanding Endeavour Award, an honour that became an annual fixture.
He died of throat cancer in 1992 aged only 59. Two of the last people to visit him in hospital were old colleagues Singleton and Baxter.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography credits him with coining two phrases that have become prominent in British popular culture: the line “And now for something completely different”, later taken up by, and usually attributed to, Monty Python, and “Here’s one I made earlier”, since adopted by nearly all subsequent presenters on Blue Peter.