All actors want that first big emotional scene, the first screen kiss, to be deeply memorable. Peter Duncan has never ever forgotten the moment when another two lips met his. “I wish I could tell you that it was some beautiful, sultry siren,” he laughs, “but it definitely wasn’t. I was a very inexperienced rookie performer and I got a bit part in The Doctors, which was hugely popular a few decades back.
“The show was going out as part of the BBC’s big holiday schedule planned for Christmas Day. I read the script and I discovered that my character was going to die – no chance of a recurring appearance. His death was going to be preceded by a valiant attempt to save him, using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, so there I was, on a hospital trolley, in front of many millions of viewers, being given the kiss of life by a very elderly actor with rather bad smoky breath. Male. Not the most pleasant of experiences...”
It all happened just a few years before the young Mr Duncan found national fame as one of the presenters of Blue Peter. Being born into a theatrical family, he knew all about the ups and downs of show business and today, at the age of 60, he regards himself as pretty lucky. “I’m still here, I’m still working, and I’m still up for pretty much everything that comes my way.”
Peter is currently touring in a beautifully-crafted stage version of Sebastian Faulk’s bestselling novel Birdsong. He plays Jack Firebrace, the plucky sapper who, along with his comrades, has to tunnel under German lines in the First World War to lay mines. “What these lads realised, of course is that the Germans were doing exactly the same thing from their side and occasionally they all unhappily coincided in the middle,” explains Peter.
“Jack’s a lovely man to bring to life. He’s got a faith, a wife and a young son at home. All he wants is to do his job, make his family proud of him, get back to Blighty and return to his old familiar job on excavating the London Underground.
Jack’s story is interwoven with that of Stephen Wraysford, a young officer who found love in France before the outbreak of war and whose aim is to discover where his lost sweetheart is living, and see if he can rekindle their relationship.
“It’s a harrowing piece of work,” admits Peter, “but audiences seen to warm to it because it is intensely human, very honest. It leaves all of us a bit drained, especially on days when we’ve had two performances, but, for those of us in it – and I hope the audiences – it is strangely exhilarating.”
Peter’s late mother and father were deeply rooted in the theatre. Dad leased both the West Pier in Brighton and the Tonbridge Wells Opera House where Peter was often asked to be his father’s “stooge” in the annual pantomime.
“When some of the kids were called up on to the stage at the end of the show, I’d be one of them, and he’d have a lot of fun at my expense – no-one was any the wiser to the fact that we were related.”
The Opera House today still stands, but it has been turned into a pub. “They’ve kept it almost intact. The curtains and drapes have long gone, but you can sit on the stage and enjoy your pint in exactly the spot where my dad performed. I’ve been back a few times – it’s a most peculiar feeling, revisiting a place that was so prominent in one’s past.”
Tragically, the West Pier today is nothing more than a series of bits of twisted metal framework, sticking out of the English Channel, a few hundred yards from shore. Silhouetted against a sunset, it has a forlorn beauty to it.
“There was a huge blaze and it was almost totally destroyed,” says Peter. “People hoped that they might save it, but bad weather and the pull of the sea over the years has crushed that dream. It’s still strangely beautiful to look at, a memory of so many happy days. Mum and dad ran the theatre and concert rooms at the very end, but the West Pier went the way of so many of our seaside pleasure palaces.”
It was never a given that he would follow in his parents’ footsteps, but his big break came when he was cast as Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island at the old Mermaid Theatre in London and afterwards he was taken up by Sir Laurence Olivier to be part of his National Theatre company.
“I found myself talking to the likes of the dear and much-missed Geraldine McEwan and watching people like Olivier himself, and Paul Schofield, Derek Jacobi and Anthony Hopkins. I mean – what a way to learn your craft. It taught me, above all, that the ensemble of a cast is far, far more important than any one individual. And Olivier, I suppose, was the last shining example of a true actor-manager, passionate about what was presented on stage, so I was so very lucky to have been part of that almost-vanished tradition.”
His hair may be greying slightly at the sides these days, but the huge grin and those daredevil blue eyes are as twinkling as ever. He smiles a lot, and there’s absolutely no mistaking the young Peter Duncan who made a lot of young ladies’ hearts beat a lot faster, and a lot of young lads deeply envious of his exploits when he joined Blue Peter in 1980. He left the show in 1984, only to be offered a new contract a year later, when Michael Sundin was booted off the show. The official reason given by the BBC was that he hadn’t proved popular with the regular viewers, but rumours it was because of his sexuality – Sundin was gay – wouldn’t go away.
Peter refuses to be drawn on Blue Peter’s politics – he is a diplomat in all things. But he admits that the show, and the spin-off Duncan Dares, opened a lot of doors.
“Blue Peter, for me, was very much like one of those old variety shows. It was live and it was all very spontaneous. There was also the added element of journalism and reporting, and I really could not have been happier.”
After all of that, there came a glorious mixture of opportunities. There are few performers who can claim to have played Barnum, Bill Snibson in Me and My Gal, and Stan Laurel. He has also been in Alan Ayckbourn plays and was a particularly nasty Charlie Peace in a recent play that looked at the life of one of Yorkshire’s most notorious criminals.
“If you don’t know about him,” he advises, “go and look him up. A murderer, a liar, a cheat, a bigamist, a master of disguise, and probably one of the best con-artists ever. An unbelievable career in crime – but like many things that are too incredible to believe, completely and utterly true.”
Duncan is also still deeply involved with pantomime and until recently produced, directed and frequently starred in the Oxford Playhouse show. He’s appeared in many travel documentaries with his wife Annie and their four children and, of course, he was, for a good few years the UK’s Chief Scout. When he was appointed, it is fair to say that there were a lot of eyebrows raised, not least because he hadn’t given a lifetime’s dedication to the movement, but he feels that he did make a difference.
“I took a great deal of pleasure in the fact that it was once again cool to be in the Scouts, and that I and the team had raised a lot of awareness. We had to loosen up a lot, be more accessible. They thought I’d step up cheerfully to the status quo. They were wrong. I look at the kids in the movement when I see them in the streets today, and I feel I’m proud to have been part of that.”
The icing on the cake, perhaps, was that Blue Peter awarded him its highest recognition on his scouting “retirement”: its coveted gold badge. Does he wear it regularly? “When I have to, and it’s a public appearance,” he says. “It’s around at home... somewhere.”
He plays golf, he collects theatre memorabilia and he’s still recognised when he’s out and about. He’s a stalwart of his wife’s newly launched Neighbourhood Midwives charity. And he’s never lost that sense of fun. His website, for example, is heresoneimadeearlier.com. He laughs: “Neat that, eh?”, finishes his coffee, and goes back to the theatre for “a little nap” before the evening performance.
• Birdsong is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds from May 12 to 23. 0113 213 7700, www.wyp.org.uk