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Peter Duncan dares in front-line story heading to Durham

Peter Duncan, former presenter of BBC's Blue Peter and star of Duncan Dares, talks about his role in First World War story Birdsong

Birdsong, which is coming to the Gala Theatre in Durham
Birdsong, which is coming to the Gala Theatre in Durham

It might be nearly 35 years since the viewing public watched Peter Duncan take over the helm of Blue Peter and the daredevil mantle of John Noakes.

The iconic children’s show earned him his place in the national consciousness and it says something about the power of television that Duncan, who is now nearly 60, is still remembered for how he followed in Noakes’ footsteps with a similar spirit of adventure until he left in 1986.

But first and foremost he’s an actor, a career he started out upon in the ’70s and to which he returned post-Blue Peter and follow-up popular series Duncan Dares, which saw him try out such stunts as trying to drive a VW Beetle across the Irish Sea, before, some years later, a travel series saw him backpack across the world with his wife and four children in tow.

Yes, people still mention Blue Peter to him, but then actors are often remembered for one thing, says Duncan, who calls his website Here’s One I Made Earlier. “It’s not a problem - I can’t find anything negative in it.”

But personally he likes variety in his working life; and he likes reality TV too when it’s done well.

He says of his travel series: “It was a bit of reality and bit of Blue Peter: the idea of a travel documentary using my own children, making them talk to the camera!

“It was great to do but I’m just as interested in lots of different things.

“I’ve always been a stage actor. I began in the ’70s and have always gone back, with musicals or plays.”

And with those children now grown up, Duncan, who recently starred as the Victorian villain in musical melodrama Charlie Peace - His Amazing Life And Outstanding Legend, has no qualms about setting off on a lengthy tour of his new play: a much talked-about production of Birdsong which will bring him to Durham’s Gala Theatre next week.

“I’ve done bits and pieces in the last couple of years but haven’t toured quite so long,” he says.

“I was up there in Newcastle last year doing a tour of Rapunzel (a panto, which Peter is a dab hand at too) but I’ve never been to Durham.”

He’s playing miner-turned-soldier Jack Firebrace in the play of Birdsong, adapted from Sebastian Faulkes’ acclaimed novel which sets a troubled romance against the blood-and-mud backdrop of the First World War.

The book - beautiful, bleak and searingly real in its account of the horrors of the trenches in the battlefields of northern France and now considered a modern classic - was a sensation when first published in 1993.

There followed a radio adaptation then the 2010 stage play and, in 2012, a two-part TV drama with a screenplay written by BAFTA-winning Abi Morgan, former director of Newcastle’s Gulbenkian Theatre (pre-Northern Stage).

Now the return of the play, in the 100th anniversary year of the start of the First World War, is a timely reminder of those forgotten horrors.

Written by Rachel Wagstaff, the play enjoyed a successful tour last year, during which it raised money for forces charity Help for Heroes. It’s doing the same on its current tour and, says Duncan, when he comes forward to make the appeal at the end, it’s often the moment the audience realises who he is.

“When I do an appeal for Help for Heroes people have said ‘I didn’t know that was you until you spoke at the end’.”

Duncan talks of the importance of gripping the audience from the off, like in panto he laughs, and that means he has to be instantly believable as Jack, one of several former miners who put their tunnelling skills to use to lay mines below German trenches.

But Jack was not a pitman, points out the actor. He was a Londoner who worked in the tube tunnels and, in one tense scene in Faulkes’ tale, he becomes trapped underground.

The author himself, who has said of the play: “Both Rachel and I want this to be the definitive version of Birdsong on stage”, has been “hands-on” with the production, says Duncan, and the moulding of the characters was very much an organic experience involving everyone.

It’s not necessary to have read the book before seeing the play, although many have.

“I read it pretty much as soon as it came out but hadn’t read it again,” says Duncan.

“The audience feel like they know the characters but the show is obviously not the same as the book which is more complicated.

“It’s pretty much selling out which is fantastic.”

There’s also dark humour in the story which recounts various stages of the life of central character Stephen Wraysford, an army lieutenant being played by George Banks, and his affair with French woman Isabelle Azaire (Carolin Stoltz), from his pre-war days through the Battle the Somme to, finally, England in 1979.

“In the end you are watching a love story in the midst of all this human carnage, which 100 years on we’ve yet to explain how we got into.”

He sees parallels with what is happening now around the world and talks about the situation involving Russia.

He mentions too learning about the enormous period of social change, particularly for women on the home front, highlighted in Jeremy Paxmen’s recent First World War programmes.

It strikes a chord with the period of social change we’re undergoing at the moment he says.

And he cites his work with his wife Annie Francis, who is chief executive officer of Neighbourhood Midwives which lobbies for 1950s Call the Midwife-style of personal back-to-basics care for mums-to-be, currently being highlighted by the issue over insurance for independent midwives.

“This is a period of great social change,” says Duncan.

Birdsong is at Gala Theatre, Durham, from next Monday to Saturday. Visit www.galadurham.co.uk or call 03000 266 600.

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