Howard Posner, the man who expanded on this blog’s true tale of a sheep drinking in a Norwich pub (the Ironmongers Arms) now also mentions to me a disgraced TV presenter.
“As a consequence of the welcome the pub gave to the sheep,” Howard says, “it became a regular haunt – one of the few non real ale pubs in the city we went in – and that was where I met the former Blue Peter presenter Chris Trace, whose love of alcohol was often greater than his funds.”
You have to be of an extraordinarily advanced age like me to remember the fall from grace of Christopher Trace which preceded even the mostly-forgotten Simon Dee’s sudden disappearance into obscurity.
I asked a friend from the TV industry about Christopher Trace, whom I had grown up watching on children’s series Blue Peter.
“All I remember,” she told me, “is the drinking and, because of it, he screwed up financially, the marriage, professionally etc. and ended up in Norwich.”
Which is a fair placing of Norwich in the media hierarchy.
My friend, like me, worked in Norwich for a period and continued: “I remember him being strong on screen on BBC East. He was only there as his wife had kicked him out, he’d lost all his money and was drinking and eventually he went off to run a pub in Norwich.”
Christopher Trace presented Blue Peter for nine years. He was said to have been Charlton Heston’s body double in Ben-Hur and then got his job as the TV show’s first presenter because he bonded with the programme’s originator and first producer John Hunter Blair over their shared love of model railways. According to the show’s later editor Biddy Baxter: “Trace had spent his entire audition playing with the ’00’-gauge layout in Hunter Blair’s office. After that, there was no hope for any of the other candidates.”
Biddy Baxter recalled Christopher Trace’s skill as a live presenter: “On one occasion, when the promised, playful, small lion cub turned out to be almost full-grown and ferocious, Trace carried on his interview, ignoring the snarls and the blood streaming down the arm of the cub’s owner whilst the others, save the camera crew who were quaking behind their cameras, fled.”
She also recalled that: “After a season of bi-weekly programmes, Trace pointed out in his usual forceful way that he was ‘bloody knackered’ and that if we didn’t get a third presenter to share the load he would leave. John Noakes became the third member of the team in 1966.” Some people say Christopher Trace actually suggested John Noakes for the role.
According to the BBC, Noakes “soon took over the action man role, a relief to Trace as he suffered from vertigo”. Biddy Baxter says: “Trace suffered from vertigo and climbing anything higher than a stepladder was a nightmare.”
This was the beginning of the end, but Trace’s downfall had actually started in 1965 when, aged 32, he had an affair with a 19-year-old hotel receptionist during a Blue Peter ‘culture-embracing’ summer filming assignment to Norway. When this came out, his wife divorced him in 1967 and the BBC “accepted his resignation” because, by then, co-presenter John Noakes had established a viewer fan-base. It was said he had also become difficult to deal with. Biddy Baxter says: “After his marriage broke down, Trace never appeared to have quite the same driving force.”
The BBC did not sack him. He resigned. He had had what seemed at the time to be “the chance of a lifetime”. He was asked to join Spectator, a feature film company, as writer and production manager. But the company failed after two years and Trace lost his life savings. He was made bankrupt in 1973, then returned to the BBC in Norwich on the local TV news show Look East and their daily morning radio show Roundabout East Anglia; he also occasionally reported for the networked Nationwide show.
I encountered him once at a Norwich meeting of the National Union of Journalists. He sat in a corner, was fairly quiet, was engrossed in his own thoughts, looked sad and drank a lot. Howard Posner recalls that, when he encountered him, “he had been sacked from the BBC and was working in a factory during the day and behind the bar in a pub near the Catholic Cathedral at night. He never spoke about his TV days, but I do recall he never had any money and said he had big bills to pay. He used to get upset when students told him John Noakes was their favourite.”
Christopher Trace lost two toes in an accident at the factory.
“He stopped coming in after the accident,” Howard Posner remembers. “I was much younger than him so, apart from drink, we didn’t have much in common.”
In the 1980s, he worked in the press office of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. In the 1990s, he briefly returned to the BBC as a regular guest on Radio 2 nostalgia series Are You Sitting Comfortably?
He died in 1992 from cancer of the oesophagus while living in Walthamstow.
So it goes.
According to Wikipedia – always to be trusted on such things – “During his time on Blue Peter, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography credits him with coining two quotations now prominent in British popular culture: the line “And now for something completely different” – later taken up by, and usually attributed to, Monty Python – was used as a segue to different parts of the programme; and “Here’s one I made earlier” was used during the construction of models on the show, and has since been adopted by nearly all subsequent presenters on Blue Peter.”
Sic transit Ozymandias.