I've been fired by Crufts, reveals Peter Purves
I’ve been fired by Crufts, reveals Peter Purves: Heartbroken commentator is axed from famous dog show after 41 years and fears he will lose his house – and is convinced it’s all down to ageism
- Peter Purves has nurtured the nearly 70-year-old show for more than half its life
- He believes the axe comes as his 80-year-old face no longer fits at Channel 4
- Peter has since urged that TV bosses not to abandon their loyal, older viewers
There’s no mistaking that voice — urbane, authoritative, the crisply enunciated tones overlaying the tiniest trace of warm Lancashire vowels.
True, the flapping bell bottoms and cowboy boots have given way to sensible beige slacks and a Wolsey jumper in muted stripes, and the famous floppy, chestnut-brown hair is now white and the cheeks ruddy.
But, otherwise, time has stood still for Peter Purves.
It was this famous voice that forged a 60-year career which saw him become a national treasure.
Crufts commentator Peter Purves, 80, has been from the famous dog show after 41 years and now fears that he will lose his house
It catapulted him from Doctor Who to 11 years on Blue Peter from 1967, before landing him in the wonderful world of Crufts, where he has been part of the presenting team — indeed the ‘voice of Crufts’ — for 41 years. But no more.
We can exclusively reveal that, to his horror and fury, Peter found out this week that he is to be axed from the nearly 70-year-old TV show which he has nurtured for more than half its life.
And he is clear on what he believes to be the reason. He thinks his 80-year-old face no longer fits at Channel 4.
Speaking to the Mail, the avuncular, mild-mannered Peter fights to suppress his anger.
‘I am still reeling,’ he says. ‘Honestly, I don’t know when I last felt so upset and angry. The producers won’t admit it but I am convinced that it’s ageism, pure and simple.
‘My voice and my ability to communicate are as good as they have ever been. I still seem to be well liked; I still get fan mail. It’s ridiculous and painful.’
What made the decision so brutal for Peter was the fact that it came just as he was celebrating one of the greatest accolades of his career.
Forget Oscars or Baftas — Peter had just been invited to present the trophy to the Best In Show winner at Crufts 2020. The Kennel Club contacted him last week.
Delighted, Peter promptly emailed Sunset+Vine, the company who make the programme for Channel 4, with the thrilling news. He explained that, for obvious reasons, he would not be able to commentate on that segment of the show next year.
But it was then that the show’s executive producer, David Stranks, called to admit he had news of his own: Peter’s services would no longer be required.
Peter (alongside Clare Balding) believes that the reason for his axe is because his 80-year-old face no longer fits at Channel 4
A follow-up email worded his sacking thus: ‘As I am sure you’re aware, a long-running production like Crufts is under constant pressure to refresh and revitalise what we do… as much in terms of the faces and voices who present the programming as in terms of the way we work to give our evolving audience insight and entertainment about the event and its wider subject matter.
‘This is an ongoing process and has impacted many people who have been key members of our team over the years.’
Clearly, Peter was shocked. ‘It was a body blow. I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach,’ he says.
‘He simply said that my services would not be needed next year. I didn’t know what to say.
‘I know Crufts only takes up four days, but it’s my very favourite week of the year. I adore the show.
‘I’ve nursed it through thick and thin, and to be unceremoniously dumped like this is deeply hurtful.
‘I was the first presenter to commentate on agility — now one of the show’s most popular items — when it was introduced by the BBC in 1978. There have been numerous changes over the years, but I’ve always been part of them. I co-presented with Angela Rippon in the early 1990s.
‘When the BBC pulled out in 2009 I kept the show going for the Kennel Club by broadcasting on the internet. I don’t want to boast but I kept it alive. I was thrilled when Sunset+Vine came in the following year and got the show back on TV.
‘I adore my co-presenters, Jessica Holm, Jim Rosenthal and Frank Kane. We are a very happy family. But, looking back, I can see I have gradually been eased off the screen. From presenting the entire Crufts show until 2003, my main role in the last few years has been as an off-screen commentator, with Clare Balding anchoring the show.
‘Still, I imagined carrying on for ever. Perhaps that’s my stupidity. I realise I am getting older but, after a hip operation six years ago, I’m actually fitter than ever. Of course my face has aged, but inside I feel about 40.’
When approached by the Mail, Crufts’ executive producer David Stranks said: ‘Peter has been a much-loved part of the Crufts team.
‘We’re delighted he will continue to be part of our coverage and join us on-screen at the weekend of Crufts, the culmination and most-watched part of the four-day event.’
Peter urges TV bosses not to abandon their loyal, older viewers. ‘In TV, and I suspect in many other professions, too, ageism is widespread. It’s shocking,’ he says.
‘Producers are so desperate to chase younger audiences that they are jettisoning older faces right, left and centre. The result is that TV doesn’t cater for the older generation.
‘So many well-established faces have disappeared from our screens. There are one or two women left, such as Gloria Hunniford and Angela Rippon, but they are a rarity.
‘For every Bruce Forsyth there are 100 thirtysomethings. We are living longer, healthier lives and being exhorted by governments to work longer. And, with the pension age climbing, we are penalised for giving up work.’
No wonder Peter has been left feeling like a loyal, once-loved family pet, kicked out in favour of a newer, bouncier model.
He is far from geriatric. His mind is razor-sharp, his memory acute. And, of course, his voice remains velvety.
If I close my eyes, I could be back in my parents’ sitting room in 1969, transfixed as a Fairy Liquid bottle is fashioned into a lunar landing craft, or curled up on the sofa listening to talk of schnauzers, Newfoundlands and Old English sheepdogs. For anyone over 30, Peter Purves is the guardian of our childhoods.
When we meet at his home in Suffolk it’s almost as though there has been a death in the family, his distress is so palpable. His wife of 37 years, West End actress Kathryn Evans (known as Kate) can’t even mention the word Crufts without welling up.
‘I’m heartbroken for Peter because I know how much it means to him,’ she says as he kisses her hand. ‘Peter is very resilient and will pick himself up. But I have never seen him so upset. To treat someone like this after 41 years is simply horrendous.’
While Kate did her best to console Peter, only one thing would do — the comfort of a furry face and a wet nose. Peter has six dogs and has been working out his frustration and anger with plenty of cuddles and brisk walks around his one-acre garden.
So will Peter sue? ‘I can’t afford it,’ he admits ruefully. ‘Besides, while I believe in my heart it’s down to my age, I can’t prove it.’
Peter is the first to admit that, when all is said and done, it’s only a job. But, at 80, losing a job is hard to bounce back from, and finding another role which suits him quite so beautifully is unlikely.
Then there is the thorny question of money. Peter has too much dignity to plead poverty. But the grim truth is that, as a result of losing his job at Crufts, the couple will find it hard to keep the home they have lived in for the last 12 years.
With its beams and inglenook fireplace, the 400-year-old moated farmhouse deep in the Suffolk countryside is their pride and joy.
But it’s got a hefty mortgage, and Peter sadly admits that they’ve been hanging on by the skin of their teeth for the last few years.
‘I went to boarding school, so I don’t get too attached to places,’ says Peter. ‘But leaving here would break Kate’s heart.
‘It’s not just the fee from the programme which, for heaven’s sake, wasn’t huge. The job has been fundamental to my earnings.
‘I present numerous prestigious dog shows around the country which bring in much-needed cash. The last thing I want is to be seen as a whinger, but it annoys me when people assume that because I was on television I must be mega rich.
‘I loved Blue Peter to bits and it gave me some of the happiest years of my life, but by today’s standards the pay was pitiful. I actually earned £35 a week. The most I ever earned in a year was £10,000. There wasn’t even a clothing allowance.
‘Like the other presenters, I was self-employed so I don’t have a fat BBC pension to rely on. I don’t have any pension at all.’
Even when Peter agreed to give Petra (the mongrel who was the first Blue Peter pet) a home to make her feel more settled, there was no additional fee paid.
‘I don’t begrudge that for a second. Petra started my love affair with dogs,’ says Peter.
He also worries he’s going to find it hard to cope without the challenge of work. ‘I love being with Kate and my dogs, but I like working more than anything else in the world. Work keeps your brain alive, keeps you up to date, keeps you in touch with your friends and contemporaries. There’s no way I’m ready to put my feet up. I still get such a thrill out of broadcasting.’
And, if ever anyone is a natural in front of the camera, it’s Peter. He was an out-of-work actor (he appeared in 46 episodes of Doctor Who as one of William Hartnell’s time-travelling companions) jobbing as a driver to make ends meet, when a call came out of the blue to audition for Blue Peter.
‘I jumped at the chance. It was good, steady money,’ says Peter, who needed to support his young family — he’s dad to Matthew, now 55, and Chéo, also 55 (whom he adopted from China with his first wife, scriptwriter Gilly Fraser).
Yet the role didn’t come naturally, and the first six months were tough. ‘Like many actors I found it hard to make the transition to presenter,’ he says.
‘My co-presenter, the late, lovely Johnny Noakes, was an actor first and foremost. He invented the Johnny you saw on screen. He was nothing like it off-screen.
‘But, as I got used to the job, I realised I wasn’t frightened of being exposed. The scriptwriters began to write in my speech rhythm.’
But the job meant stepping well out of his comfort zone. It wasn’t just all that sticky-back plastic — Peter also had to conquer his terror of birds and snakes.
‘There was the time they draped a python around my neck. The handler swore he was hibernating but he hadn’t accounted for the warmth of the TV lights. I had long hair and I suddenly heard this hiss in my ear and felt the tremble of surprisingly warm snake flesh against my neck. That segment couldn’t end fast enough.’
He left the show in 1978 and joined the team at Crufts soon afterwards. His natural rapport with Petra, and his smooth presenting style, made him a natural choice.
‘I don’t show dogs myself, but I was able to bond with the competitors because I get their passion. I loved it all,’ says Peter.
His memories are rich and numerous: ‘There was the dog who stopped for a poo halfway round the course. That went viral and got 3.5 million hits in one day.
‘Then there was the wayward Jack Russell Ollie, who decided to treat the agility course like a personal playground. I pride myself on being professional but even I burst out laughing.
‘Luckily, I’ve never been bitten at Crufts. But about eight years ago I was judging at a dog show in Norwich when a little mongrel went for me. It was such a nasty bite I had to go to A&E, where the wonderful nurses patched me up in time to get back to the show to continue my judging.
‘I’ve fallen in love with so many dogs over the years. In 1996, the Reserve Best In Show was a Newfoundland and I bought one of his sons. I have a soft spot for the oldest winner of the show in 2011 — a nine-year-old flat-coated retriever with a glorious coat.
‘Sitting in the commentary box, I have had the privilege of having one of the best seats in the house. I have covered everything from police dog demos to the international Heelwork To Music competitions, and witnessed some of the best gundog displays in the world.’
It is easy to understand why Peter can’t bear the thought of giving up a career which gave him so much.
Of course, there are compensations. Peter is very close to his son Matthew, a first assistant director on EastEnders, and very proud of his grandson Sam, who has just graduated from Plymouth University.
After a separation of more than 20 years, he is also thrilled to be reunited with his daughter, who works with the disadvantaged.
‘Chéo was very upset when I got divorced. She changed her surname, which hurt me. There was a row and we both found it hard to get back from that,’ Peter admits.
‘I didn’t see her or hear from her. It was terribly sad. But three years ago I learnt through my daughter-in-law, whom Chéo kept in touch with, that she wanted to see me.
‘It could have been so difficult but it felt entirely natural. We went out for a meal in London, hugged and all was forgiven. It’s such a delight. The relief of being back in touch after all these years is amazing.’
The family were all together for Peter’s 80th birthday in February, and they will celebrate Christmas together, too.
‘I know I’m lucky in so many ways,’ says Peter. ‘But that doesn’t stop me feeling furious that I’m being kicked out just because I’m old. It’s particularly horrid to go out on a sour note after 41 years.
‘However, I’ve got lots of ideas in the pipeline. I have absolutely no intention of retiring — ever.’
And with that, Peter bounds out of his chair and gives his beloved dog Bertie another stroke. Crufts may be over.
But there’s little chance of Bertie needing to bring his master his slippers just yet…
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