Blue Peter legend Peter Duncan looks to war

Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace in Birdsong. Pic: Comp
Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace in Birdsong. Pic: Comp
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PETER Duncan is still perhaps best known for his time on Blue Peter and his spin-off series Duncan Dares, in which he undertook weekly challenges at which most of us would have baulked.

The daredevil side of his nature was on display again recently when he competed in BBC One’s Tumble, which saw him work through various gymnastic disciplines. No mean feat for a youthful 60-year-old.

Those with long enough memories, however, will recall that Duncan began his career as an actor, working at the National Theatre and appearing on TV in series such as The Tomorrow People, Space 1999 and King Cinder, in which he starred as speedway rider Kerry Hutson.

Mixing the reality aspects of his career with the theatrical challenges has certainly worked for Duncan, despite some in the business looking down on him for it. But does there come a point when Duncan stops daring?

“I don’t know, it’s not entirely my choice,” he laughs, “but I always stay fit and these things do come along.

“For Tumble, it was a physical audition; I went to a gym with all these experts, jumped around, hung off things, climbed up things, and got in the mix. In many ways it was just like auditioning for a play.”

Duncan had been working as an actor “for a while” when Blue Peter came along to change his life.

“I knew I was going off on a tangent. It’s all very well being a purist, but I have had a lot more fun not being one. I’ve been an actor for 45 years and, who knows, if I had only done nice acting jobs I might be a milkman by now.

“I just picked up on opportunities as they came along, thankfully without out having to do any dross or terrible things.

“There is a kind of elitism in all art forms, of course, so there are people who will say, ‘Oh well, I can’t put you in my Shakespeare because you were pretending to be a gymnast in Tumble,’ but that’s their problem not mine.”

Duncan returns to the stage this week at The King’s, where you can find him playing Jack Firebrace in the First World War drama Birdsong, adapted from the novel by Sebastian Faulks.

In pre-war France, young Englishman Stephen Wraysford embarks on a dangerous affair with the beautiful Isabelle Azaire.

As war breaks out, Stephen must lead his men through the carnage of the Battle of the Somme. Faced with the unprecedented horror of the war, he clings to the memory of Isabelle as his world explodes around him.

Duncan returns to the role of Firebrace, having played it twice before.

“It has slightly changed a bit, so it’s not like we’re ‘just doing the play again’,” he says.

“The playwright Rachel Wagstaff and Sebastian are always involved, so you don’t feel you are repeating yourself. There are tweaks to lines, scenes or characters even - we have a great folk singer in it this year, which creates a slightly different feel that adds to it.”

A love story in essence, the tale unfolds from joint perspectives.

“There are two strands to it,” elaborates Duncan. “There’s the story of Stephen searching for love in the human chaos of war and then there’s my character, a tunneller who used to dig the Tubes in London.

“Their lives are bound together by war so you get the two worlds.”

Birdsong, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, tonight-Saturday, 7.30pm (matinee 2.30pm), £14-£29.50, 0131-529 6000