Helen Skelton on life after Blue Peter and growing up in Appleby
PUBLISHED: 11:00 06 August 2014 | UPDATED: 16:20 24 December 2014
Dare-devil television presenter Helen Skelton has settled for a slightly quieter life in Manchester. Tony Greenway talks to her
‘The thing I find frustrating,’ sighs Helen Skelton, ‘is that when people think of Blue Peter, they think of making things with sticky-backed plastic and yoghurt pots.’
Helen — who presented Blue Peter for five years — did rather more than that during her time on the show. In fact, her fundraising efforts for Sports Relief and Comic Relief were chronicled on Blue Peter and gave her a reputation as the go-to action woman for feats of daring and stamina, the 21st century answer to John Noakes or Peter Duncan.
For example, here’s some she made earlier: Helen flew with the Red Arrows; kayaked 2,000 miles along the Amazon to raise money for Sport Relief; walked a dizzying 150-metre tightrope between the chimneys at Battersea Power Station for Comic Relief; completed the Royal Marines’ endurance course; became the second woman ever to finish the 78-mile Namibian Ultra Marathon (which meant running three marathons in one day) and was the first person to reach the South Pole by bike. Phew.
Even now, Helen finds it hard to name her favourite challenge. She didn’t enjoy the high-wire walk at Battersea, though. ‘That was weird because I had no concept of what I was going to feel like because, well, you’re not normally up that high, are you?’ she says. ‘I was so scared that I had to have an earpiece in so I could have a voice reminding me to breathe.’
She didn’t much like yomping around with the marines, either, while wearing a massive backpack. ‘I understand it’s good telly and it’s “jeopardy” and “she struggled” and “she’s wonderful!” and all that. But, for kids, you need a happy ending. On the high wire, for example, it would never have been as inspiring or exciting if I hadn’t finished it. It’s fine to struggle, but you need to get there in the end.’
Then, last year, Helen tearfully left Blue Peter. In our house, the two regular CBBC viewers sobbed when she made her farewell speech and then arranged an official week of mourning activities. They’re still not completely over it — and they’re not alone. Helen meant a lot to young viewers up and down the country.
‘Blue Peter is the best job ever,’ she says. ‘There isn’t a better job for a telly presenter and I don’t think I’ll be able to match, let alone top, what I did on that show. But I got to the point where I thought if I didn’t leave, then I never would. And everyone was asking what my next challenge would be – and, actually, the next challenge was leaving.’
It was, she admits, a massive gamble because children’s TV presenters don’t always make a seamless transition to “grown up” television. Not that she has a bad word to say about Blue Peter, or ever will.
‘I would never ever, ever criticise, downplay or regret being part of Blue Peter because I lived ten lives on that show,’ says Helen. ‘It’s interesting because some people think: “Hmmm, you’re from kids’ TV. So adults won’t get you — and you haven’t had that much in the way of life experience.” Well, I had incredible life experiences on Blue Peter every week. I went all over the world. I went to Uganda, visited orphans in India, I’ve been to hospitals in Bangladesh and seen drug addicts in Sierra Leone. And the heritage of the show means that people are lovely to you. I’ve had tea with the Queen, I’ve put the clock forward on Buckingham Palace, I’ve ridden the Queen’s horses. I was only able to do things like that because of Blue Peter.’
These days, Helen is a regular on the BBC series Countryfile and Holiday Hit Squad and presents Football Conference and Women’s Super League matches on BT Sport. During the World Cup she was the locations presenter on new show A Question of Sport: Super Saturday; and she’s presenting (or has just finished presenting, depending on when you read this) swimming at the Commonwealth Games for the BBC.
Ironically, she moved from London to Manchester to be with the Blue Peter production team when they went to their new base in Salford. And then left the job.
But that’s fine with her. For one thing, being based in the North West means that she gets to see her parents and her friends more often. ‘I know people on telly who are obsessed with “Why is that person doing that job and I’m not?” And I think, if I’d stayed in London, I would have been that sort of person. In London it’s all about who’s on the Daily Mail online today and who is being invited to what? Now I’m in Manchester, I’ve got a life!’
A married one, in fact. Last December she tied the knot with Richie Myler, who plays rugby league for Warrington Wolves and has represented Lancashire at county level. They were wed in St Michael’s Church in Kirkby Thore near Penrith, where she grew up. She went to school in nearby Appleby.
‘I’m so lucky,’ she says. ‘I grew up on a farm and you could whack a golf ball from the front or back step and it would hit nothing. It was the middle of nowhere. As a teenager it was a bit frustrating, but looking back it was wonderful. We’d go out of the front door, walk across the fields, play in the river... and that was our childhood. It was idyllic.’
Her favourite rural spot in the world is Appleby. ‘I’m biased — but I think it’s perfect,’ she says. ‘In the summer you can go and watch cricket — the cricket club is in the middle of town — the river laps it and there are beautiful sunsets. I love Carlisle, too. I went to University in Carlisle and it was great because it’s small enough to feel like a real community, but big enough that there was plenty going on. I still have a house and a lot of friends there. I love the Lakes, too — places like Grasmere and Keswick — and I love the Pennines. Last year my friends and I went to the top of one of the Pennine fells and we didn’t see a soul.’
No wonder she enjoys presenting Countryfile so much. ‘Yes!’ she says. ‘I love the fact that I get to do Countryfile, which means filming outside. I get to ride horses, go shooting, go on a mountain bike – stuff that I would pay to do, let alone get paid to do. Then I get to mix that up in the studio with BT Sport. But it’s funny because someone said to me recently: “You won’t do this forever will you?” And I said: “I don’t know. I love my job and I’ll do it for as long as I enjoy it.”’
She’s certainly not one to capitalise on her celebrity status because fame — a by-product of the job — is a funny thing, she admits. If you’re ever tempted to get all starry (not that she ever is), fate has way of slapping you down and keeping your feet on the ground. ‘Barney, the Blue Peter dog, is mine,’ she says. ‘I was walking down the street one day with my husband and Barney, when these kids jumped out of a car saying: “Can we have a picture!? Can we have a picture!?’” I said: “Yes – of course you can.” But they gave me the camera — and wanted me to take a picture of them with the dog.’
Ah well. That’s showbiz, Helen.