I remember: Janet Ellis

Joy Persaud

Television presenter Janet Ellis, 62, is best known for her stint as a Blue Peter host during the 1980s. Now an author, her debut novel, The Butcher’s Hook launched to critical acclaim in 2016

…When I was about two there was a flood in the house

I think a washing machine had overflowed or something. I remember my favourite teddies being hung up to dry in the kitchen by their ears, and wanting them back.

 

…Being an army kid

I was born in Chatham but I didn’t spend very long there because my parents moved several times over the next few years. I went to seven different schools so it was a typical army childhood. Army children are a great breed because they are so used to being dropped into new places and having to make the best of it. You don’t necessarily move neatly at the end of the school term and you often join schools in the middle of things when people were already in established friendship groups and knew where the loos were.

 

...My dad was a captain in the Royal Engineers

My mum had been a nurse before they got married and then when I was 16 she went back to work as a nursery nurse in a local school. I think in those days army wives weren’t really encouraged to do anything. They were homemakers.

 

…Weirdly, you couldn’t have too many big toys, because everything had to be packed up

My sister, who is two years younger and I had bicycles, but I’ve always wanted a piano in the house even though I never learned. We were really big fans of dolls houses so we made our own. They were rough and ready. We built them in cardboard boxes and made very tiny furniture for them—everything was miniature. We were obsessed with them.

"Now, if I don't spend at least part of my day outside, I don't enjoy it very much"

...There wasn't much outside space in army quarters but we all played outside

I wasn’t aware that we were restricted by space because the doors were open I was always in and out of everybody else’s houses. There’s a sense of instant connection with army kids, which you don’t get anywhere else.

 

…One of my parents’ first postings was in England

They bought our house in Kent and my sister and I used to roam the countryside in the way kids did in those days. That’s something that I would very much like to get back to—that feeling of space and the outdoors and green. And now, if I don’t spend at least part of my day outside, I don’t enjoy it very much.

 

…My childhood dream was that I was going to be an actress,

long before I even knew what that was. I remember learning things and saying them aloud and being characters when I played. I went to see a production of Peter Pan with Alastair Sim playing Captain Hook and I absolutely loved it. At five years old I just knew what I wanted to be—I wanted to be on stage. I thought, yes, that’s me.

 

…I didn’t think my school days were the best of my life, that’s for sure

I was aware that things were going to be better when I was an adult. I had plenty of friends and I was very social kid, but I always felt I was waiting for the next bit. I had a very strong sense of that.

 

…Auditioning for the Central School of Speech and Drama

It was fantastic when I eventually got a place for the audition—you spent a whole day and people were rooted out, X-Factor style. I learned I had secured a place at something like 7.30pm and we had started at nine in the morning. It was exhilarating, absolutely exhilarating.

"My childhood dream was to be an actress, long before I even knew what that was. At five years old I just knew I wanted to be on stage"

 

…The first year of drama school was tough as they’re sort of breaking you down

It’s a very small cohort and you know the people in the year above and below you really well because you’re all so into each other’s company. In the final term, I was approached by an agent and, within three weeks of leaving, I had a part in a television, in Jackanory Playhouse. I knew it was lucky, because it got me an agent, a telly part and an equity card all at the same time—the Holy Grail.

 

…I was in the children’s programme Jigsaw

and someone said, “You’re really natural speaking to the camera—do you think you might try presenting?” Initially, of course I thought, How dare you? But I thought maybe I’d try it because as an actress, there’s no such thing as continual employment and I thought it would broaden my chances a bit.

I went to see an agent and she said, “Well, I think Sarah Greene is leaving Blue Peter.”

I said straightaway, “There’s absolutely no way I want do that because after you’ve done that you’re always a presenter”. But she persuaded me to audition and when I was offered the job I didn’t hesitate—it just felt right.

 

…There were plenty of funny moments, but I always liked that side of live television

One time we [featured] a lovely book where a cat had had kittens and the owner had given them away to different homes. She was a photographer and over the year, she followed these cats and took lovely photos of them in their various homes—really delightful—and she came on to the programme to reunite all these kittens.

You rehearse with them in boxes because you want to save the moment when they’re back together for the cameras, but they just went for each other. One disappeared into the lighting rig. It was awful and wonderful at the same time.

 

…I had the chance to see amazing things on Blue Peter

I sang at the Last Night of the Proms, with the BBC symphony chorus and of course Blue Peter has never been denied access anywhere. People just had an idea for a film or something comes up and everybody welcomes you, which is just amazing and wonderful. It was a real privilege.

 

…The camaraderie on Blue Peter was real

and I was lucky because I’ve met other presenters, for whom it was just a job and that’s exactly as it should be. They don’t necessarily have to think it was the best job ever but as it turns out the people I worked with are still really good friends.

 

…Breaking my pelvis when I was training for a freefall on Blue Peter

I also sustained a horrible injury to the inside of my mouth. I’m not a very brave person physically. I knew that obviously there were risks involved but I was training with the RAF Falcons and they know what they’re doing. And, it is such an amazing thing to do—something that takes you so out of yourself. It’s an amazing opportunity to do something that in no other way would I have had the chance to do or probably said yes to. Looking back now, I’m sort of amazed I did it. I know what it took and I use that in other aspects of my life.

 

…Being very close to Caron Keating

She’s irreplaceable. We would talk for hours; that is my main memory of being with her. We often missed appointments­—we’d go, Were we supposed to be somewhere else? I was at a charity event at the Caron Keating Foundation which Gloria Hunniford, her mother, started which I think was an amazing thing to do because you could think, This is private, I don’t want to have anything else in the future with people who didn’t know her. But it has been very successful and raises money for causes such as cars that drive parents to the hospital and that kind of thing.

 

…In Come Dine With Me I was so lucky because we all got on

You don’t know who you’re going to be paired with but Susie Amy, Tony Christie and Goldie were all such nice, interesting people. You assemble in each other’s houses at about five and you finish when you finish. I think our latest one finished at one in the morning and I have heard anecdotally of them going on all night.

Cooking on television is always surprisingly hard work. It’s just not how I cook. There’s not normally somebody standing there with a camera pointing at you and watching you put your finger in the sauce kind of thing.

 

…Writing a novel and putting it out under a pseudonym

because my agent suggested it. Without being daft about it—I’m not saying it’s because I’m famous or anything—if you remind people who I am they will say, “Oh yes, Janet Ellis.”

So [the publishers] said, “Let’s just remove [the name]. Let’s let the book go out on its own and of course you can have a second crack of the whip if it doesn’t work out”.

But it did, and I was really proud of that because nobody can accuse me of using my career to get the book published.

 

…My MBE was a complete surprise, verging on shock

When I got the letter, it’s so official, it looked like a fake. It was just delicious and the happiest day. The lovely thing is that I have three adult children who do lots of different things and it’s hard to get them all in the same place. But they were all around on that day and when we got to the restaurant my son-in-law presented me with a bottle of champagne.

Also, for the charities that I support—without being too twee about it—it was great to be able to shine a light on the work that they do because I’m really proud of them all.

 

…My toughest time was probably having a series of miscarriages 

I wanted a fourth child and I never had fourth child. But I didn’t want my daughters—and my son as well—to think the process of having a baby could be fraught with difficulties and sadness and they were much too young to understand so they simply didn’t know, I think. I kept it from them in the right way.

I didn’t want my experience of their childhood to be marred by the non-appearance of their other sibling. I was lucky that I had three children so I don’t look back now and think back and think “if only”…

 

…My mother, who didn’t live to old age, was very keen on keeping the spirit of being challenged

You have to be active mentally and physically, as much as you can. Mum always said that this wasn’t a rehearsal for something else. She’d say to challenge yourself, particularly getting older, so I’m really keen to go camping in the New Forest. There’s no time like the present to do things for the first time.

 

Janet Ellis is backing Camping in the Forest, with campsites in the UK’s most beautiful, ancient forests campingintheforest.co.uk