Saturday, 05 September 2015

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Cumbria's TV action girl who has been all over the world

If you’re going for a world record you’d better bring stubbornness. Determination too. All those words that mean persisting when the world says you’ll fail. Persisting because the world says you’ll fail.

Helen Skelton photo
Helen Skelton

Weekly Newspaper Feature Writer of the Year 2010

And here’s a little something from the Helen Skelton handbook: if you’re going to vomit in your kayak, vomit over yourself.

“You can’t tip to the side or you’ll tip over,” she explains. “You just have to throw up over yourself. Not good. You start the day the hero and you end it covered in sick.”

Helen is not the kind of Blue Peter presenter to content herself with making and baking. In her two years on Britain’s longest-running children’s show, the farmer’s daughter from Kirkby Thore has become action woman. John Noakes with lip gloss and heels.

The job she says she was born to do has taken her to 13 countries, two world records and tea with the Queen.

The Cumberland News finds Helen back at her parents’ house for a few days, Blue Peter’s summer trip to Italy behind her and a fortnight in Singapore covering the Youth Olympics ahead.

Mum Janet brings in tea as Barney the Blue Peter dog settles on the floor.

It feels like a dream in which you’ve stumbled on set, not least because this Helen Skelton is identical to the TV version.

Same easy warmth and smile, same Cumbrian accent you could hoy ovver a dyke.

And the same question leaping to mind. Why does she push herself so hard?

In six gruelling weeks last January and February, Helen kayaked 2,010 miles down the Amazon, in aid of Sport Relief.

She paddled an average of 60 miles a day, 14 hours a day, six days a week. She endured heatstroke and dehydration. Her treatment included two injections in a delicate place she politely described as her lower back.

“I was bitten from head to toe every day all day. I got halfway and I was thinking ‘There’s so far to go.’”

The camera captured her dishevelled, tearful, on the verge of giving up.

But the camera lied. Towards the end Helen started to revel in the challenge.

She finished tired but triumphant, setting world records for the longest solo kayak journey and the longest distance in a kayak by a woman in a day.

Her first comment to the camera was telling: “You get out of life what you put in.”

Incidentally, her Amazon adventure does not rank as the hardest thing she has done. That accolade goes to the Namibia Ultra Marathon. Helen tackled this beast last year. One of the world’s toughest races dares its victims to run 78 miles – the length of three marathons – within 24 hours through African desert as the mercury hits 45 centigrade. “When I said I was going to do it, everybody said: ‘You can’t – it’s mental.’ It just became stubbornness: ‘Why can’t I do it?’

“The heat was the worst thing. The first marathon took me nine hours. I thought ‘There’s absolutely no way I can carry on.’”

Helen plumbed the depths of her resolve in the middle of the night with 20 miles still to run. Legs like jelly, feet like fire. All that work for nothing.

“I had blisters all over my feet and my toenails had come off. The doctor was popping my blisters with a needle at the side of the road. I heard the camera crew saying: ‘She’s going to pull out.’

“One of the drivers said: ‘I’ve lost my bet. I said you’d drop out on the first checkpoint.’ Not one of them thought I’d finish. I thought ‘I’ll show you, I’ll go another few miles.’”

Helen ran the last marathon in just five hours, crossing the line with 15 minutes to spare and becoming only the second woman ever to complete the event.

“At the end it was like a war zone. There were two people on drips. People with trainers covered in blood. I looked around and thought ‘This is just mental. Why are people doing this?’”

In Helen’s case the answer was about other people as much as herself. Those who doubted and those who adored her.

“I was trying to prove something to people who were thinking ‘She’s just a bubbly blonde TV presenter.’ I had that whole ‘Wag’ tag going on. [Helen’s ex-boyfriend is former Gretna footballer David Graham]. I think I’ve got more to offer than that.

“It became about proving something to myself. And this sounds so twee but it’s 100 per cent genuine: when I said I was doing the ultra marathon, kids said: ‘I think you’ll win it. I think you’ll do it in five hours.’ You can’t let them down.”

“On the Amazon when I was really struggling, colleagues would read out messages. ‘When I wake up every morning, the first thing I think about is ‘Is Helen ok?’”

She smiles and shrugs.

“How do you stop?”

Her adventurous spirit helped Helen make another tough journey: the 300 miles from Carlisle to London. In 2007 she resigned from BBC Radio Cumbria to follow her dream of being a TV presenter.

“I loved working at Radio Cumbria. But I wanted to try for a job in national TV. People thought I was mad. I had a mortgage to pay. But fortune favours the brave.”

Moving to London with no job and no home, Helen looked for work with Sky Sports News and BBC children’s programmes.

“I turned up to meet people at TV studios with this big bag with all my stuff in it. They must have thought I was mad.

“I slept on friends’ sofas for the first month until I got enough to rent a room.

“I started doing the odd day covering maternity leave on Sportsround.

“If I was working and staying in a hotel somewhere, I used to take all the tea bags and hot chocolate sachets from the room. ‘I don’t need to buy tea this week...’”

The gamble paid off when Blue Peter came calling, although viewing figures are well below those of its peak. Helen is frustrated that the show has been brought forward to 4.35pm, too early for many viewers.

Another problem is maintaining the traditions parents love while appealing to today’s children. Helen rejects the suggestion that Blue Peter should swap sticky-backed plastic for headline-grabbing features about sex and drugs.

“Blue Peter is about adventuring and challenging and exciting the kids. I don’t think we’re necessarily the right place to talk about sex and drugs. It would just be a bit wrong to sit there in our bright clothes, surrounded by the pets, and say: ‘Crack cocaine – don’t do it, kids.’”

She hasn’t done it, as she assured the show’s producers before they confirmed her appointment.

The world is always waiting for a Blue Peter presenter to fall on their face, preferably in possession of an illegal substance or two.

“You get asked if you’ve got any skeletons in your closet. Have you ever done drugs? That’s not my scene.

“People aren’t interested in me; they’re interested in Blue Peter. People would love to see a Blue Peter presenter falling about.

“Someone got in touch with my ex-boyfriend. Someone from one of the tabloid papers came to the village. If they’d knocked on the door my mam would probably have invited them in for a cup of tea.

“I’ve had photos in the papers from my Facebook account of me on a night out. I’ve had to phone my friends and say: ‘We’re on page three of the Daily Mirror.’ People say: ‘Have you got to be squeaky clean?’ I like a drink and I like a night out as much as any 26-year-old. I’ve had plenty of nights out on Botchergate. It would be a bit more worrying if I’d never had a night out.”

The papers, and many viewers, are keen to know whether Helen is in a relationship. She isn’t – “I don’t have time. Nothing exciting to report, sadly” – and seems bemused at the thought that people find her attractive.

“I think I’m just normal looking. I mean, I’d like to think people don’t turn off the TV when I come on. But it’s not what you look like. It’s what you bring.”

As well as her running and kayaking skills, Helen brings a useful empathy with children. Not just those viewers but those whose lives are transformed by it.

“I went to India last May to start the appeal to help pay for children’s cleft lip operations. That was a world I didn’t think existed. I was in tears most days. In some areas people think if you’ve got a cleft lip the parents are evil and the children are cursed. One little girl, the people from her village hadn’t spoken to her family since she was born.

“I went back in December, after we’d paid for 200,000 operations. We met up with the same girl and she was a different character. She’d started dancing lessons and she’s started school. She wasn’t allowed to go before. When people think about what Blue Peter is meant to be about, that was it.

“Blue Peter is an opportunity you’ve got to make the most of. On my first day I went to Alaska. Before the state opening of Parliament I got to clean the Queen’s throne! They let me put the clock forward on Big Ben. Who gets to do that?

“For the 50th anniversary we had tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. She asked me if I did my own stunts. I don’t think I asked her anything. I felt I should only speak when spoken to.”

If there is a downside it’s the battle to get a weekend off, the feeling that the programme owns its presenters.

“I definitely want to carry on doing Blue Peter for a few years. As long as I enjoy it, although I don’t think I could do 10 years. When I finish I want a DVD of stuff I can show my grandkids.”

Children’s BBC is moving to Manchester next June. Helen says she’s looking forward to the move, and her family will be glad to see her closer to Cumbria. Older brother Gavin is a footballer with Hamilton in the Scottish Premier League. “We’re so different. He’s talented, I’m just a show-off. I took Gavin to a sports industry awards. He got out of the taxi and he just ran. ‘I’m not having my picture taken!’”

She agrees that Gavin sounds more like a typical Cumbrian than his sister, but sometimes she finds London a very long way from Kirkby Thore.

“I went for dinner the other week with a load of people from work. There was a girl there, I can’t say who she is but she used to be on TV. She had a dog in a bag under the table. She said: ‘I’m just taking Coco to the toilet.’ I thought she meant she was taking him outside. But she took him to the toilet and held him over it to do his business!”

She shrieks with laughter.

Barney is getting restless. Maybe he’s missing the lights, the cameras, the action. Maybe he’s not the only one. What’s next then, Helen? How will you amaze us again?

A wish list tumbles out. “It would be amazing to do something like Man on Wire. I want to do cycling. I want to do something in Russia. I told someone I wanted to swim the Pacific. They said: ‘There’s sharks – you can’t do that!’

“I said: ‘That’s how the last one started...’”

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