'"Here's one I made earlier..."
There are a very select group of series that almost magically transcend their original target audience and humble origins to almost accidentally attain the coveted status of a treasured and much-loved national institution. In the world of factual children's programming that accolade has been bestowed upon one show above all others, a show which, despite more than six decades of continuous transmission, remains at its core as true to the spirit of its original format as on the day of its first broadcast. That programme is Blue Peter, and its story is the stuff of television legend.
Presented by 21-year-old Leila Williams, the previous year's Miss Great Britain and 25-year-old former army officer turned actor Christopher Trace, who had been Charlton Heston's stand-in on Ben Hur, Blue Peter began transmission on 16 October 1958 as a seven-week experiment in the BBC’s Children's Television slot. With each show lasting just 15 minutes and heralded by its jaunty 'Barnacle Bill' theme tune, the programme mainly concerned itself with items on train sets for boys and dolls for girls, and stories of Packi, a little white elephant, told and illustrated by Tony Hart. Due to ill health, John Hunter Blair had to retire after two years of producing the show and died later in his home whilst watching the show he had created. Leila Williams left Blue Peter in 1962 and was briefly replaced by Anita West, but it was with the arrival of the next female presenter that the show really took off.
Long-time editor Biddy Baxter said of Valerie Singleton, "If the studio roof collapsed in the middle of a live programme, Valerie would have stepped out of the rubble and said: 'And now for something quite different', without faltering." Another addition to the show in 1962 (which by now had switched to a thirty-minute format), was that of the first 'Blue Peter pet'. Petra was a mongrel puppy who was introduced on the show in a box wrapped in Christmas paper. Unfortunately, two days after making its debut the dog died of distemper and the producers had to look around for an exact replica as a replacement so as not to upset the show's younger viewers. The switch was made and as far as the public was concerned there was only ever one Petra. Petra mark ll died in 1977 and the corporation commissioned a bronze bust of the animal, which was placed at the entrance to the BBC.
In 1965 Chris and Val were joined by 31-year-old Yorkshire-born actor John Noakes. Sporting a Beatle haircut, Noakes became an instant hit with the public as he undertook a series of daredevil stunts such as scaling Nelson's Column and becoming the first British civilian to make a 25,000ft free-fall by parachute. John also had two pets of his own; the first was called Patch, the son of Petra, and later, perhaps more famously, a black and white Collie by the name of Shep. The two became inseparable and John's good-humoured admonition, "Get down, Shep", became a nationwide catchphrase, as indeed did the famous "Here's one I made earlier", when referring to one of the many models that the presenters have shown the public how to make out of nothing more than plastic bottles, old toilet rolls, wire coat hangers and sticky-back plastic.
Christopher Trace left the show in 1967 to be replaced by former Doctor Who actor Peter Purves and the show entered, arguably, its golden and most fondly remembered era. Shown twice a week (Monday and Thursday) its trademarks have left an indelible mark on an entire generation of children, each of whom would kill for a coveted Blue Peter Badge, awarded for contributors to the show. The 'Blue Peter appeals' have passed into television legend. Raising funds for national and international causes but without asking for money, Blue Peter has collected hundreds of toys for underprivileged children (1962), seven and a half tons of silver paper to buy two guide dogs for the blind (1964), 240,000 paperback books which bought four lifeboats (1967), 2,000,000 parcels of wool and cotton which bought three hospital trucks, six emergency vehicles and medical equipment for child victims of war in Biafra (1969), 40,000,000 aluminium cans which bought life support machines for sixty-five hospitals (1989), and the Great Bring and Buy sale which raised over £6,000,000 for Romanian orphanages (1990). These are just examples of the numerous charitable causes that the show has come to the aid of.
By raising social awareness, Blue Peter consistently presents educational content that ranges from simple DIY projects to interviews with prominent figures in various fields. This combination of fun and learning creates a perfect environment for children to expand their knowledge and develop new skills.
In 1971 Blue Peter won the royal seal of approval when Valerie Singleton was allowed to accompany HRH Princess Anne on safari to Kenya, and Prince's Edward and Andrew popped into the studio to meet a lion cub. The show has not been without its problems, although thankfully most of them have been comical misadventures in front of the camera (the show is still transmitted live) like the time when Lulu, a young Sri Lankan elephant from Chessington Zoo came to the studio with her keeper, Alec, and 'relieved' herself all over the studio floor, dragging the hapless zookeeper straight through the middle of it.
Although Biddy Baxter retired in 1988 the show continued with a third weekly programme added in 1995 and the show is still going strong today. In March 2023, Abby Cook, a wheelchair user who has worked with Valley Disability Sport and as a mental health project administrator for Scottish Disability Sport, was announced as the 42nd presenter of the show. She follows such household names as Lesley Judd, Sarah Greene, John Lesley, Anthea Turner, Katy Hill, Konnie Huq, Matt Baker and Helen Skelton, to name but a few.
The hosts of Blue Peter continue to play a pivotal role in the show's success. Over the years, each presenter has left a unique imprint on the programme by being a relatable role model who connects with their young audience effortlessly, which, in turn, brings an element of excitement and enthusiasm to the show, making the learning experience both entertaining, engaging and enjoyable. By promoting creativity, curiosity, and perseverance, Blue Peter empowers children to pursue their passions and develop a sense of self-confidence.
Continuing to develop, in 2003, new programme editor Richard Marson changed the output of Blue Peter on the digital CBBC. The first year of the channel's launch consisted of repeated editions, plus two spin-off series Blue Peter Unleashed and Blue Peter Flies the World. In March 2011, it became the first programme in the UK to broadcast an entire show in 360 degrees on the web. Viewers were able to watch the programme via their TVs and simultaneously interact with the television studio in front of and behind the cameras on the website.
The stunning, winning, simplicity of the Blue Peter format shows no sign of flagging, even as the show sails confidently into this, new digital age of broadcasting, the secret of its innate magic is perhaps impossible to quantify, and perhaps shouldn't even be questioned. When all is said and done, perhaps the best and only correct answer to the show's juggernaut success story is that the people behind it throughout the years genuinely cared. That its devoted audience continues to genuinely care is both a foregone and heartening fact.
Published on August 26th, 2023. Written by Laurence Marcus & SRH for Television Heaven.