*(This review covers the period 1958 to 2000 only)
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 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 four 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 years 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 16th October 1958 as a seven week experiment in the '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 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 replacement so as not to upset the shows 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 became 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 nation-wide catch phrase, 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.
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 is still going strong, a third weekly programme was added in 1995 and Liz Barker joined as the 28th 'Blue Peter' presenter, following such household names as Lesley Judd, Sarah Greene, John Lesley, Anthea Turner and Katy Hill, to name but a few.
The stunning, winning, simplicity of the Blue Peter format shows no sign of flagging, even as the show sails confidently into this, the beginning of a new millennium, the secret of 'Blue Peter's' 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 continue to genuinely care is both a foregone and heartening fact.
Published on November 30th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus & SRH for Television Heaven.