Peter Fleming’s Blue Peter Gossip

Hi everyone. This week, British children’s TV legend Peter Fleming has written to me about Blue Peter to commemorate the programme’s 61st birthday this week. Take it away, Peter!

Hello there, my friends!

Well, well, well, happy birthday to that television institution, Blue Peter! Now, over the last 61 years, there have been 38 different presenters of the programme, not counting occasional guest presenters, and an incident in 1967 in which I was mistaken for newcomer Peter Purves and helped helm a live edition, ending in an unfortunate incident that saw me barred from Television Centre for the next month (in my defence, you’d be amazed how easy it is to kill that many horses without even realising!),

Returning to my point, there have been 38 Blue Peter presenters over the years, and through the decades, I’ve picked up a great deal of gossip about them all (either through working with them directly or through hearsay). It seems fitting to share a handful of the most interesting titbits for this week’s anniversary. After all, as the old saying goes, what better way to show your love than to libel multiple national treasures? Enjoy, my friends!

  • Christopher Trace, hired as the first presenter for his love of model trains, ended his time on the show by making off with a real steam engine that he pinched from a railway museum whilst filming in Norfolk – everyone was at a loss as to how, because it wasn’t on tracks and had no fuel in it, but he managed it nonetheless, and was never seen again!
  • Katy Hill is three children on each other’s shoulders in a big coat.
  • Tim Vincent refuses to go out on any set until he has been fitted with the skin of a younger man.
  • Konnie Huq can extend her neck up to two miles long – she was originally pencilled in to do more RAF parachute jumps than she eventually did, but she would keep completing them by stretching her neck out of the plane before jumping, clamping her jaw onto something at ground level and lowering herself to safety (very impressive in a different way, but it was cheating).
  • Janet Ellis is one of five Blue Peter presenters to have engaged Tom Baker in hand-to-hand combat.
  • Matt Baker is the only Blue Peter presenter to have shot me.
  • Valerie Singleton once flogged a Girl Guide during camera rehearsals as a warning to the other guests.
  • Anthea Turner has seven legs*.
  • Peter Purves is the only Blue Peter presenter who can fly – he discovered his skill while bored at Crufts one year, but fears being captured in a big net and experimented upon by the government, so he only shows it off to close friends in his garden.
  • Mark Curry eats the core of the apple.
  • Peter Duncan fights tramps for food.
  • John Noakes was 50ft tall – every time you saw him on-screen, a camera trick was being employed for which he was required to stand at the far end of the studio to make him appear normal-sized. (Climbing Nelson’s Column doesn’t seem so impressive now, does it?!)
  • Diane-Louise Jordan started the fire at Notre-Dame – loathsome woman!
  • Richard Bacon never took cocaine in his life; he just didn’t want the dogs to get into trouble.

*somewhere in her house

Fascinating stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. And I haven’t even mentioned what Lesley Judd did! Many happy returns, Blue Peter!

Best wishes,

Another Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed for the last time at the Bill Murray in Islington on Sunday 20th October at 4.15pm. Tickets are available here.

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The Horrors of Harlow

My ongoing tour of the new towns of England and their histories continues. The truth only grows more terrible as I go on. This week we take in what I have learned about Harlow, though I fear we will soon wish we hadn’t.

  • In 2006, Harlow was subject to a water restriction order in the wake of a drought in the South East of England. Due to a clerical error, this has never been lifted, and the people of Harlow have slowly adapted to their changed environment, following the example of organisms that thrive in arid areas, like cactuses, coyotes, and dung beetles. People who have lived in Harlow a long time are today noted for their physical resemblance to the titular villain from the 1980 Doctor Who story ‘Meglos’, their overreliance on flimsy Acme equipment designed to trap fast birds, and their poor diet.
  • Residents are engaged in an ongoing guerrilla campagin against the operators of London Stansted Airport, who have been attempting to secretly build a second runway since they were refused planning permission in 2010. Every night, construction workers arrive in the hope of being able to get a few hours’ work done under cover of darkness, but are always met and thwarted by the joyous communal spirit of a furious Essex mob. Some airlines have tried to landing planes on the area as a way of intimidating the locals, but have invariably crashed and exploded, leading to complaints.
  • The Harlow Greyhound Stadium is the only one of its kind in the world, built as it is in the shape of an 80ft greyhound. The interior of the stadium is modelled on the innards of such a beast, making races almost impossible to enjoy. A standard-priced ticket costs over £3,000. The stadium also hosts weekly meetings of the town’s rotary club.
  • Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline have large premises in Harlow, mainly dedicated to the manufacture of dermatological products. This has led to an active black market in steroid creams and other skincare treatments. Early on, residents tried using these as a substitute for water in the wake of the restriction, but thinned their own throats out disastrously from the inside. Nowadays, they instead use them to tame their cactus-like spikes, coating themselves thoroughly in various creams each day to soften the prickly texture of their skin (this is why everyone in Harlow is so eerily shiny).
  • The site of the old biscuit factory (closed and demolished early this century) is haunted by the spirits of teatime treats uneaten. Horrific stories are told throughout the town of the terrible sounds heard all over the desolate landscape. The crunch of a pink wafer here, the disappointed sigh of a man with only plain digestives in the cupboard there – not to mention the ceaseless night-time moans of the factory’s old mascot, the Harlow Hobnob, a once delightful figure now transformed into a lonely oat monstrosity, searching the frightened town for one last cup of tea to be dunked in. Given the lack of fluid in the area, the unhappy creature looks set to be wandering for a long time yet.

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Letchworth Garden City Revealed

Since spilling a number of explosive beans last week about Stevenage, I have received many vicious accusations of bias against the town, but a far larger number of accusations of favouritism. All of these stemmed from rival new towns across Britain, so I have decided the only solution is to sporadically redress the balance, location by location. In my life, I have learned many things about Letchworth Garden City, and the most believable are recounted below.

  • Letchworth boasts the UK’s first roundabout, built in 1909. It was initially met with suspicion – nobody used it, and many abused it, either driving right across it or going about it anti-clockwise to inconvenience and endanger any ‘traitors’ who had been espousing its benefits to motorists. This continued until the outbreak of the Second World War thirty years later, when it became a vital strategic roundabout for transit of our troops, and a groundswell of patriotic defence came in the wake of Nazi propaganda sneering that Letchworth’s was an inferior, non-Aryan roundabout.
  • The town was once visited by Lenin, and has regularly been swamped with Lenin fans ever since. In a bid to control this traffic, Letchworth has hosted its month-long CommieCon event every April since 1957. The presence of cosplayers during this period leads to the area being closely monitored by the security services, in case actual communists use it as a cover to plot a revolution, disguised as people who simply appreciate the fashion of turn-of-the-century Russia.
  • Letchworth upholds a distinguished tradition of weightlifting, and has been suspended since 1983 atop the arms of the town’s strongest resident (she is understood since starting the record-breaking lift to have petrified).
  • A longstanding violent rivalry with Stevenage has been raging since 1946 and the founding of ‘that festering mound of colonic litter’, as the town is colloquially referred to by Letchworth residents. Stevenage has generally been more active in the conflict and Letchworth is felt still to be resting on its laurels after the ‘Stevenage Butchery’ of 1974. On Saturday 19th October, citizens of Letchworth burrowed their way to Stevenage and burst from the ground, commandeering the town’s precious meats, fashioning them into axes and using them to cut down all of the area’s notoriously high street lights and a number of town clerks.
  • Letchworth became self-sufficient for a time, in keeping with the ambitions of its Green Belt area, and was able to provide power for surrounding towns and villages from its own electricity station. This grew steadily out of control and the town’s own infrastructure eventually became sentient, finally challenging Parliament for supremacy. Religious forces were employed by the Attlee government to thwart this and an exorcism held on the town’s landmark roundabout helped settle the spiritual disturbance long enough to allow the utilities to be brought into public ownership and tamed. (The area has had a Conservative MP pretty much consistently since the 1880s, so it was decided the ritual should be repeated yearly to be on the safe side – this is done every third Sunday in June, and since 2010 has been a ticketed family event.)

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5 Truths about Stevenage

Last week, I revealed that I once served as Mayor of Stevenage. Many have contacted me since, begging for more details of this most mysterious of towns, while others (mostly from the area), have requested I keep quiet, some threatening death or worse. I can only hope the good spirit of the town wins out in the end and I am unpunished for sharing five facts I learned over the course of my time in this much ignored, and surprisingly fascinating, part of the country.

  • Stevenage boasts some of the tallest street lights in the whole of the UK. This wreaks havoc with air traffic, and in the last year alone there have been eighteen separate cases of planes snagging on the lamps during their slow descent towards London Luton Airport, and the fire brigade having to be called to get the passengers down and transfer them to an air replacement bus.
  • Being the country’s oldest new town has created a profound identity crisis in the psyche of the town. Fearing being outdone by other, newer new towns, Stevenage often overcompensates and refuses to admit it has any history at all. This is why the town’s museum is so small and receives such mixed reviews on TripAdvisor.
  • Ironically, no Steven of any age has ever lived in Stevenage.
  • The town’s Roaring Meg Retail Park (home to one of Hertfordshire’s most popular branches of Debenhams) is named in honour of an eccentric local legend. A mysterious woman who prowled round the streets day and night, pouncing on children and pensioners (anyone who couldn’t defend themselves), Roaring Meg vanished without trace in 1974. Some say she walked into the sea. Others say she ran into the sea. Others say she jogged – what’s agreed is she definitely ended up in the ocean. The townsfolk were relieved at first, but then horrified by the surges in juvenile and geriatric delinquency that occurred without her attacks keeping the younger and older generations in check. The retail park was named in her memory, and its security guards given full permission to fell any shopper outside the age bracket of 37-49.
  • Stevenage has a longstanding rivalry with most other new towns and garden cities, in particular Letchworth Garden City. Notable incidents in this ongoing conflict include:
    • Stevenage citizens uniting to post so many letters en masse to Letchworth addresses one weekend in 1986 that the entire postal infrastructure of the area was paralysed for weeks
    • A team of builders removing all Letchworth’s greenery one night in 1997 and putting it on top of Stevenage’s tallest street light
    • Stevenage Town Council poisoning Letchworth’s water supply in 2006 (this was widely regarded as having backfired when it was realised that Stevenage got its water from the same source).

The war continues.

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Jobs I’ve Loved or Lost, Pt. II

Since looking back last week on some of the best and worst jobs I’ve had, many more have come back into my memory. All of these I had forgotten entirely, blotting them out due to the traumatic experience I had. But to deny them would be to deny what is utterly real.

  • Spring 2011 (weekends); potato peeler. Volunteered as one in a prison; was required to stay rigidly upright, while a large prisoner grasped my ankles in one of his enormous hands and lifted me up, while another ran potatoes across the teeth in my open mouth, gradually removing the skin from 300 tons of potatoes; suggested to the warden after my first shift that I could have peeled the potatoes myself my using a conventional peeler, but he insisted the prisoners do it this way to gain a sense of responsibility. Lasted two months.
  • Winter 2011/12; lion tamer. Employed by a flea circus that was visiting Sheffield, where I was living at the time (circus had established itself behind some bins in Walkley); lion was created by putting a costume on the largest flea in the circus aside from the owner, who paid me in regurgitated clots of dog blood; lion flea was very disobedient, and the whole circus was shut down when it got loose and went straight for the child of a spectator; other fleas followed suit and authorities ended up having to fumigate the entire boy. Lasted seven weeks (employment, not fumigation).
  • August 2012; Monk purifier. Attempted summer job at a monastery of aging flagellants who were increasingly less mobile and unable to abuse themselves as violently as they once had; hired people to physically and emotionally assault them as vigorously as they’d once done to themselves; I tended to scrub them with scouring pads, but this actually helped their hygiene and improved their condition in the long run so they had to let me go. This makes me one of the few people to have been fired by God. Lasted two weeks.
  • June 2015 to January 2016; Mayor of Stevenage. Chance for me to start a new life in a new place to me; met wonderful people and drew up exciting plans for the area, but in the end was unable to help the town rise above its historic and, it has to be said, surprisingly bloody rivalry with all the other new towns of the UK; deposed in a coup after refusing to send poison to Letchworth Garden City Council. Term of office lasted 215 days.
  • February 2016; Fresh-faced recruit, British Army. Inspired by a TV advert to sign up; realised on day one that the job actually had the potential to be really dangerous, which had not come across on the telly. Lasted two hours; later commenced a letter-writing campaign calling on the army to change their slogan in the adverts from ‘Be the Best’ to ‘It’s Really Unsafe’, but never had any response (concerned I may have had the wrong address).

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Jobs I’ve Loved or Lost

This week, returning to my job from the Edinburgh Fringe, I’ve been reflecting on various places I’ve worked over the years, and how happy I am now relative to previously.

  • Autumn 2008; supermarket checkout boy (can’t specify which supermarket, as this goes against Sainsbury’s policy). Early morning walks to my Saturday shifts filled with promise by their regular soundtracks of Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust; that promise not met. Desolate regular team briefings in which we had to eat samples of company’s own-brand crackers next to another leading brand, as line manager read from unwieldy corporate script waxing lyrical about how our own crackers were of equal if not superior quality; many of us too young to sell alcohol without authorisation, only granted if our supervisors acknowledged they had heard us call their names; usually happened around the third time of asking, as queues grew and grew. Lasted three months.
  • Spring 2009; waiter at Chinese restaurant in hollowed out Little Chef premises just off a roundabout outside town. Started as a kitchen porter but upgraded to waiter and given no training prior to my first shift, during which I was shouted at in front of diners (had to infer I was doing badly due to language barrier); frisked at the end of each shift to ensure we weren’t taking our tips home, then paid an arbitrary amount based on what our manager decided the length of our shift and rate of pay had been for that night; frequently gave lifts home to my ex-girlfriend’s bodybuilding homophobic brother with West Side Story playing on the car stereo. Lasted three months; entire restaurant shut down within a year for largely employing illegal immigrants.
  • August 2009 to September 2010; sales assistant in independent bookshop. Nothing amusingly bad to report. Based in picturesque historic market town; street outside had a stream running down the middle; treated as intelligent; therapeutic work with kind people. Lasted the full year; given leaving present of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on audio cassette that we had never been able to sell; listened to it as I packed for university.
  • Late 2014; call-centre boy for package holiday provider. Panicked upon graduating and went for the first job that came up. Early morning walks to my shifts filled with promise by their regular soundtracks of Radio 3 podcasts; that promise not met. Desolate training sessions in which line manager responded to colleague’s mention of personal space issues arising from Asperger syndrome by playfully stroking him over a prolonged period as he grew steadily more uncomfortable. Lasted three weeks.
  • Early 2015; graduate sales internship. Cold-calling homeware stores to sell them poorly made cheeseboards, perpetually cycling through small spreadsheet of potential customers who were always annoyed to be called; husband-and-wife management team; line manager wife bullied entire sales team for not selling enough cheeseboards except for me, in spite of the others consistently selling more than me; I was assigned charities to sell cheeseboards, leading to a phone call to Amnesty International which I quickly had to terminate when they asked what country out products were made in; one day came in to find entire sales team had been sacked except for me; was offered a permanent position and immediately resigned. Lasted four months; first experienced panic attacks during this time.
  • Mid-2017 to present day; children’s TV (can’t specify which broadcaster, as it goes against BBC policy). Work a reward in itself; to play any small part in something that made such a difference to me. Added bonus that I never expected to end up loving the people I worked with; two close colleagues left over the last fortnight and I find myself feeling bereft, knowing I will miss them terribly after two and half years of working together; ears still ring with their voices and the sight of their smiling faces each morning lingers in my mind’s eye; memories of them helping me through difficult times and me helping them flit through my head as I process their absence; know all will be well even without them because the whole team is so full of love and dedication to the work and to each other. Could last forever.

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Silence Falls

The tear trickling from Laura’s eye quickly turned to frost on her cheek. The room was nearly as cold as the casket they were lowering her into.

‘Don’t cry, Laura. Don’t struggle,’ cooed the husky voice of Guru Dudu. Even the icy cold couldn’t diminish the sunny aura of the Australian, his brilliant yellow-orange clothes and rose-tinted goggles illuminating the room. For the time being, there was life in the morgue.

‘But… you said…’ Laura tried to protest in a panicked whisper. ‘Shhh…’ the voice of the entrepreneur trickled into her ear. ‘You knew when you signed the contract that it would only be until September,’ he reassured her.

He was quite right, of course. The rest of the year round, the city only hosted enough gormless tourists to prop up one silent disco walking tour outlet, along with the Harry Potter walking tour industry and the slowly eroding the statue of Greyfriars Bobby’s nose industry. Edinburgh council only allowed them to emerge for August because they reasoned they’d already be making shedloads from narcissists and simpletons ruining the city anyway. Little did they know.

‘Yes,’ she whimpered. ‘But, not like this.’

A terrible, feather-light snigger. ‘What did you think it was going to be?’

‘I was… I was going to go travelling in Spain.’

The snigger erupted into a roar of laughter. Bouncing off the metal doors, muffled by the resting bodies. ‘Spain? Spain. No, no, no. You shall sleep here until the time comes again.’

She stifled her cries. He took pity. ‘You’ll be happier next time. Everyone else has got used to it. Andy never went back to being the joker of his office. And Zara dropped all her plans to find her family, didn’t you Zara?’

‘Yes, Guru,’ smiled Zara, as she lowered Laura’s arm down to her side and released it. ‘I have a new family now. And a new life. A life of dance.’

Laura had to hope it was true. She tried to take deeper breaths, control herself. The Guru was touched by the effort. He leaned over, gently kissed her forehead, and whispered, ‘See you next morning. August 2020.’

He and Zara shut Laura beneath the lid. He pulled the lever, and the coolant rushed into the casket. Slowly, the loud hiss died down, and silence fell once again. With Zara, he shifted it through a metal door, and sealed it firmly.

They exchanged a lingering smile. Only the two of them left to do. Then, a long sleep. And the dance would begin again. Even more adventurers to join them on their romps through the city. And all the people from before would be back. The message had already been placed in their minds by the headphones. The infection. They would not be able to help but come back, though they’d be unable to think why. And then they would get their instructions.

The Guru and Zara glanced up towards the ground. Soon. So soon.

Up above them, the wasteland of Bristo Square was returning to life. A pair of mislaid headphones sat forgotten by a bin. I Wanna Dance With Somebody whimpered tinnily out of its own accord. Forgotten. For now.

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