Hi, everyone. Blue Peter, the world’s longest-running children’s TV programme, turns 60 this month, and I thought it would be good to mark the occasion. Therefore, I’ve handed over writing duties this week once again to Peter Fleming, a leading light of the so-called golden age of British children’s television. Him having worked at the BBC for decades, I thought it would be enlightening to read his recollections. Take it away, Peter!
I can hardly believe it, my friends. 60 years of Blue Peter (the television programme, not to be confused with the nickname some at the BBC gave me when I was going through periods of depression)! Whenever it has been on our screens, even during its best remembered eras, it has always been bread-and-butter television. No sense of its own legend – they were always too busy trying to get a half-hour in front of the cameras in time!
While I never worked on the programme myself, viewing it instead from outside with a heady mix of wonderment and furious jealousy, I did have the pleasure of appearing on it once or twice. The most notable instance was in 1967, when I was mistaken for incoming presenter Peter Purves on his first day. I didn’t realise what had happened until much later in the programme, after I had already grown increasingly confused and angry at my ‘colleagues’ and their bizarre questions about my time as a Doctor Who companion. The edition culminated in my screaming at Petra uninterrupted for around five minutes, and I must say I’m deeply disappointed it still survives in the BBC Film and Videotape Library.
That was my first contact with Valerie Singleton, and with John Noakes, who, as a running joke, pretended not to know me for decades after! It has been well-documented that I lived with him for several months in spite of this in 1977, having just moved out of the children’s home where I had lived from the age of eight up until my late thirties. He initially refused, but I managed to get my own way by cunningly disguising myself as Shep and living as a dog for six months. A relatively uneventful time in my life, yet it gave me a number of warm memories.
My favourite of all these was the day I saw John’s ascent of Nelson’s Column first-hand. I was very impressed by the dedication of the whole team making that riveting film. John had grown terribly nervous at the idea of climbing such a high ladder at such an angle, and to get around this, it was decided the most sensible option would be to dig down underneath the column until it sank into the ground and reached a more manageable height. I chipped in as well, burrowing frantically with my paws, and between us, we managed to reduce it from 52 metres to 3 in under an hour. Models and camera trickery did the rest, and hey presto – a landmark piece of television!
Those are my own connections to what happened on screen, but I have other memories as a viewer from throughout the programme’s history. I remember plenty of the animals, beyond my own experiences of attacking one of the dogs and being another. Joey the parrot was often employed as a messenger within Television Centre, for instance, and was, in spite of his erratic flights paths, by far the most efficient method of exchanging memos in the BBC at the time (he was later superseded by George the tortoise, who was able to deliver the messages slightly faster). Best of all, of course, was Lulu the elephant’s visit in 1969! Generations since have enjoyed the sight of her soiling the studio floor and felling her keeper – though they were less receptive four years on when Lulu the pop star did the exact same thing for publicity reasons.
Decades later, the programme was still making a difference, opening children’s eyes to the wider world. I remember well the 1996 summer expedition in which Tim Vincent and Diane-Louise Jordan visited South Africa, recently free from apartheid. I remember also the minor scandal that erupted following this, when it was revealed the production team had been helping undermine the ruling National Party for years, distributing anti-segregation literature and helping organise demonstrations – all for the sake of this very item years down the line! Admittedly, these minor acts of sedition didn’t garner many complaints, given the circumstances, and the team argued they had been completely open about their actions, with their ‘Topple a Regime’ appeal in 1990, and the celebration that accompanied its totaliser finally reaching its target of ‘One’.
The appeals were one thing, and the makes were another. I always admired how the programme inspired children’s creativity, and the makes also went some way to inspire my own! I would often tune in to watch in case they might spark some idea for a programme, and sure enough, this happened very often! The Cleanest Rocket in Space (1968) arose from one of Valerie’s numerous reuses of Fairy liquid bottles. The Princess Mary’s Advent Crown (1970) was similarly inspired by Blue Peter (with its title character voiced by a young Sarah Greene, no less! I can only hope she grew more competent and professional after turning 12).
And, as many will remember, I was inspired to make a return to television after being inspired by Anthea Turner’s ‘Tracy Island’ make in 1993. It was only after broadcast of this new series that I was informed I had plagiarised a pre-existing programme in its entirety. As it had been broadcast on ITV, I must admit I hadn’t been especially familiar with Thunderbirds (1965-66), but following the legal battles, I fortunately now find it very hard to forget.
Plenty of viewers like me will have joined in the makes, and likely have sent off for their very own Blue Peter Badge – that medal of honour! I was sadly too old at the badge’s inception in 1963 ever to receive my own (aside from the one I was briefly awarded for my aforementioned accidental spell of presenting in 1967). I confess that I once pinched one from under the noses of the BBC’s correspondence unit at TV Centre, but within minutes, it had burst into flames in my hand. The things seemed to know when they hadn’t been earned.
There were no hard feelings over this, of course – I accepted it was I who had been dishonest, and today I owe the correspondence unit an immense debt of gratitude. Round about the turn of the millennium, I felt myself going through increasingly lonely spells, and I really had no one to talk to. Many of my closest friends had sadly left us, and, too fearful to do anything as shameful as seek professional advice, I instead posed as a ten year-old and wrote letters to Blue Peter, asking for guidance. The replies I received were some of the most helpful and sensitive messages I’d ever had addressed to me, and I can only imagine the difference they would have made to a genuine child. I was very grateful for the signed photograph of Konnie Huq, too.
60 years old, and still entertaining, inspiring and comforting children across the land – whether from TV Centre, or from its home of the last few years in the North. At the time of that move, many argued, myself included, that the very idea of the television industry as ‘London-centric’ was an absurdity, but I’m happy now to eat my words, and admit that my eyes have been opened by the programme’s relocation to Salford (a small suburb of Manchester). London had so much as it was, and how wonderful that other children can now enjoy having such a beacon on their doorstep! Just as it has lit up so many young minds over the decades, so it does still today – and it delights me to see it now just as much as at the very beginning.
Happy birthday, Blue Peter!
With love and best wishes,
Blue Peter’s 60th birthday special is broadcast on CBBC, Tuesday 16th October, 17:00.