Peter Fleming on Blue Peter

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!

Hello, there!

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,

Another Peter

Blue Peter’s 60th birthday special is broadcast on CBBC, Tuesday 16th October, 17:00.


Ghostwatch (1992)

Twenty-four Hallowe’ens ago, BBC1 broadcast Ghostwatch to a minor furore. Ostensibly a live documentary presented by Michael Parkinson, it examines a supposed haunting in suburban North London, only for the poltergeist at work to use the broadcast as a nationwide séance, terrorising a family and seeking manifestation. The drama follows the narrative path of the climax of Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59), as a live TV broadcast, and the gaze of the masses upon paranormal events, inadvertently causes catastrophe.

Ghostwatch was billed explicitly as a drama, with a cast list, writers’ credit and an ident revealing it to be part of the BBC’s Screen One strand – all within the opening titles. Coming to it fresh today, it’s sometimes hard to see it as a 1990s answer to Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds (1938). For one thing, we can only watch it retrospectively, not as a live event, but also we now live in an age when viewers are more regularly alerted to the vocabulary of TV programmes and genres. (We live in a post-Screenwipe age, is perhaps what I’m suggesting.) If we’re familiar with the grammar of live TV, the nature of its mistakes, the occasional bouts of dead air, then the artifice of Ghostwatch becomes easier to spot. Yet for its flaws by today’s standards, the programme still has the capacity to spook nearly a quarter of a century on.

Unsurprisingly, the strongest and most convincing performances come from those cast members who work primarily as presenters. Watching it, I found some of the ‘civilians’ of the piece to give too refined a performance – knowing, affected, not rough enough around the edges. It wouldn’t be an issue if we were watching a programme working on the vocabulary of a fictional drama, but Ghostwatch’s script is designed to follow that of live television, inarticulate warts and all. When an ordinary person articulates themselves so clearly, so apparently effortlessly, we sense preparation. The frisson of live television dies a little.

I wondered at times whether the studio segments of the programme might have benefitted from an audience – not necessarily a vocal one, but one that might energise the performances within the studio, helping the programme escalate to its climax. Regardless, Michael Parkinson steers the programme very effectively, always maintaining the right tone. Special mention too should go to Craig Charles, sidelined towards the end, but displaying a very clear understanding out on location of just what kind of performance, and what kind of energy, the programme needs to succeed.

Technically as well, Ghostwatch seems just a little too competent for its own good early on. Even now, we tune in to live TV almost hoping for a few cock-ups here and there. As audiences, we quite enjoy disasters like One Direction’s appearance on Doctor Who Live: The Afterparty. Glitches like those, including those far less laughable, are part of the joy of a live broadcast – they remind us that what we’re watching genuinely is unfolding before our eyes.  When they’re absent altogether, we start to suspect we’re seeing something altogether safer: exactly what a programme like Ghostwatch doesn’t need.

Yet glitches in the production, if not always in the performances, are often incorporated by design – there is awareness behind the scenes of the need for imperfection. In the rush of the moment, cameras aren’t always well-placed to capture what the programme needs to see. Possible sightings of the ghostly presence, ‘Pipes’, are often just beyond our view, while much of the climax is shrouded in darkness or viewed on infra-red cameras. Increasingly hysterical sounds– often the screams of innumerable terrified cats – are heard from unseen sources. Deeply troubling stories of the house and its previous occupant are recounted piecemeal by old neighbours. We can’t know the full nature of what we’re dealing with. Kept just out of sight, the thrill of the ghost is in the chase, not the capture.

Thanks to the cultural shift brought in by catch-up TV, and our distance from the programme now, elements don’t always spook us as they might have in 1992. The shadow of Pipes is glimpsed in the daughters’ bedroom in North London. Separate versions of the same footage are used in sequence, designed to trick viewers watching live into thinking their own imagination could be at play. At the time, unable to go back and review, that would have stirred the imagination in just the right way. It stirs ours too, but perhaps now only when we can bring ourselves to view the programme as a drama.

Yet fabricated technical imperfections do bring a sense of immediate menace later on. Best of all is when ‘Pipes’ again becomes visible in the bedroom as the camera briefly pans around the room during a poltergeist incident. Suddenly the camera stops, spins back – nothing there now. At once, we’ve just been given a POV shot, and we’re involved in the unfolding events – the cameraman agrees with us. Something is very wrong. Here, at least, we all feel some of the urgent worry that crossed the minds of any viewers taken in in 1992.

While it’s easier now for Ghostwatch to spook us if we look back on it as a fiction, we can still therefore grasp at the fear it provoked in some viewers when its attempts at illusion paid off. Unable to look back on this live programme, they were left at the mercy of its makers to reassure them, only for the makers to prove increasingly incapable of doing so. As glimpses and partial encounters build up within the house, and members of its cast and crew find themselves in extreme danger, the programme reaches a pitch of hysteria. Thanks in no small part to the fact that everything is hinted to us, nothing made explicit.

Its final scene offers no real resolution. The studio is left in darkness, Parkinson wandering aimlessly, the camera out of focus, abandoned by its operator. Nothing is sure of those left in the haunted house, or of those in the studio, or even of the viewers at home, party to this unwitting séance. We’re abandoned in the unknown by the ‘live’ disaster, and without the safety of predetermined narrative structure, we’re left shivering before the potential, unknowable aftermaths. Its blistering ending shows that Ghostwatch knew where its strengths lay all along.