Blue Peter was created exactly 60 years ago by a man with a name like a limerick, John Hunter Blair. Despite its high formality – presenters buttoned up like teachers, voices like newscasters but more cheerful – the show had a radical format. It took a novel view of children, regarding them as an audience with their own tastes and interests, rather than as interim humans to be quieted while you waited for them to see sense.
The one constant across the decades has been viewer participation, with its rather broad invitation to send in literally anything interesting – a poem perhaps, or a fascinating rock. Or even yourself: for to be invited into the studio for any purpose was, and perhaps remains, the most exciting thing that could happen to a child. And that’s what happened to me in 1983.
My primary school was chosen to be one of the providers of carollers at Christmas – except it wasn’t Christmas when we went along, and it wasn’t snowing. Filming took place in November and there was a guy standing in the wings throwing fake snow at us as we stood there singing and feeling baking hot under our bobble hats. It was still exhilarating, even though it carried within it the seeds of disillusionment, since setting foot in a studio – vast, grimy, grey doors, men with tools constantly shouting for silence – kills the magic for ever.
You may lose your enchantment but, in return, you gain admission to the inner sanctum. We all got to crowd around Goldie to say hello, which gave me a lifelong prejudice against golden retrievers, so characterless and unreactive (but maybe that’s a good thing if your job means meeting a lot of kids). And we all got a silver Blue Peter badge that I’m just going to pretend I still have. The sense of belonging was very deeply planted: not that the show belongs to me, but that I belong to it.
Peter Duncan was my era’s frontman, joining in 1980, along with the unremarkable but peculiarly memorable Sarah Greene. He spoke to me over the phone for this piece, with a BBC press woman in on the call. “Well, us minor celebrities do need protecting,” he started and I thought: “You’re not minor to me.” He saw Blue Peter as driven by principle: “A kind of honesty. The young person could tune in and believe in the presenters and believe in the subjects that were being discussed.”
At first this seems like a given, something all children’s TV should be putting into practice. After all, what kind of snake goes on TV to lie to children? But then Duncan connects this thought to its antithesis: “Everybody’s selling something and that has such a powerful influence over young people’s lives. The world treats them as fresh product. What an organisation like the Beeb should be doing is enhancing the experience of being alive. If I were them, I would take Blue Peter and model it in a way to counter that exploitation – and turn it into a world brand for children, a place where they’re not marketed to.”
The Blue Peter of today, if anything, has become more overtly pro-social, beyond the periodic charity appeals, with environmentalism at its heart and mountains of green badges to give out. But commercialism isn’t just the raw act of selling: it has an attention-grabbing visual language, a frenetic pace, a flattening out of complexity that non-commercial TV feels bound to mimic. So when you see today’s presenters, Lindsey Russell and Radzi Chinyanganya, doing crafts, they’re not so different from the YouTube crafters that today’s nine-to-12 age bracket is so fascinated by – except they’re less sweary, of course, less devil-may-care, and in sad consequence a lot less interesting.
Whereas if you think about the golden years of Blue Peter crafting – the decade in which “Here’s one I made earlier” became a catchphrase that made everyone laugh not so much in mirth as in comradeship – it had an almost explicitly anti-consumerist agenda. Why go out and buy Christmas decorations when you can fashion a star yourself with two coat-hangers and some tinsel from last year, and bring the exciting risk of fire into your home for free?
The most popular craft event ever, with 100,000 viewers writing in for the instruction sheet, was Anthea Turner making Tracy Island in 1993, an incredibly complex rendering of the Thunderbirds base involving a tray, a load of cardboard, and even more silver foil. You can actually watch this now on YouTube, speeded up to take 30 seconds, but it’s much more rewarding to Google the original instructions, all 11 mind-boggling pages of them. Few things better encapsulate the early-upcycling, trash-foraging, brand-name-avoiding brilliance of the show. Instruction 13 reads: “Glue the building to the cheese box lid.” (The one that says Philadelphia on it.)
Over the years, the presenter units broke up and reconstituted, so you could place yourself solidly in John Noakes’s era but have no recollection of Peter Purves, his original straight man. Purves was always miffed about this framing, by the way. “People seem to remember me as the quiet one who didn’t take risks, but that’s unfair,” he broke his silence to observe 10 years ago. He had a brief fling with co-presenter Valerie Singleton. I pass this information on for no reason, and certainly not because I intend to list all the scandals of the show.
Blue Peter has nostalgia in its DNA, as any watercooler television does that is aimed at people going through growing up. Konnie Huq, the longest-serving female presenter, having appeared from 1997 to 2008, told me: “All the time, all the time, people come up to me and say, ‘I grew up with you.’”
Blue Peter reminiscence is a strangely constant touchpoint. A 1980s audience will be at least as familiar with the elephant incident of 1969 as they are with their own defining cultural moments. And that incident has been mischaracterised, incidentally: the funniest bit about Lulu the elephant was not that she took a dump, because all animals do that, nor even that she stood on John Noakes’s toe, because so many people must have wanted to, but that she capered about recklessly – and for one intoxicating moment, it felt like anything could have happened.
The BBC is digitising its archive, putting out a broad call for everyone’s favourite moment. Let’s be honest: not every one was golden. There was a lot of planting “time capsules” and then digging up soggy bits of paper with pretend awe. But I would definitely watch the 1970 episode, when it was the Brownies’ turn to do the carols, standing around a far-too-vigorous bonfire with a load of firefighters trying unsuccessfully to stay out of shot. I would watch Tony Hart doing anything, for ever, while Noakes, with his lack of inhibition or impulse-control, was constantly surprising, not least the time he fell off a tightrope and landed on his nuts.
Tuesday’s show – spoiler alert – is a special birthday episode that will see Ed Sheeran bestowed with a gold Blue Peter badge, along with a reprise for Richard Bacon, who was fired in 1998 after admitting he had used cocaine. Incidentally, I tried to interview Bacon for this piece, but he was busy attending Princess Eugenie’s wedding.
And while we’re at it: Sheeran, yes, he can have that gold badge, awarded for extraordinary courage or expertise, but did you know the Queen also has one? And what is she really expert at, besides being a queen? Blue Peter never got the memo about the end of the age of deference: it still approaches the royals – along with any institution, from the Scouts to the navy to the National Trust – with a ponderous humility that must be a little confusing to a modern child.
But it was never invented to keep up with the times. It was a place where people did things that weren’t allowed. They took foolhardy risks, cut things up, made a mess, fell over. Its quest is timeless.