Blue Peter, the longest-running children’s TV show in the world, gets its free bus pass next month – it’s chalked up an incredible 60 years. To celebrate, every single episode (5000 of them) is being made available online. Given how much classic material is missing from the BBC’s archives, I’m quite pleasantly surprised they’re all available, and when they go online, I think a binge-watch of some representative episodes is called for.
Given the competition for kids’ attention these days, I’m amazed the show is still running, but it would take some nerve to suggest axing it. It really is a cultural icon – just about anyone under about 70 in this country will have seen at least a few episodes, and have a few favourite moments etched in their brains. Personally, I watched it pretty religiously from the era of John Noakes, Peter Purves and Lesley Judd through to Mark Curry, Caron Keating and Yvette Fielding. Just about the earliest thing I can remember from the show was this clip, about Anne Frank – it aired when I was about four years old. It stuck with me, as it must be the first thing I ever heard about the Holocaust, and seeing it again many years later, it strikes me as a brilliant piece of journalism. A difficult subject was very sensitively handled, and BP has always pushed boundaries and told fascinating and moving stories in an accessible way.
All through my childhood, Blue Peter was there to show me fascinating snippets of the world, and encouraged us to think about others and raise money for good causes. We held our bring and buy sales and collected milk bottle tops for famine victims, the survivors of the Cambodian Killing Fields, and to train guide dogs. We explored exotic locations with the presenters on their summer expeditions. We made stuff out of sticky-back plastic and cornflake boxes. Simon Groom took us round his parents’ farm in Derbyshire, and showed us Mike Oldfield recording the new version of the theme tune in 1979. Before the internet, and before many of us could consider travelling very far for ourselves, Blue Peter made the world a little bit bigger.
I think possibly the only jarring failure was a well-meaning attempt to educate kids on the problems faced by disabled people – the life of Joey Deacon was extensively featured on the show, but sadly all this did was give my generation a whole new arsenal of playground insults. Not really Blue Peter’s fault, though – they did their best and it was handled sensitively, in an era when disabled people were frequently hidden away in institutions.
It’s a show that’s been easy to mock, and at times it was seen as pompously propping up the establishment. It is the archetypal middle-class show as far as kids are concerned, but that said, it’s had plenty of trailblazing presenters. John Noakes was one of the first presenters anywhere on British TV with a strong regional accent, and many others followed – I really liked Caron Keating, who was from Belfast. She had a great quirky fashion sense, too, but was sadly taken from us too soon, dying of cancer in her early forties. While exploring a churchyard in Kent about ten years ago, I found her grave – completely unaware that she was buried there, I found it bit of a shock and it made me surprisingly emotional.
One of my friends is a former BBC employee, and in 2000, he took Journeywoman and I to look around Television Centre in London. Highlight of this tour was seeing the legendary Blue Peter Garden, lovingly crafted by the late Percy Thrower and notoriously vandalised one night. I think anyone of a certain age can remember this…
It’s easy to mock now, but this was a rather more innocent age, and it was pretty shocking at the time. I remember a distraught Percy Thrower – always bit of a miserable bugger, to be honest – referring to those responsible as “mentally ill”, a comment that would rightly go down like a lead balloon these days, but they were different times, so I suppose we’d better forgive him for that.
Blue Peter is now broadcast from Salford rather than London, so I don’t know what became of the original garden, but walking around it was almost a religious experience, such was the impact that Blue Peter had on us all. It’s absolutely fundamentally etched into my brain as a treasured memory of childhood, and I’ll be digging out the popcorn and reliving a few choice moments when the old episodes go online. It’s often said “they don’t make ’em like that anymore,” but for once it appears they still do.