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Blue Peter: Here's one they made earlier

From incontinent elephants to John Noakes dangling off Nelson’s Column, we all have our favourite Blue Peter moments. As the show celebrates its 60th anniversary Simon Evans looks at its enduring appeal

For 60 years the distinctive strains of Barnacle Bill have meant only one thing for children across the generations, it’s time for Blue Peter.

Recently voted the best children’s television programme ever – and by some distance the longest-running children’s TV series in the world – Blue Peter has defied fads and fashion to deliver its unique mix of features, fun, education and ‘makes’. The key to the show lies in the name – Blue Peter is the blue and white flag hoisted when a ship is ready to set sail from port, so the programme was intended to be a voyage of adventure, introducing its young audience to the wonders of the world around them.

That, at least, was the intention of its creator, John Hunter Blair, who, in 1958, had been tasked with creating a show suitable for children aged between five and eight by Owen Reed, the head of children's programmes at the BBC.

Reed had been impressed by an earlier show Children’s Television Club, which was broadcast once a month from Manchester and was launched from the Royal Iris paddle steamer on Merseyside, with a young Judith Chalmers welcoming everyone aboard at the bottom of the gangplank. Impressed by the Blue Peter flag on the side of the ship, and the flexible format of the programme, Reed renamed it and moved the show to London, tasking Blair with putting together what would become Blue Peter.

First broadcast on Friday, October 16, 1958 at 5pm, it lasted just 15 minutes and was hosted by Christopher Trace, whose main claim to fame up to that point had been as a stand-in for Charlton Heston in the film Ben Hur, and former Miss Great Britain Leila Williams.

Initially, as TV historian Asa Briggs put it, “Leila played with dolls and Chris played with trains”, but gradually extra features were added, including competitions, cartoons, documentary films and stories. The much-loved TV artist Tony Hart also made an occasional appearance and it was Hart who designed the show’s distinctive logo, the Blue Peter Galleon. He received £100 for his work (about £1600 in today’s money) but no royalties – had he done so Hart would have been a millionaire (he died in 2009).

A year after its first transmission Blue Peter was moved to a Monday and extended to 20 minutes, and in 1961 came its first change of presenter, Leila Williams leaving after falling out with new, temporary producer Clive Parkhurst.

For a while Trace was paired with a series of temporary presenters until Anita West was recruited as a permanent replacement.

She didn’t last long though, resigning from the show after just 16 editions because of her imminent divorce. Anita did not reveal her reasons for leaving at the time but she knew that in those days divorcees were not welcome on children’s television. Had she not jumped, it is safe to assume, she would have been pushed.

Valerie Singleton was Anita’s replacement; a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she had originally wanted to be a dancer, but joined the BBC in 1961 as a continuity announcer. Valerie joined the Blue Peter team in 1962, and later that year Biddy Baxter came on board as producer.

A formidable character, much feared, but also respected, by those who worked with her, Biddy introduced many of the features that would come to define the programme, including the regular appeals, pets, the popular ‘makes’, the advent crown counting down to Christmas, and, in June 1963, the iconic Blue Peter badge, based on Tony Hart’s galleon design.

It didn’t all go smoothly, however; the original puppy selected to accompany the presenters died of distemper, so the production team had to scour the pet shops of London for a convincing replacement, Biddy Baxter having ruled that the nation’s children should not be unnecessarily upset by the dog’s death.

The Blue Peter badge has always been much sought after, not only because of its kudos but also, more practically, because, when presented with the necessary certificate it can be used to gain free admission for children aged 15 and under to more than 200 venues up and down the country.

Competition winners badges were also introduced, and not just for lucky winners. I remember entering a competition at the back of one of the ever-popular Blue Peter annuals – you had to find as many words as you could from the programme’s name – and being sent a letter from Biddy Baxter enclosing the badge. I hadn’t won, she explained, but had done so well they thought I deserved one anyway.

There are now six types of badges – Blue, Green, Silver, Gold, Purple and Orange. Blue can be won by viewers sending in an interesting letter, poem, picture or story, or by appearing on the programme, silver is for viewers who already have a blue but have achieved something especially noteworthy and green is an environmental award, for viewers who have made special contributions on ‘green’ subjects.

Orange replaced the old ‘Competition Winner’ badge, while the Gold badge is the programme’s highest award and is only given to people who have shown outstanding bravery and courage, or have represented their country in an international event.

Gold badge winners include Her Majesty The Queen, who received one in 2001, David Beckham, JK Rowling, Torvill and Dean and Bonnie the Blue Peter dog, who was given one on her retirement in 1991. It has also become a tradition to present a leaving presenter with a gold badge on their final show.

Introduced in 2006, the Purple badge is awarded to ‘Team Player’ children who take an active role in the show, either by reviewing it, suggesting ideas for items or helping with audience research. Famous holders of Blue Peter badges have included Madonna, Tony Blair, Mr Bean, Gordon Brown, Elton John, Pele and the late Carrie Fisher.

I’m sure I was not alone among Sixties children in being actively encouraged to watch Blue Peter. At a time when parents were suspicious of the corrupting potential of television, the programme was regarded as sufficiently ‘improving’ to not be a threat. Even my old prep school, which banned television every night of the week except Saturday, was prepared to make an exception for Blue Peter and teatime – usually an immovable 5pm feast – was even delayed two times a week to accommodate the show.

With the extra burden now being put on the presenters it was decided to expand the Blue Peter presenting team, and in 1965 John Noakes was recruited, signalling the beginning of a fondlyremembered golden age for the show.

Born John Bottomley, Noakes had served as a mechanic in the RAF before training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Stints as a clown in a summer show and a bit-part in the TV series Redcap, followed by six months in the Broadway production of Chips with Everything made for an unusual apprenticeship for Blue Peter, but Noakes was a firm favourite from the start.

His boyish charm and willingness to go where few TV presenters have gone before – the top of Nelson’s Column, cleaning the clockface of Big Ben – not to mention his friendship with his dogs, first Patch and then Shep, endeared Noakes to millions of young viewers during his 13 years on the show.

Some measure of Noakes’ popularity was that his catchphrase, “Get Down Shep”, became the title of a single by The Barron Knights that reached No. 44 in the charts.

One reason for adding Noakes to the team was that the notoriously prickly Biddy Baxter was having problems dealing with Christopher Trace – who had reportedly got the presenting job because he shared a love of train sets with John Hunter Blair. When Trace’s wife threatened to divorce him after he had a brief fling with another woman during a Blue Peter trip to Norway, the writing was on the wall.

The temperamental Trace had threatened to resign on several occasions, but with John Noakes fully embedded in the show, Baxter was able to finally call his bluff, and Trace left Blue Peter in 1967.

Life, post Blue Peter, did not treat Trace well. His production company flopped, forcing him to declare bankruptcy and for several years he worked as a presenter on the regional magazine show Look East before retiring from the media to run a pub in Norwich.

Trace’s replacement was the affable Peter Purves, whose main claim to fame up to that point had been a brief tenure in the Tardis as a Doctor Who companion.

The chemistry between Noakes, Purves and Valerie Singleton was evident from the start, and their five-year partnership is perhaps the best-known, and best-loved, in the show’s history.

It was during the tenure of this ‘dream team’ that the annual Blue Peter summer expeditions became established. A trip would be filmed and then shown the following summer during the months when the show was off the air. There have been expeditions to every continent on the globe, with memorable trips including Mexico, Japan, Morocco and Jamaica.

In 1971 the show pulled off a considerable coup when Valerie Singleton accompanied Princess Anne to Kenya, which she was visiting as President of the Save the Children Fund. This was the first solo tour for the 20-year-old Princess and also her first solo television work. Valerie Singleton left the show in 1972, and was replaced by former Young Generation dancer Lesley Judd, who stayed with the show until 1978. When she, Noakes and Purves all left the show in 1978 it really did feel like the end of an era.

Part of the reason may have been the ever imperious Baxter, who John Noakes fell out with, calling her a “stupid woman” during a 2008 documentary marking the 50th anniversary of the show.

Noakes’ deparature came amid some bitterness when he had to give up his much-loved Shep. Clearly upset over the way he was treated, Noakes later claimed that the John Noakes seen on Blue Peter was just an act, ‘idiot Noakes’, as he called him. “Idiot Noakes has an extrovert personality, is light-hearted and jokey. A bit of a buffoon who would do anything for a laugh or a few pence.”

Act it may have been, but Noakes was one of the show’s most popular presenters, enjoying a brief post-Blue Peter career with the spin-off show Go With Noakes, before moving to Majorca where he ran a boat rental business. He died last year.

In the years since the departure of Lesley Judd, Peter Purves and John Noakes presenters have come and gone, some more popular than others.

And the show has not been without its problems– one presenter had to apologise on air for taking drugs, there was a major scandal when viewers were misled over a supposed competition winner, and then there was the move away from BBC1 to the more niche CBBC channel. Blue Peter even had its very future called into question after one show (actually a catch-up repeat edition) technically registered no viewers at all. But still it endures, and former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis, writing in The Guardian earlier this year summarised its lasting appeal thus: “It’s always offered education by proxy, like a bounced ball you didn’t have to catch. It’s always had a properly childish sense of humour. And at a time when the adult default setting tends to the pessimistic, it still offers a view of a world worth living in. Worth growing up in.”

What's your best Blue Peter memory? Share it with us! 

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