“Once you’ve done Blue Peter, I think you can face most things.” Northern Soul meets Blue Peter presenters, past and present
When I was growing up, I had two career ambitions: 1) to be a pop star, and 2) to be a Blue Peter presenter. Unless they start a spin-off show called Blue Rinse Peter, it’s possible I’ve missed the boat with the latter dream. So, when the chance presented itself to report from the blue carpet at the iconic TV programme’s 60th birthday, I didn’t need asking twice.
Blue Peter has been an integral part of the nation’s viewing habits since 1958. Everyone fondly remembers the presenters from their childhood – for me, the classic triumvirate of Judd, Purves & Noakes – and who could forget the sticky-backed plastic that no shop ever stocked, the pets (I remain dubious that the tortoise emerging from the hibernation box in March was the same one that went in on bonfire night) and the festive appeals offering young viewers the opportunity to help the less fortunate. In terms of TV fundraising, Blue Peter was most likely the first show to harness the power of the viewer.
The programme still receives 100,000 letters and pictures each year, with double that figure owning at least one sought after BP badge. They don’t just hand badges out, though. You have to give something of yourself to earn one. The cub reporter positioned next to me in the press area had seven badges. I was about to say that nobody likes a smart ass when a parade of past presenters was brought before us.
It was perhaps the biggest collection of BP alumni ever assembled: 27 in all from Leila Williams, who joined in 1958, to current hosting duo Radzi and Lindsey who were preparing for the live celebration show. And it was obvious that everyone was delighted to be together again to celebrate one of the most coveted jobs in television. For Sarah Greene (1980-83), it had been emotional. “I’ve been in tears in a good way twice already just seeing everybody. We’re all like layers of an extended family and when you’ve got this type of bond you want to nurture and foster it. We’re all linked by something amazing.”
Simon Thomas (1999-2005) echoed the sentiment. “Being a Blue Peter presenter is something that never really leaves you. After I’d been told I had the job, I walked through BBC TV Centre and passed pictures on the wall of the 27 presenters before me. That’s when I realised I’d just joined the most exclusive TV club in the world.”
It’s been ten years since Zoe Salmon (2004-08) was on the show but the thrill remains: “I still pinch myself even now because it’s one of the most amazing jobs in the world. It just never felt like work.”
Being a Blue Peter presenter was life-changing for most of those lucky enough to do it, not least Richard Bacon (1997-98) who was absent from the 40th celebrations after being sacked for admitting to taking cocaine. “If I hadn’t done Blue Peter, I think every single thing about my life would be different,” he told me. “Through getting the job and also through losing it, the show set me off on a different course doing things like The Big Breakfast. I honestly think my wife, children, where I live, and every facet of my life would be different if none of it had happened. It was my first TV job and then getting caught up in a public scandal also changed who I am. I’ve hosted a lot of shows but the one I have most affection for is the one that I got fired from.”
Of all the familiar faces I chatted to, I was most star-struck by Lesley Judd (1972-79), the Blue Peter girl when I was growing up. I confessed that I felt I should curtsy or something. “Carry on,” she replied. Judd was one of the earliest female hosts to prove that girls could do anything the guys did. On one assignment, she almost came a cropper when her harness snapped as she travelled by rope from a boat to Bishop Rock lighthouse. “That was very scary, and I still have nightmares about it. When the footage comes on, I can’t watch it or even listen to myself because I sound so scared. We showed how it was though and didn’t try to hide it from the viewers.”
The programme has long been a trailblazer for ‘girl power’ and dismissing gender boundaries. The boys were just as likely to be making cakes or babysitting while their female colleagues took on tough challenges and stunts.
“There was no discrimination based on gender on the show,” reflected Janet Ellis (1983-87). Ellis was the first civilian woman in Europe to free fall from 20,000 feet. “At the time I never gave it a second thought that I got to do everything. It was only in retrospect that I realised how amazing that was.”
For Katy Hill (1995-2000) the chance to be an action girl was the big attraction. “I wanted to do the job because there were no limits for the female presenters. When I was a kid, many girls still wanted sewing kits for Christmas whereas I was climbing trees. The BP girls were such an inspiration jumping out of planes and doing all the things I wanted to do.”
Helen Skelton (2008-13) says she loved being a daredevil but it was a title she sometimes earned by default. “Whenever an idea came up like, ‘who wants to jump out of an aeroplane?’ The guys would just stand back and let me do it. And if you dared say ‘no’ on Blue Peter they’d make you do it anyway. I hated rats, so they buried me in a coffin with loads of them. I also had 12,000 bees on my face which was pretty tough. The whole point of the show is to be daring and be the best version of yourself though it’s also OK to try and fail sometimes.”
The fear factor was clearly been a positive motivator, as Stuart Miles (1994-99) explained: “I wasn’t a natural action man type who could just go and do daredevil stuff. I’d watch Peter Duncan do some amazing stunts and never think I could do any of that. Yet, it’s quite remarkable because, when it’s you on the show, you end up doing similar stuff. I was terrified at my first parachute jump but sometimes that fear is a good thing to show. If I’d just gone ‘oh this is easy’ it wouldn’t have rung true and Blue Peter has always been an honest programme.”
Hosting a live magazine show is a challenge. Blue Peter was the pre-cursor for the type of TV fare we’ve become used to such as The One Show and This Morning. For the veteran presenters, additional palpitations came via the lack of an autocue. “I still feel my heart pounding when I hear the title music,” confesses Sarah Greene. “But there’s something very exciting about live TV and the adrenaline rush is quite addictive. Once you’ve done Blue Peter, I think you can face most things.”
“Sarah didn’t help sometimes, though,” chipped in Peter Duncan (1980-86). “I was very good at making things, but Sarah used to crawl under the table and fiddle with my shoelaces to put me off. I was often close to losing it.”
“It’s the university of presenting,” declared John Leslie (1989-94). “If you want to work in TV there’s nothing else like Blue Peter. I was very shy at the start of my time on the show but by the end I felt I could do anything. My first assignment was to throw myself off a bridge on a bungee cord. I wouldn’t do it now though.”
Occasionally, a familiar face joined the team. Anthea Turner (1992-94) had presented Saturday morning shows and Top Of The Pops before she got the BP job. “I think they wanted somebody who could hit the ground running. I’d been around the block, but it was still amazing to get Blue Peter. It’s not just another programme, it’s a piece of BBC history and you need to get it right. You’ve always got to have something ready just in case the unexpected happens. Eamonn Holmes always says ‘you get paid for when it goes wrong, not when it goes right’ and that’s so true.”
Knowing what to do if something goes awry or a crisis occurs is somewhere Turner excels. This woman can remove a stain from a cushion cover from 40 feet away. Whenever I’m stuck about something, I often ponder ‘what would Anthea do?’ “My goodness me,” she laughed. “I usually think ‘what would Ralph Lauren do?’ But I’m happy to be thought of as Miss Fix It.”
One of the main ingredients that has kept the BP ship sailing for 60 years is the ability to be on the same level as its audience. This was a key factor for Anita West (1962). “I believed in the show because it didn’t talk down to children and it’s continued to stick to that. That’s one of the reasons why I was thrilled to be a part of it.”
The thousands of competition entries and drawings adorning the studio are testament to the fact that, despite the wide range of multi-channel options on offer, today’s kids are still as engaged with the show as much as they ever were. The popularity of the programme passing down the generations is keenly felt by members of the team such as Yvette Fielding (1987-1992). At 17-years-old, she was the youngest presenter to get the job. “I was brought up on it, my kids were brought up on it and I hope it lasts for another 60 years. I think it’s the dream role for most aspiring presenters.”
It’s a similar story for Janet Ellis: “I watched it when I was a child, then presented it while having my own children and now I watch with my grandchildren.”
“It’s wonderful how the legacy gets handed down,” added Katy Hill. “My 12-year-old daughter idolises current BP girl Lindsey Russell. I was the first civilian to do a display with the Red Arrows, and my daughter wasn’t massively impressed, but when Lindsey flew with them it was suddenly a big deal. It’s not all roses though. It’s hard doing early morning filming out in the cold though it’s always worth it.”
One name forever associated with the Blue Peter success story is former editor Biddy Baxter (1963-88). Many of the team cite Baxter as the force behind the programme. Her successor Lewis Bronze (1988-96) told me how influential Baxter was. “She had a vision for what she wanted and was very focused on the audience. She wasn’t a tyrant though. You could change her mind if you were prepared to argue your point and ultimately it was all for the benefit of the show and its audience.”
He continued: “Biddy was uncompromising about what she wanted to see on air. If somebody had a tremendous collection, Biddy didn’t want two or three things to represent it, she wanted the whole shebang and would fling open the studio doors to accommodate it.”
When Baxter appeared on the blue carpet, it was like the arrival of royalty. I wondered if she ever thought the programme would still be around after six decades? “No, never in a million years. It’s very emotional and thrilling. I think viewer loyalty was cemented early on because we knew viewers are the show. We wanted their ideas and there was no distance between us. We also set up a correspondence unit and made sure we kept in touch with everyone. We had all ages watching and engaging with us and we never did babyish items or spoke down to kids. I think unpredictability is one of the keys to Blue Peter and its long-running success.”
As for that success continuing, Peter Duncan is confident about the future. “I think the show will probably carry on longer than the BBC. We all feel for the programme and for the people who have watched it down the years and that is a very powerful connection.”
Sarah Greene added: “There’s probably even more of a place for it now because things are so disparate. Blue Peter is about going on any adventure you want within a safe environment. I think that’s more necessary now than ever.”
Once the blue carpet was rolled up, we all trooped into the studio where the birthday show was going out live at five. The space was festooned with giant versions of the Blue Peter ship emblem (created by legendary TV artist Tony Hart) and the magnificent BBC Philharmonic Orchestra were tuning up to perform with special guests Jonas Blue, Sophie Ellis-Bextor (daughter of Janet Ellis) and The Vamps. The hour-long episode went without a hitch and the longest running children’s TV show in history sailed past its 60th like the perkiest pensioner you’re ever likely to see.
The BP badge-laden cub reporter stayed by me throughout the afternoon and had a tear in her eye as the show ended. I suspect that was more down to fatigue than emotion as she was overloaded with cameras, tripods and gadgets recording the event live on Facebook. I wouldn’t have had the first idea how to set all that up. I bet Anthea knows.
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