1 9 5 8 – Current (UK)
On 16 October 1958, a former beauty queen and a former Army officer sat down to introduce the first edition of a programme that for over 60 years has been compulsive viewing for any child wanting to learn about life in other countries, about caring for pets or how to make a fully operational Centurion tank out of detergent bottles, toilet rolls and sticky-backed plastic.
She was 21-year-old Leila Williams, the previous year’s Miss Great Britain, and he was 25-year-old actor Christopher Trace. The show was Blue Peter.
The show was created by a genial eccentric called John Hunter Blair, who was known to put lighted pipes in his pockets in moments of excitement (and who later died from Multiple Sclerosis while watching an episode of his brainchild).
Originally just a seven-week experiment, it began as a once-a-week 15-minute programme for five to twelve-year-olds, with items on trains (for boys) and dolls (for girls), and soon grew into the show we know and love today.
Under the ever-vigilant eye of the show’s Editor Biddy Baxter, numerous presenters encouraged viewers to raise millions of pounds in the famous Blue Peter Appeals.
Instead of sending in money, children have been urged to collect old clothes, used stamps, paperback books or milk bottle tops, and by 1971 it was estimated that 7½ tons of silver paper had been sent in. I can’t remember how many Blue Peter Appeals there have been, but as a child, every lifeboat I ever saw while at the seaside had a Blue Peter sticker on it.
Some 3,000 letters poured into the production office each week, and when the show held a competition to design a train of the future, there were 110,000 entrants ranging in age from two to 72.
Christopher Trace got the job of presenter as a result of his expertise at building model railways. “It was while constructing the layouts that I invented the phrase ‘Here’s one I made earlier’ because we didn’t have instant glue in those days”.
Chris’s layouts were a feature of the show – and a source of entertainment for others, as he once discovered to his cost; “I remember a particularly complicated layout that I had gone through in great detail with the director . . . before we went for a tea break. It was planned down to the last detail – all the points were set and so on.”
“But when we did the show, trains were coming from everywhere except the places I was expecting. It was chaos. I just couldn’t understand what had happened. Then I discovered that during the tea break someone had sneaked in from the next studio and had been playing with all the trains. There was a big enquiry. The culprit was . . . Richard Dimbleby”.
Leila Williams left in 1962 following a row with the new producer who wanted the presenters to write all their own material. She protested, they had a big argument, and he sacked her.
She gave up the television industry and stayed at home to look after her husband Fred Mudd (of The Mudlarks singing group) and their young daughter Debra. She and Fred eventually moved into the pub business, running The Liverpool Arms at Kingston-Upon-Thames and the Royal Oak at Surbiton.
Such is the esteem in which Blue Peter has always been held that in 1971 Princess Anne took part in a Blue Peter Royal Safari to Kenya with Valerie Singleton. Ah, Val . . . the mere mention of her name conjures up days of an innocent childhood.
Valerie Singleton, hyperactive Yorkshireman John Noakes and Peter Purves were like family when I was a kid. These three regularly shared their giant stamp albums with us and taught us how to make a nuclear reactor out of milk bottle tops.
Without Blue Peter I would have never have known how to make Christmas decorations from coat hangers and candles (pictured above), I would never have realised that you can make guide dogs for the blind simply by collecting big balls of silver foil, and I would never have realised we needed seven hundred thousand Lifeboats on the British coast . . .
The ‘makes’ became an important ingredient to the success of Blue Peter, and “Here’s one I made earlier” is now a national catchphrase. For many years, the ‘makes’ were masterminded by Margaret Parnell.
The idea of utilising old kitchen rubbish, toilet paper rolls, washing-up liquid bottles etc. was ahead of its time in conservation terms, although there were occasional criticisms that not all viewers could afford the large quantities of sticky-backed plastic required.
The Outer Space-dwelling Bleep and Booster were created by William Timym, the sculptor who also created a statue of Petra. He wrote the stories and drew the pictures, and Peter Hawkins (who also provided the voices of The Flowerpot Men and Captain Pugwash) provided the narration and voices.
Pets were an important element of the show since 1962. The first puppy died after its first appearance on the show and, unknown to the viewers, was replaced with a look-alike whom they duly named Petra.
Other famous dogs were Bonny, Honey, Patch and presenter John Noakes’ Shep. In later years, Noakes went on to complain bitterly about his BP days (and the salary he was paid).
Many other people have since joined Biddy Baxter’s army and presented BP over the years, but to millions of kids in Britain, Blue Peter will always be Peter, John and Valerie. They never talked down to us and there was always an Alsatian (Petra), a duck or an elephant to run riot in the studio.
In one of the most often requested clips of film from British TV history, Lulu, a young misbehaving Sri Lankan elephant from Chessington Zoo visited the Blue Peter studio in 1969 with her keeper, Alec.
Lulu had already left a deposit on the studio floor before peeing rather too close to Val’s foot. This turned the floor into a skating rink, and hard as he tried, the handler was unable to prevent Lulu dragging him across the studio until he eventually slid ignominiously through the lot.
As John Noakes cheerfully said goodbye, he stepped back unaware of what his foot was about to land in. His parting words were “Oh dear, I’ve trodden right in it”.
On 16 October 1998, Blue Peter was 40 years old and on 4 January 2000 they finally dug up the time capsule they had buried in the 1970s (I remember it as though it were just . . . er . . . in the 1970s). Unfortunately, most of the contents had turned to slush.
There were scandals, too, particularly in more recent years, including stories about presenter Michael Sundin’s gay nightclub act, Simon Groom eulogising over a couple of door ornaments (“What a beautiful pair of knockers”) and Janet Ellis announcing on the programme that she was about to become an unmarried mother (It was one she’d made earlier).
Former presenter Caron Keating died in 2004 after losing a seven-year battle with breast cancer. The 41-year-old died at 1815 GMT on Tuesday 13 April at the home of her mother (Gloria Hunniford) in Sevenoaks, Kent.