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Blue Peter and the Golden Age of British Children's Television

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When I joined Blue Peter in 1975, its small office looked more like a jumble sale in progress than the nerve centre of one of the world's most successful and popular children's TV shows.

In those days, BBC Television Centre in Wood Lane, London, was strictly analogue - full of typewriters, whirring reel-to-reel recorders and tickertape machines.

Ceefax had gone live a year earlier using a state-of-the-art system that took up a whole room but gave minimal actual computing power.

If nothing else, the piles of clippings, strange souvenirs from overseas trips, half-finished 'makes' from the show and half-dead pot plants disguised the fact something ground-breaking was happening in the cramped Blue Peter offices.

Legendary editor Biddy Baxter ran the twice-weekly show with a rod of iron. She was a powerful leader, a stickler for detail and had helped make Blue Peter a household name. We were all terrified of letting her, and the show, down.

I would watch amused as middle-aged male contributors tried to flirt with Biddy. They were never in her league and, without exception, she would make mincemeat out of them.

Biddy knew the average ten-year-old has a short attention span and was easily distracted and if Blue Peter ever re-hashed tired ideas our viewers would simply switch off. Our viewing figures - eight million in BP's Seventies heyday - bore testament to an 'anything goes as long as its new, interesting and doesn't patronize viewers' attitude.

The filming budget for each episode in the early days was just £180 - decades later it is nearer £60,000 per programme - and ideas came from everywhere: personal experiences, viewers' letters, publicity handouts and newspapers.

In the studio, the 'makes', later to become famous for their use of so-called 'sticky back plastic tape' - no overt brands were allowed on Blue Peter - were crucial to the success of the show. Viewers could make their own and send them in and they did, everything from model ranches to bird tables to hamster homes to Tracy Island from Thunderbirds when there was a national shortage of shop-made toys during Christmas 1992. We were overwhelmed with requests for the instructions!

On the road, where I increasingly found myself, exciting exploits were the name of the game. I felt my job was to try and bring some extra oomph to the show where I could. I'd always loved getting off the beaten track and Blue Peter was the ideal platform for travel and adventure.

Mount Etna is erupting, take Simon Groom and a camera and go and film rivers of molten lava; Nelson's Column needs a clean, send John Noakes up a very long ladder to scrape off bird droppings; famine has struck Ethiopia, take Simon Groom (again) and a film crew and report on Oxfam building water distribution systems paid by the fundraising efforts of a staggering 800,000 viewers.

These, and many other adventures, too many to recount here, fronted by talented, and often incredibly courageous, presenters kept Blue Peter miles ahead of the competition.

Children's TV was still very much in its infancy. Health & Safety was covered, mostly, by common sense and careful preparation, and as a result we were able to embark on adventures that would stymie later generations of TV presenters and directors with reams of paperwork.

Many of the stunts undertaken by our presenters and crew simply wouldn't get past the planning stage today. Back then, I knew if we botched something badly someone might die and it would be on my conscience.

The show might also be cancelled as a result. That in itself was an incredibly powerful motive for not letting anything go wrong. Today, I sometimes feel the television industry has become in thrall to box ticking, and that can increase risk because it doesn't encourage lateral thinking or common sense.

The simple fact is that Blue Peter was exciting challenges and risk was inevitable.

Pushing presenters to their limits, and sometimes beyond, kept them on their toes and made amazing TV. It didn't matter if they were terrified, as long as they weren't struck dumb and could describe their experiences for viewers.

These incidents in particular remind me of the risks we took in the pursuit of a story. Simon Thomas freefalling at 120mph above the California desert with the fantastic RAF Falcons display team when his parachute failed to deploy immediately. His two instructors, falling alongside him, punched his pack until it released. Naturally, he was shaken, but showed great courage and carried on training.

Matt Baker piloting a hang-glider solo with minimal training in windy conditions when his earpiece started to fail, leaving him without instructions from the ground. Helen Skelton wearing a 'beard of bees' for the programme without any protective clothing. Later we were told another swarm had stung a sheep to death. She was incredibly cool under pressure.

And Gethin Jones accepting an incredibly risky challenge, surfacing, initially, from 18 metres underwater in a submarine escape training tank. The risk assessment I wrote that day stated simply: 'Gethin might die.'

Needless to say, thankfully, all three of these talented young men survived unscathed to present another day, and viewers loved their exploits.

Every year I would wake up in a cold sweat at the thought of finding even more far-flung places for the show to visit, and ever more challenging adventures for its presenters to undertake. It was rare for a presenter to say no. If they did, one of their colleagues would step up.

Over four decades with Blue Peter I've never failed to be amazed at the generosity of contributors, sharing their time, their expertise, their vintage aircraft, their bees... Nor of the impact the show has had on generations of British children. Everyone has their favourite presenter, their best moment and it's amazing how many drinks I've been bought over the years after a complete stranger has discovered my involvement in the TV show that helped define their childhood.

I finally retired last year after 36 years on the show to write my memoirs, but here's hoping Blue Peter and its brilliant presenters celebrate many more amazing adventures showing just how good the best children's TV can be.

www.bluepeterbook.co.uk

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