BLUE PETER

British Children's Program

Blue Peter is one of British television's longest running programmes, regularly reaching 5-6 million children and teenagers. It takes its name from the blue and white flag hoisted by a ship leaving port on a voyage. The originator of the programme wanted this to suggest the voyage of discovery that it would provide for its young viewers. The programming has a magazine format that involves a combination of studio presentation, interview, and demonstration with additional film report items. It is transmitted live from the BBC's Television Centre after hectic rehearsal. The programme was launched with its catchy "Barnacle Bill" signature tune in 1958 as a fifteen-minute slot, involving two presenters, described by Barnes and Baxter as "Chris Trace playing with trains and Lelia Williams playing with dolls." It became a twice-weekly, 30-minute programme in 1963. A third presenter was later introduced and its Monday/Thursday slots were changed to thrice weekly transmission (Monday/Wednesday/Friday) in 1965. Blue Peter runs for a 40-week season from autumn to early summer with a ten-week break in which special overseas items are filmed. The programme is broadcast between 17:05 and 17:35 hours, a bridging slot taking teenagers into an Australian soap opera and into "adult" early evening news. it has won over twenty major television awards including BAFTA, The Sun Television, and the National Viewers and Listeners Association for excellence in children's programming.

It is successful as a programme because it has remained true to the basic format of its original creator, John Hunter Blair, but has accommodated itself to the social change that has taken place over two generations of television viewing. Editorial continuity was achieved by the singular influence of long-standing editor Biddy Baxter, who worked on Blue Peter between 1962 and 1988. Baxter was a liberal, inventive, but demanding leader of the programme team with a very shrewd sense of how the developing medium could best be harnessed for a young audience. In the best tradition of British public service broadcasting, Blue Peter aims to inform, educate, and stimulate its target viewers with entertaining content and it remains one TV programme that parents encourage their children to watch. In the 1960s many of the programme's innovations were quickly imitated by rivals or adapted in later programmes such as ITV's Magpie, aired from 1968 to 1980. In 1965, for instance, Blue Peter introduced a puppy to the programme and then asked its viewers to send in suggestions for its name. Petra became the nation's first TV pet. Phenomenally popular, other pets, including cats and tortoises, were added to the programme so that respect for animals and pet care tips could be passed on. The programme actively encouraged the participation of its viewers by instituting a Blue Peter badge scheme (awarded for appearances on the programme or special achievements), regular competitions and an annual Christmas Appeal to raise money for charity. The studio items very often involve presenters trying new hobbies, cooking, making home-made toys from household rubbish (washing-up liquid bottles, wire coat-hangers, and "sticky-backed plastic" being favoured materials) or bringing talented youngsters into the studio to make their achievements more widely known. The overall ethos of the programme encourages children by the example of the adult presenters to "have a go", to try something new and be inquisitive about the world around them. Blue Peter presenters with strong personalities involved in unforgettable exploits have impressed themselves on the popular memory of television viewers. The phrases of their scripted cookery demonstrations ("here's one I made earlier") and idiosyncratic expressions ("get down, Shep!") have become clichés and are parodied in pop songs. The show remains "live" which means that unplanned incidents occur, much to the delight of the viewers. One such moment has gone down in British television lore. It involved a baby elephant ("Lulu") departing from the script by defecating in the studio and running amok with its elderly zoo keeper as the transmission came to a close.

 


Blue Peter
Photo courtesy

Today's presenters follow in a long line of enthusiastic personalities who have played no small part in shaping the views of generations of viewers. Critics of the programme suggest that Blue Peter's format, content and presentation epitomise a "safe" agenda of middle-class attitudes, is patronising towards young people, and replicates a dominant ideology. The programme's own audience research would suggest that on the whole its target audience do not feel patronised. Given the centrality of Blue Peter to its scheduling area, it is not surprising that it tends to reflect the values and aspirations of the institution from which it originates. It is more accurate to see Blue Peter as a barometer of social values and cultural change in Britain over the extended period of its existence. Like all successful programmes Blue Peter has had to deal with change and be flexible to a degree, but this has been uneven. Lewis Bronze, who succeeded Baxter in 1988, introduced Diane-Louisi Jordan, a Black presenter in 1990. The editorial team was quietly accepting and supportive of the unmarried status of Janet Ellis, who became pregnant, but shaken to find out that one of its ex-presenters, Michael Sundin, turned out to be gay. The significance of Blue Peter within British television history resides in its longevity, continued popularity, and institutional centrality. Within Children's BBC, Blue Peter is still, in the words of Anna Home, Head of Children's Television, "very deliberately chosen as one of the foundation stones upon which the rest of the schedule can be built."

-Lance Petit


PRESENTERS

Christopher Trace, Leila Williams, Valerie Singleton, Peter Purves, John Noakes, Diane Louisi-Jordan, Janet Ellis, Michael Sundin, and others

PRODUCER

John Hunter Blair

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

BBC
Various Times, from 1958

FURTHER READING

Baxter, B., and E. Barnes. Blue Peter: The Inside Story. London: BBC Books, 1989. BBC.

The Blue Peter Annual. London: BBC, 1964-.

Ferguson. "Black Blue Peter." In, Masterman, L., editor. Television Mythologies. London: Comedia, 1984.