Over 5,000 editions have been produced since 1958, and almost every episode from 1964 onwards still exists in the BBC archives. This is extremely unusual for programmes of that era, and is a testament to the foresight and initiative of editor Biddy Baxter, as she personally ensured that telerecordings and, from 1970, video copies were kept of the episodes.
Many items from Blue Peter's history have become embedded in British popular culture, especially moments when things have gone wrong, such as the much-repeated clip of Lulu the elephant (from a 1969 edition) who urinated and defecated on the studio floor, appeared to tread on the foot of presenter John Noakes and then proceeded to attempt an exit, dragging her keeper along behind her. Other well-remembered and much-repeated items from this era include the Girl Guides' campfire that got out of hand on the 1970 Christmas edition, John Noakes's report on the cleaning of Nelson's Column, and Simon Groom referring to a previous item on door-knockers with the words 'what a beautiful pair of knockers'.
Through the YearsEdit
Blue Peter was first aired on 16 October 1958. It had been commissioned to producer John Hunter Blair by Owen Reed, the head of children's programmes at the BBC, as there were no programmes in existence that catered for children aged between five and eight. Reed got his inspiration after watching Children's Television Club, the brainchild of former radio producer, Trevor Hill, who created the latter show as a successor to his programme Out of School, broadcast on BBC Radio's Children's Hour; Hill networked the programme from BBC Manchester and launched it aboard the Royal Iris paddle steamer on Merseyside with presenter Judith Chalmers welcoming everyone aboard at the bottom of the gangplank.
It was subsequently televised about once a month (see Hill's autobiography Over the Airwaves, Book Guild 2005). Hill relates how Reed came to stay with him and his wife, Margaret Potter, in Cheshire, and was so taken with the "Blue Peter" flag on the side of the ship and the programme in general, that he asked to rename it and take it to London to be broadcast on a weekly basis (see Reed's obituary). The "Blue Peter" is used as a maritime signal, indicating that the vessel flying it is about to leave, and Reed chose the name to represent 'a voyage of adventure' on which the programme would set out. Hunter Blair also pointed out that blue was a child's favourite colour, and Peter was the common name of a typical child's friend.
The first two presenters were Christopher Trace, an actor, and Leila Williams, winner of Miss Great Britain in 1957. The two presenters were responsible for activities which matched the traditional gender roles. As Asa Briggs, the historian of broadcasting, expressed it in 1995: "Leila played with dolls; Chris played with trains". They were supported on occasion by Tony Hart, an artist who later designed the ship logo, who told stories about an elephant called Packi (or Packie). It was broadcast every Friday for fifteen minutes (17.00-17.15) on BBC TV (which later became BBC One). Over the first few months more features were added, including competitions, documentaries, cartoons, and stories. Early programmes were almost entirely studio-based, with very few filmed inserts being made.
From Monday October 7, 1960, Blue Peter was switched from every Friday to every Monday and extended from 15 minutes to 20 minutes (17.00-17.20). In 1961, Hunter Blair became ill, and was often absent. After he produced his last edition on 12 June 1961, a series of temporary producers took up the post. Hunter Blair was replaced the following September by Clive Parkhurst. He did not get along with Leila Williams, who recalled "he could not find anything for me to do", and in October, Williams did not appear for six editions, and was eventually fired, leaving Christopher Trace on his own or with one-off presenters. Parkhurst was replaced by John Furness, and Anita West joined Trace on 7 May 1962. She featured in just 16 editions, making her the shortest-serving presenter, and was replaced by Valerie Singleton, who presented regularly until 1972, and on special assignments until 1981. Following the departure of Furness, a new producer who was committed to Blue Peter was required, so Biddy Baxter was appointed. At the time she was contracted to schools' programmes on the radio, and therefore unable to take up her new post immediately.
It was suggested that Edward Barnes, a production assistant, would temporarily produce the show until Baxter arrived, at which point he would become her assistant. This suggestion was turned down, and a more experienced producer, Leonard Chase, was appointed, with Barnes as his assistant. Baxter eventually joined Blue Peter at the end of October 1962.
During this period, many iconic features of Blue Peter were introduced. The first appeal took place in December 1962, replacing the practice of reviewing toys that children would ask for themselves. Blue Peter's first pet, a brown and white mongrel dog named Petra, was introduced on 17 December 1962. The puppy soon died of distemper, and having decided against upsetting young viewers over the news, Barnes and Baxter had to search London pet shops for a convincing clandestine replacement. Features such as "makes" (normally involving creating something such as an advent crown, out of household junk) and cooking became regular instalments on Blue Peter and continue to be used today. The Blue Peter badge was introduced in 1963, along with the programme's new logo designed by Tony Hart. Baxter introduced a system that ensured replies sent to viewers' letters were personal; as a girl, she had written to Enid Blyton and twice received a standard reply, which had upset her.
The next year, from 28 September 1964, Blue Peter began to be broadcast twice weekly, with Baxter becoming the editor in 1965, and Barnes and Rosemary Gill (an assistant producer who had joined as a temporary producer while Baxter was doing jury service) becoming the programme's producers. The first Blue Peter book, an annual in all but name, was published this year, and have been produced nearly every year since. A third presenter, John Noakes, was introduced at the end of 1965 and became the longest-serving presenter. A complete contrast to Trace, Noakes set the scene for "daredevil" presenters that has continued through the generations of presenters. Trace left Blue Peter in July 1967, and was replaced by Peter Purves in November. The trio of Valerie Singleton, John Noakes and Peter Purves lasted five years, and according to Richard Marson were 'the most famous presenting team in the show's history'. In 1965, the first Summer Expedition (a filming trip abroad) was held in Norway, and continued every year (except 1986) until 2010 all over the world.
The first colour edition of Blue Peter aired on 14 September 1970, and the last black and white edition on 24 June 1974. A regular feature of the 1970s were the Special Assignments, which were essentially reports on interesting topics, filmed on location. Singleton took this role, and in effect became the programme's "roving reporter". Blue Peter also offered breaking news on occasion, such as the 1971 eruption of Mount Etna, as well as unique items such as the first appearance of Uri Geller on British television. In May 1976, presenter Lesley Judd interviewed Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, after he had agreed to bring his daughter's diaries to Britain.
In 1974, the Blue Peter Garden was officially opened in a green space outside the Television Centre restaurant block. By this time, Blue Peter had become an established children's programme, with regular features which have since become traditions. Its theme music was updated by Mike Oldfield in 1979, and at the end of the decade a new presenting team was brought in, consisting of Simon Groom, Tina Heath and Christopher Wenner. They were overshadowed by the success of the previous two decades, and failed to make an impact. Heath decided to leave after a year when she discovered she was pregnant, but agreed to have a live scan of her baby, something which had never been done on television before. Blue Peter was praised for this by the National Childbirth Trust who told the BBC that in 'five minutes, Blue Peter had done more to educate children about birth than they'd achieved in ten years of sending out leaflets'. Wenner was unpopular with viewers, so left along with Heath on 23 June 1980.
Sarah Greene and Peter Duncan both joined in 1980, and a new producer, Lewis Bronze, joined in 1982. The 1980s saw the Blue Peter studio become more colourful and bright, with the presenters gradually wearing more fashionable outfits, in contrast to the more formal appearance of previous decades. Several videos of Blue Peter were released from 1982, the first being Blue Peter Makes, and an omnibus comprising the two weekly editions appeared in 1986 on Sunday mornings. On 27 June 1988, Baxter took part in her final show, after nearly 26 years of involvement, and Bronze took her place as editor. Around this time, Blue Peter became distinctively environmentally aware, and introduced a green badge in November 1988 for achievements related to the environment.
In 1989 (and again in 1992 and 1994), new arrangements of the theme tune was used. Due to falling ratings in BBC children's programming, BBC1 controller Alan Yentob suggested airing a third edition of Blue Peter each week from 1995. This meant that it was sometimes pre-recorded; Joe Godwin, the director, suggested that the Friday edition should be a lighter version of Blue Peter, which would concentrate on music, celebrities and games. A fourth presenter, Katy Hill, was introduced in 1995, but unlike earlier decades, there was little stability in the line-up, with resignations and new additions made almost every year of the decade. The 1990s also saw many more live broadcasts on location, with many shot entirely away from the studio. Blue Peter was also one of the first television series to launch a website. There were also two changes of editors: Oliver Macfarlane replaced Bronze in 1996,
1998 marked the 40th anniversary of the TV show and the most talked about event to celebrate the show's 40th birthday was a trip behind LNER Peppercorn Class A2 60532 Blue Peter On an Edinburgh to London railtour. Due to safety rules none of the presenters were permitted to ride on board the footplate during the trip, however Peter Kirk (the man incharge onboard 60532 and who was presenting from the footplate) allowed Stuart Miles to travel on board the footplate between Newark-on-Trent & Peterborough (the reason for this was being due to this section being where back on 3 July 1938 an LNER A4 Locomotive no 4468 Mallard set a world speed record of 126 mph, this record still stands to this day).
In October 1998, Richard Bacon was sacked, following reports in the News of the World that he had taken cocaine. Steve Hocking then replaced Macfarlane as editor, at a time that was believed to be a difficult period for the programme. He introduced a further re-arrangement of the theme tune and a new graphics package in September 1999.
The 2000s started off when two time capsules that had been buried on Blue Peter were opened up. The former presenters were invited back to assist, and the rest of the programme looked at life in the 1970s when the first capsule was buried. With Hill's departure and replacement by Liz Barker in 2000, the new team of Konnie Huq, Simon Thomas, Matt Baker and herself made the programme strong and consistent for the next five years, which had been somewhat lacking in the 1990s. The Friday edition, as in the previous decade, featured games and competitions, but additionally there was a drama series, The Quest, which featured cameos from many former presenters.
Basil Brush also made several appearances on Fridays. It was at this time that the new Head of the BBC Children's Department, Nigel Pickard, asked for Blue Peter to be broadcast all year round. This was achieved by having two editions per week instead of three during the summer months, and using pre-recorded material. The early 2000s also introduced Christmas productions, in which the presenters took part. In 2003, Richard Marson became the new editor, and one of his first tasks was changing the output of Blue Peter on the digital CBBC, which for the first year of the channel's launch consisted of repeated editions, plus spin-off series Blue Peter Unleashed and Blue Peter Flies the World. This new arrangement involved a complex schedule of live programmes and pre-recorded material, being broadcast on BBC One and CBBC. Marson also introduced a new set, graphics and music.
In September 2007, a new editor, Tim Levell, took over. At the same time, budget cuts meant that the programme came from a smaller studio. In February 2008 the BBC One programme was moved from 5 pm to 4.35 pm to accommodate The Weakest Link, and as a result, Blue Peter's ratings dropped to as low as 100,000 viewers in the age 6–12 bracket but have since steadily improved.
The specially painted Blue Peter British Airways Boeing 757 landing at London Heathrow Airport. Writing in the BBC's in-house magazine, Ariel, in 2009, BBC Children's Controller Richard Deverell announced plans to re-invent the show to be more like the BBC's motoring programme Top Gear. Deverell hopes that by adding "danger and excitement", Blue Peter will achieve the same "playground buzz" among children as Top Gear.
On 29 March 2011, Blue Peter became the first programme in the UK to broadcast an entire show in 360 degrees on the web. Viewers were able to watch the programme via their TVs and simultaneously interact with the television studio in front and behind the cameras on the website. Viewers were also challenged to play a game where they had to find particular crew members and staff dressed up in distinctive costumes.
The final edition of Blue Peter to broadcast from the BBC's Television Centre in London, was broadcast on 28 June 2011, before a move to the BBC's new facilities at MediaCityUK in Salford. The set left behind at BBC Television Centre was subsequently purchased and installed at Sunderland University's David Puttnam Media Centre in August 2013.
When the new series started on 26 September 2011, after the usual summer break, Barney Harwood and Helen Skelton revealed the new look Blue Peter studio along with the new music and title sequence. It also saw the launch of the Blue Peter Appeal 2011 in support of Children in Need. Departed Blue Peter presenter Andy Akinwolere was not initially replaced, and for the first time in 50 years only two presenters remained on the programme, until a third member of the team, Lindsey Russell, joined the team in July 2013.
From 12 January 2012, Blue Peter has been broadcast all year round (with no break for summer) once a week, its original premiere being on CBBC Channel on Thursdays at 5.45pm, changed to 5.30pm from April 2013. It was usually repeated on Fridays on BBC One, although this ceased in December 2012. At this time, Levell left to work at BBC Radio 5 Live; he was replaced (initially in an acting capacity) as editor by Ewan Vinnicombe, who had worked on the programme as a producer since 2007. The reformatted Blue Peter occasionally also includes specials and spin-offs such as "Helen's Polar Adventure" or the Stargazing Live special on other days of the week.
On 25 July 2013, Blue Peter aired its first live outdoor broadcast from Leeds.
On 16 October 2018, Blue Peter will celebrate its 60th birthday with celebrations including a time capsule, a balloon and past presenters!