Flying the flag

First published in Features

An exhibtion at the National Media Museum celebrates Blue Peter’s 50th anniversary. The column goes along for look.

THE only problem about someone like me going to the National Media Museum, of course, is the risk of being pressganged, forcibly embalmed and turned into Exhibit X.

Formerly the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, which didn’t very comfortably fit into a tabloid headline, it was succinctly, successfully sub-edited. It’s in Bradford, near the Alhambra Theatre.

The only time I was at the Alhambra was to see Ian Botham, the Squire of Ravensworth, in pantomime. Beefy played the Robber Baron. He was an awful lot better cricketer.

The reason for the museum piece, at any rate, is an exhibition flying the flag for the 50th anniversary of Blue Peter, with which some of us have grown old – a time capsule for two generations.

The title, taken from the flag which flies before a ship sails, was intended to suggest a voyage of adventure. Had those early presenters opened with the line “Hello children, everywhere” it could hardly now seem more greatly to have been out of the ark.

First shown on October 16, 1958, originally aimed at five to eight-yearolds, Blue Peter is still live, past 4,400 editions and the world’s longest running children’s television programme.

Neatly called “Here’s one I made a little earlier”, the exhibition is on Level One. Up on Level Five another exhibition chronicles 140 years of the Press Association. Some of us never even got to Level Two.

The first presenters were Leila Williams, who’d been Miss Great Britain the year previously, and Christopher Trace, an actor who was Charlton Heston’s stand-in in Ben Hur.

Trace chuffed with a train set; he often did. Williams played with dolls’ houses; ditto. In between was a cartoon called Sparky and the Talking Train. One of many video screens round the NMM takes up the story.

“Despite the best intentions, some of the early presenters were seen by some as unimaginative and predictable...”

Certainly it’s changed from the days when Valerie Singleton, dressed rather like Looby Loo, would hold down her hemline with one hand and with the other would make a model of Dougal from a detergent bottle.

Dougal’s reaction may only be imagined.

Dougal always reminds me of the irascible Mr Wilkins in the Jennings books. “I, I, I... corrumph.”

Might John Noakes ever have imagined that, in 1997, Blue Peter presenter Richard Bacon would be fired for snorting cocaine or that, nine years later, the BBC would have to admit falsifying phone-ins? The Bradford exhibition faces the problems in an adult way, the relevant Mirror headline blown up to ten times its actual size.

“Here’s one I faked a little earlier.”

A boisterous party of Blue Peter bairns has just departed, Level One again colonised by the usual museum moochers, all plimsolls and plaggy bags, and by elderly gentlemen taking their grandchildren time travelling.

As in museums throughout the world, the lift and the “Press your own penny” machines are out of order.

Nothing’s swept under the carpet, not even the baby elephant which disgraced itself on the studio floor, stood on Noakes’s foot and dragged its peakcapped keeper off in the general direction of freedom. The Blue Peter team found it relentlessly, rib-achingly funny. The keeper appeared not to be amused. Whatever happened to Johnny Morris?

Biddy Baxter, an early producer and formative figure, comes up on another video screen. “We wanted to keep the audience on the edge of their seats,” she says.

Baxter, impeccably modulated, also recalls her interview for the job. “Well, Miss Baxter,” said a blue-rinsed senior BBC female, “what would you do in a small space with a screwdriver?” Unfortunately, she is unable to remember her response.

There are memories of the charity appeals, of the Blue Peter Garden – created by Mr Percy Thrower while dressed as if for a smoking concert at the Conservative Club – of the Blue Peter pets, Petra inevitably, and of the “makes” which helped keep the programme constructive.

There’s also a model of Mabel, another Blue Peter dog, made from recyclable hubcaps. In the nicest possible way, it always was junk television.

On another screen, a chap resembling a cross between David Cameron and Christopher Biggins talks about Blue Peter being part of Britain’s cultural furniture. It needs, he says, to be enjoyable, engaging and relevant.

Far from Sparky and the Talking Train, the show has now covered everything from Pol Pot in Cambodia to the Aids crisis in Africa.

All is deemed suitable for young eyes. Only the sight of John Noakes climbing Nelson’s Column should have carried a warning, at least for those of us giddy above five feet.

Someone else comes up to warn that there are now 600 channels, not just two, and that Blue Peter must always innovate, always challenge, always be looking over its shoulder. The children’s flagship sails on, but with uncharted waters ahead.

■ The National Media Museum, Admission to exhibitions is free, closed on Mondays. Further information –

A few things you may never have known about Blue Peter

The first competition, in 1958, invited girls (presumably) to vote for their favourite doll. 1,500 entered.

The show has had 34 presenters and 21 pets.

John Noakes was the oldest presenter, leaving at 45; Yvette Fielding the youngest, at 18. On December 1, 2007 Konnie Huq became the first female presenter to complete ten years; she left the following month.

Producer Biddy Baxter was a childhood Enid Blyton fan, wrote to the children’s author and was delighted to get a reply. The following year she wrote again and was “bitterly disappointed” to get the same letter. It prompted the establishment of the Blue Peter correspondence unit. These days the kids email, of course.

In 1967, Margaret Parnell sent in simple instructions for making dolls’ hats. They took her on in charge of “makes” and she stayed almost 40 years.

The Queen, JK Rowling, and the actor Ewan McGregor all have Blue Peter gold badges. Among the perks is free admission to the public areas of Buckingham Palace, though Her Majesty probably gets in for nowt, anyway.

Free entry for Blue Peter badge holders was suspended two years ago when forged badges were being sold on eBay. They now have identity cards.

A 1986 competition to design replacement roof bosses for fire-hit York Minster attracted 33,373 entries on a “20th century” theme – many of them space travel.

Blue Peter viewers designed the first Christmas stamps, in 1966. 183 million were printed.

The programme tries never to mention commercial products.

Sellotape becomes “sticky tape”, Velcro is “self-sticking material”.

The exception was when someone on Blue Peter calculated that it would cost £480 to buy all the fiddly bits for My Little Pony. The makers threatened to sue.

Presenter Simon Groom talked on air about “a beautiful pair of knockers”, insisting that it was a reference to an item about front door furniture.

The first pet was introduced in 1963.

It died from canine distemper after just one episode.

George the tortoise is buried in the Blue Peter garden. There’s a bust of Petra, too.

Asteroid 16197, discovered eight years ago, is named after the programme.

The BBC apologised in September 2007 after the name Socks was declared the winner in a poll to name the new Blue Peter cat. In fact Cookie had received more votes.

Another BBC socks scandal.

Blue Peter was sixth in the list of 100 greatest TV programme compiled by the British Film Institute in 2000.

Scotch missed

TOM Jones wasn’t Welsh but Irish, probably only sang in the shower and for 24 years managed the Scotch Corner Hotel with unrivalled professionalism and accomplished urbanity. He died last week, aged 88.

Tom was occasionally mentioned hereabouts, usually amid recollections of the days when the Scotch Corner was considered one of the North-East’s top venues.

Last year he responded, his handwriting as immaculate as his dinner suits always were, from his home at Brompton-on-Swale, near Richmond.

“I loved the hotel and still miss it every day,” he said. “At my age just to be remembered at all is remarkable, but since it is 25 years since I handed over the reins, I feel quite honoured.”

He’d also appreciated the subsequent reference. “He enjoyed unexpected recognition from the locals,”

says Christine Graham, one of his daughters. “Before that, his dog Ben had been more widely known than he was.”

A reader had remembered him, too. “We used to say that he was the only Irishman with a Welsh name managing a Scotch hotel in England”

Some years after retirement, Tom was persuaded by Derek Waiter, visionary chairman of the Darlingtonbased Indescon group, to oversee the upmarket Bishop’s House restaurant in Grange Road, which Derek had bought for fear it become another pizza parlour.

Derek sold the restaurant in 1992, the premises many times reinvented thereafter. He’d rejected the idea of cooking himself. “My cooking’s probably even worse than yours,” he said. One of life’s gentleman, Derek died two weeks ago. He was 78.

Tom Jones had had a long fight against cancer, never forgot to show hospitality to all the care professionals who visited him, only took to his bed for the last three days.

His funeral is at St Xavier’s RC church in Richmond at 10am on Saturday.

His final resting place will be back in County Clare – the Saturday night ferry’s booked already.

THE same day’s death notices recorded the passing of Madge Beckwith, who with husband Derrick – a former professional footballer – ran several pubs in Northallerton.

Particularly, however, we remember wonderfully convivial Wednesday afternoons in front of a blazing log fire in the Fleece, the Theakston’s bitter in great good form and market day still the only time that pubs could legally open throughout.

Madge and Derrick presided genially, genuinely. Her funeral’s at All Saints, Northallerton, tomorrow at 12.30pm. Thanks for the warmth, and the memories.

STRAIGHT to the point, the Sunday Times carries a letter from Canon Tony Betts in Romanby, Northallerton on the subject of tattooing.

A Sunday Times columnist had foolishly supposed that tattooing wasn’t mentioned in the Bible.

Canon Betts, retired vicar of Knaresborough, directs them to Leviticus 19:28. “You shall not make any gashes on your flesh or tattoo any mark upon you.”

The same chapter, God speaking to Moses, proscribes everything from beard clipping to cursing the deaf, from having unfair weights and measures to “letting thy cattle gender with a diverse kind”.

There’s also something about not going up and down bearing tales.

Some of us clearly are doomed.

THERE’S also something about regarding not those who have familiar spirits, nor seeking after wizards, a passage with which the Reverend Phil Clarke is doubtless well versed.

Mr Clarke, Darlington’s superintendent Methodist minister, is helping organise a Spirit Fest – a morning of merriment – outside Northlands Methodist church in North Road on the morning of October 31, Hallowe’en.

There’ll be a party tent (“faces painted, souls restored”), a puppet show, craft workshop, art exhibition, live music, prayer station.

The date, says the minister, is a happy coincidence. “It’s designed to put the church positively onto the street. We want to show that we’re alive and kicking and that the church isn’t as gloomy as people suppose.

“Hallowe’en has gone wrong. We have a far better story to tell than dabbling in darkness, or scaring old people out of their wits.”

AT the foot of its leader column, The Guardian has a little slot called “In praise of...” The Stokesley Stockbroker, whose recall of these Echo columns is far greater than their author’s, forwards last week’s encomium to Sir Frank Pick.

Pick was a draper’s son who attended St Peter’s School in York, became the first chief executive of London Underground and commissioned both the “bullseye” roundel and the diagrammatic route map – both of which survive.

St Peter’s still presents an annual design award in his memory, a prize never lifted by Ian Reeve, an old boy who is now the BBC’s North-East industrial correspondent.

“For some reason my yoghurt pots tied with string were never considered good enough,” he once recalled.

Alex Nelson, self-styled station master at Chester-le-Street and a man who really knows his way around the railways, is so taken with him that, off the waiting room, there’s the Sir Frank Pick Memorial Loo.

The Stockbroker remembered. As always, he had something to go on.

...and finally, Michael Clark in Stockton notes a Pot Noodles commercial featuring a twirling fork “designed to facilitate the ingestion of this curious comestible”.

What particularly fascinates him, however, is that one of the attendant characters is a dead ringer for me – “except perhaps not as distinguished looking”.

A pot model, as it were. He shall be hearing from our solicitors.

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