Shiny happy people

Children's TV is fronted by squeaky-clean paragons. So when they fall, like Richard Bacon, they fall hard.

Given the public furore, you would think that Richard Bacon had appeared on Blue Peter and explained to young viewers: "Here's a bong I made earlier. This is how you smoke it." Indeed, you could be forgiven for imagining that he had described a new technique for snorting cocaine using sticky-back plastic and old toilet rolls.

In fact, the 22-year-old presenter of the classic children's programme was caught out by the newspapers on a vodka and cocaine-fuelled Saturday- night bender. Had it not been for the press attention, none of his 5.5million viewers would have known anything about it. They would never have learned what their shiny, smiling hero got up to once the programme's pets were tucked in their baskets and he slipped off his Blue Peter badge.

But the fact that the offending behaviour took place in Bacon's private time made little difference to BBC chiefs. He was immediately sacked. Yesterday, as children switched on for a pre-recorded Monday edition, Lorraine Heggessey, head of BBC children's programmes, appeared beforehand to tell them what had happened. The nation's young mourned briefly for a popular presenter who had taken an "illegal drug" and then moved on to enjoy Stuart Miles' exciting report on gorillas in Uganda.

The sacking prompted a predictable tirade from Chris Evans on his Virgin Radio Breakfast Show yesterday. Drugs are commonplace at the Beeb, Evans teased his former employers, so why were they making an example of poor old Richard Bacon?

Because, Chris, Blue Peter is, in the minds of most adults, perhaps the last bastion of innocent childhood; a safe environment where our little sweethearts are protected from the nasty aspects of modern life. Mainly watched by five- to 11-year-olds, it has a unique place in British life. We can all remember it, the format established by the iconic era of Valerie Singleton, Peter Purves and John Noakes, in whose shadows all successors live. We might hear the crudest details of Bill Clinton's sex life on the Six O'Clock News, but Blue Peter, broadcast just half an hour earlier, is a cordoned-off zone. And that means squeaky clean presenters.

"You know that there will be nothing controversial, just good clean fun on Blue Peter," says Suzanne Barry from north London, whose six-year-old son, Douglas, tunes in regularly. "The presenters are not parent figures. They are more like older siblings or even a young uncle or aunty - someone still young enough to have fun with you and not old enough to be grumpy like your parents."

Although Suzanne Barry is sympathetic with what might have been a one- off error of judgement by Bacon, she agrees with the sacking. "It is good for children to know that if someone takes class A drugs, they will be caught and punished for doing something illegal."

Blue Peter has made its reputation by sticking to the rules. Perhaps it is the long-standing influence of Biddy Baxter, the programme's legendary editor, who ran the show with autocratic rigour. Whatever the reason, Blue Peter is excruciatingly PC. The language is scrupulously non-violent, non-sexist. The presenters, like good children, all share the limelight, none enjoying prominence over the others. Indeed, when one is away on a trip, a photograph of them will be on display, showing they are absent but not forgotten. The Advent candles are still lit in December. If you have forgotten how to make snowmen out of cotton wool and loo rolls, then tune in next month for a refresher course.

This squeaky cleanness is not peculiar to Blue Peter. It is also required of other heroes of children. So when Brian Harvey of East 17 said that he was in favour of Ecstasy, he was sacked by the band. The band was so worried that he had destroyed their airbrushed image that he was not allowed to join them again for another 18 months.

Children's programmes, pop and soaps are closely linked and individuals move between them. Take, for example, Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, the famous Ant and Dec partnership. They started out as actors on Byker Grove, a children's drama based in Newcastle. Then they became pop stars. Now they are the presenters of SM:TV Live, a live ITV entertainment show on Saturday mornings.

However, stars of early evening and early morning TV frequently find it difficult in later life to shake off the clean-cut image that is demanded in exchange for being famous with children. It took Kylie Minogue an age to shake off the sweet pop star image she gained after she left the soap opera, Neighbours. The same is true for soap star Jason Donovan, who felt that he had to be a really bad boy before he could be seen to have grown up. And some people never make it. Look at Anthea Turner. She has tried to change her image - she left her husband after a bizarre marriage, played the scarlet woman with a married man and then lay naked in front of a camera with a snake. Yet, to most of us, she still has the sanitised persona which springs to mind from her beginnings as a Blue Peter presenter.

There are, however, benefits from coming to public prominence through children's programmes. People trust you. No one could ever question the credibility of Valerie Singleton on BBC Radio Four's PM news programme. And few, after his years on the children's programme, Tiswas, would fail to think of Lenny Henry as other than cuddly and trustworthy. The same goes for the Tiswas veteran, Chris Tarrant, another trusted favourite, particularly with women.

The presenters of programmes for older children are not subject to the same strictures as those who sit together on the Blue Peter set. Zoe Ball is allowed to flaunt herself as a laddish beer-drinker. Ant and Dec are permitted plenty of doubles entendres, of which a Blue Peter presenter would not dream.

"The presenters that our readers like," says Julie Burniston of Ms magazine, "could never come out and say that they agree with taking drugs and getting drunk, but they are more streetwise. Young viewers see people who are cheekier than on Blue Peter, who they can giggle at, but they won't be embarrassed by if their parents are in the room."

You cannot blame parents for worrying about the images being put across by presenters. After all, they frequently abandon their children into their hands, just as surely as they put them into the trust of childminders. But Nick Fisher, agony uncle of the magazine J17, aimed at 12- to 16-year- olds, wonders whether people worry too much.

"We want to vet everyone that our children come in contact with. But the truth is that our children encounter lots of people who do things in their private lives that we would worry about. What about all the primary school teachers who smoke dope at the weekends? We don't know which ones do it so we prefer to imagine that none do. But even if they do smoke dope, it probably does not effect whether they are good teachers on Monday mornings.

"The same is true of some of these children presenters. Usually, it is only when they leave that we really learn what some of them have been up to. And, after all, does it really matter? All the children are really interested in is their shiny faces and their sense of humour."

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