For adults, it was the BBC's Michael Buerk who brought the famine in Ethiopia into British living rooms. For anyone growing up in the 1980s, however, the time to learn about such tough stuff arrived approximately an hour before the Six O'Clock News. According to Oxfam, the first funds to help to alleviate the 1983-85 crisis in East Africa came not from Band Aid, but from Blue Peter viewers. The programme has informed generations of children about current affairs, soft and hard, from the Khmer Rouge's rule in Cambodia to the eruption of Mount Etna.
"Biddy Baxter always insisted we shouldn't talk down to children," recalls Alex Leger, the Blue Peter producer, who in 1984 travelled to Ethiopia with presenter Simon Groom to film an appeal. "It was always our aim to tell the viewers something they didn't already know." Leger, who is 65, was Blue Peter's longest-standing staffer until he retired in 2011, after 36 years with the programme. A former Army officer, he was often dispatched to make films for hard-hitting appeals from harrowing surroundings: Malawi, Angola, Romania, Bangladesh.
Leger was also known to the show's presenters as the producer most likely to demand they undertake dangerous challenges. "Alex was the director we feared and loved in the same sentence," Anthea Turner has said.
When Gethin Jones left the programme, his parting speech to colleagues mentioned one hazard- assessment form, completed by Leger before a shoot, which contained the warning: "Gethin may die." True, Leger says. "Gethin was coming up from 18 metres below the surface in a submarine-escape-training tank. If he didn't blow out the air in his lungs as he rose, it would expand and rupture the blood vessels, so he'd die of asphyxiation. There was a guy positioned halfway up the tank, ready to punch him in the solar plexus if he hadn't breathed out by then!" In 1983 Leger filmed the record-breaking moment when Blue Peter's Janet Ellis became the first woman to free-fall from 20,000 feet. "Some presenters are fearful, some aren't," he says. "The secret is to find the ones who are going to be scared, then put them in that situation and see how they deal with it. Janet said in her audition that she'd be prepared to do free-fall parachuting, but it was obvious she was pretty scared by it. I think people who do things when they're scared are courageous, and she was tremendously courageous."
Despite his vertigo, Leger performed two parachute jumps himself. "I have a natural instinct to leap from high places, which I find terrifying," he says. "But when you've got a parachute on, it's great!" Though he has filmed Blue Peter presenters hang-gliding (Matt Baker), wing-walking (Zoe Salmon) and being strapped to the sails of a windmill (Mark Curry), Leger says his most dangerous moment came in 2009, when he persuaded Helen Skelton to wear a beard of bees on a honey farm in Devon. "I keep bees myself," he says. "They can be very temperamental."
All these recollections and more are contained in Leger's new book, a memoir of his Blue Peter years entitled Blue Peter: Behind the Badge. Brought up in Devon, where he now lives, he first watched the programme seriously not as a boy, but as a teenager and in his 20s at university. "It would often present something new, different or exciting. If it was something that I'd seen before, I'd switch off. And that's what I tried to avoid while I was working there. You've got to provide something really punchy and new every few weeks, or the viewers will turn off."
Leger spent two less-than-satisfying years in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, and was set for a career as a BBC management consultant when, in 1975, he was hired instead as a production assistant on Blue Peter by its legendary editor Biddy Baxter. "She later said they wanted me because I'd been an army officer," he says. "So they thought I'd be good at organising."
Blue Peter was the Top Gear of the time. Its budgets were big and its presenters were superstars. The format was so embedded in popular culture that a phrase invented by Baxter – "And now for something completely different" – was mockingly taken up by Monty Python. "I've worked with some really respected cameramen," Leger says. "Ken MacMillan, for instance, had shot lots of prestigious drama, like the BBC's [1985 version of] Bleak House. We were filming something like silage-making on the farm. I said, 'Ken, don't you get fed up with this'? He said, 'Alex, I can win a Bafta and nobody knows who I am. I do one Blue Peter film and I'm a hero on my street'."
The programme was also pioneering, providing lasting blueprints for many BBC filming scenarios. Leger was supposedly the first producer in the BBC to pick up a camera himself and become a "multi-skilled" director, cameraman and editor: a model now followed across the industry. He even suffered a brief and unhappy stint as a studio director in 1979.
"Biddy was very demanding. She'd comment on every shot, and if she didn't like it, she'd say so. One day I got very irritated by her interference and challenged her in front of everyone. She swept out of the box and I thought it was the end of my Blue Peter career. Biddy was clever, demanding and an inspiring leader; I was terrified of her. The next day I got in early and told her I was very sorry for having got carried away. 'Don't worry, darling!' she said. 'Water under the bridge!' And she never mentioned it again." After that, Leger would focus his energy making films beyond the studio. His work for the programme took him to Peru, where he was forced to evade bandits and Shining Path guerillas; to post-Soviet Romania, where he helped Yvette Fielding to bring the plight of the country's orphans to international attention; and even to the Melbourne set of Neighbours.
"I had an ambition to get off the beaten track and I always preferred making the appeals rather than the summer expeditions, because they'd involve deprived communities in the middle of nowhere, which was much more exciting in terms of exploration," he says. "Every year I'd have about 12 ideas that really lit my fire. I'd try to sell them to the editor and if I could get six or eight of them accepted, I'd be over the moon."
'Blue Peter: Behind the Badge' by Alex Leger is published by Lauren Productions, £20 (plus P&P), available from bluepeterbook.co.ukReuse content