Choppy waters ahead for Blue Peter

Blue Peter faces the prospect of moving away from BBC1 and losing its famous garden. Gerard Gilbert asks if it will still be here when they dig up its last time capsule
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The Independent Culture

Over the years a total of five time capsules have been buried in the Blue Peter garden at BBC Television Centre in west London – most recently in 2000. This capsule is due to be disinterred in 2029, by which stage not only will the garden in its current incarnation (landscaped in 1974 by Percy Thrower, TV’s first celebrity gardener) no longer exist – the land having been sold off to developers, and a new garden constructed on a rooftop in Blue Peter’s newhome in Salford – but the show itself may well be nothing but a fond memory for the nation’s pensioners. Something to bore the grandkids about.

Recent newspaper stories that BBC bosses are considering shunting Blue Peter from BBC1, its home since 1958, to the children’s digital channel CBBC, as part of its current round of cost-cutting, were confirmed to me by a BBC spokesperson yesterday, seeming to chime with the fears of its legendary erstwhile producer, Biddy Baxter, that the Corporation is sidelining her former baby. “It would be quite wrong for it not to continue to be on BBC1,” the grande dame announced last week. “It is vitally important that it stays on the channel because it will attract more viewers.”

Attracting viewers, however, has become increasingly difficult for Blue Peter in an age of increased competition and changing tastes. In its heyday, the show was watched by a staggering eight million children with its winning combination of pets, junk-modelling and dangerous stunts (yes, take a bow, John Noakes). It now averages one twentieth of that figure, with many of the young viewers not otherwise engaged with their Wii, Xbox or PlayStation, preferring whatever else has been scheduled against it on CITV, Boomerang, Disney or Nickelodeon. CBBC meanwhile doesn’t exactly help Blue Peter’s cause by putting its own heavyweight programmes up against it – next Monday in the 4.30pm slot, for example, the popular Arthurian fantasy Merlin.

How different from my own childhood, when the only opposition came from ITV’s “funky” rip-off Magpie, while I remember causing a furore for bringing an un-rinsed plastic bleach bottle into school instead of a detergent bottle (it had been decided we’d copy a Blue Peter design for an Apollo space rocket). It’s well over 30 years since I last tuned in, so this week I paid a long overdue visit to find an enthusiastic trio of young people (am I just growing old, or do Blue Peter presenters seem to getting younger?) – Andy Akinwolere, Helen Skelton and Barney Harwood – participating in such quintessential activities as stunt-flying, meeting the Queen and stroking domestic animals. The only disappointment was the absence of “sticky-backed plastic” and the catchphrase “here’s one I made earlier”.

In fact I don’t think there was any junkmodelling on Monday’s show, although there was the death of a pet. It was left to Harwood, the show’s newest presenter, to announce the sad news that “Lucy, our gorgeous golden retriever passed away” – and at least they fessed up this time, because in one of Blue Peter’s most notorious incidents, in 1962, the very first Blue Peterpuppy died of distemper after a few days and was replaced by a lookalike – later named Petra by the blissfully unaware audience.

In fact there have been various animal incidents over the years, including Lulu the defecating baby elephant – stock footage for any TV’s Most Embarrassing Moments-style clips show – and the scandalwhen an online poll in 2007 to name a new cat was rigged. But it’s the humans who have caused the bigger shocks, including Richard Bacon “being silly and experimenting with” cocaine, Janet Ellis’s out-of-wedlock baby (this was the 1980s and Biddy Baxter was in charge – although Baxter insists she had nothing to do with Ellis subsequently leaving the show), the revelation that Peter Duncan once featured in a porn film, and, in 1985, the emergence of a video of Duncan’s successor, Michael Sundin, showing him in his underpants with a male stripper at a London nightclub.

The dichotomy between a squeaky clean children’s programme and the sometimes unwholesome antics of its adult presenters has always tickled the tabloids, but shouldn’t detract from the show’s outstanding achievements over the years, from the £100m raised by Blue Peter appeals, to the sundry good works performed by the 10,000 children who, along with Madonna, Tony Blair and Elton John, have won Blue Peter badges.

But, as the demise of Top of the Pops has proved, every show has its day – even if Biddy Baxter, arguably the last surviving upholder of the Reithian tradition, will fight its demise with tooth and claw. Here’s my prediction for what it’s worth. BBC1’s children’s slots will be colonised by BBC2 daytime shows like Flog It! and Escape to the Country, Blue Peter will move to CBBC (possibly to coincide with year’s move up north), where it will continue as an ever-diminishing national institution.

But will it survive until 2029, when that final time capsule is unearthed? I suspect that the BBC and television itself will be so unrecognisable by that date, that the existence, or not, of Blue Peter will be utterly irrelevant.