Uncommon Valerie

James Rampton hails the return of Valerie Singleton to our screens
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The Independent Culture
"Here's one I made earlier." It's not the sexiest catchphrase ever uttered, but it is certainly one of the most evocative. No thirtysomething can hear that phrase without immediately thinking of Blue Peter and its inimitable presenter, Valerie Singleton.

She was, in truth, always slightly severe and nanny-knows-best-ish. She might best be characterised as a sort of no-nonsense schoolmistress figure, but we all adored her anyway - not for nothing was she known as "Auntie Val" - and the mere mention of her name is enough to send baby-boomers into nostalgic rhapsodies about used washing-up bottles and sticky-backed plastic (does anyone have the faintest idea what that was?).

Even Prince Charles is said to have swapped Blue Peter stories with her when she collected her OBE for services to broadcasting two years ago. Not that she minds. "Everybody has got something that has made them well- known," she reflects in those familiar clipped tones, "and I would never knock Blue Peter. It would be awful to be associated with something dreadful, but how can you complain about a programme that has done as much good as Blue Peter? It's really stuck in people's memories. I got in a cab just yesterday and the driver said to me, 'Hello Val, have you got a Blue Peter badge for me?' Recently I got a letter from a woman at the Premium Bonds. At the end she put, 'P.S. Any chance of a Blue Peter badge?' I wrote back: 'If you make sure my number comes up, I'll send you one.' "

Contestants have even turned up for the recording of her latest project, Backdate, a daily general knowledge quiz on C4, surreptitiously flashing Blue Peter badges worn, secret-agent style, behind the lapel. Hoping, no doubt, for a favouritism that this scrupulous adjudicator could never grant.

In addition to this unerring straightness, what distinguishes Singleton is her sheer appetite for knowledge. "I'm a great learner," she avers. "On Nationwide I'd be given stories about school exam results, for example. At first I'd think, 'Oh no, how boring', but once you look into anything, you can find interest in it."

After Rada, where she studied alongside Richard Briers and Peter O'Toole, Singleton became an actress in rep and then a continuity announcer at the BBC, before the bark of Shep and Petra lured her to Blue Peter in 1962. Ten years later she put away childish things and went all grown- up on us with Nationwide, Tonight, PM and The Money Programme.

These programmes did little to dispel the popular image of Singleton as a rather austere presenter. Now, though, she is hoping to reveal a long-supressed sense of humour. "I've suddenly discovered it," she laughs, as if to prove the point. "Friends say to me, 'You do have this zany streak, I wish we could see it more often.' On a Record Breakers special once, I arrived late and spontaneously did a funny routine, pulling a cigarette out of my ear and stuffing my bra with cotton wool. It's fun to lighten up."

Singleton has needed that sense of humour to deal with some of the recent tabloid stories about her private life. "I tell them all about Backdate, but all they write about is my sex life, which does get rather boring," she sighs. "I get cross when it's distorted." For the record, although she has remained Singleton by name and by nature, she was engaged to disc jockey Pete Murray for three years in her early 30s.

Singleton professes to be having the time of her life - making Backdate, writing travel pieces for Country Living and doing evening courses in architecture - and claims to have no regrets about kicking the hard-news habit. "People ask if I miss the cut and thrust of current affairs. 'Shouldn't you be doing the Today programme?', they say. But I've done that. I don't want the hassle of reading every paper every day. Now I can go to an art gallery instead." At the age of 58, Singleton is obviously finding this lightness of spirit intoxicating. "I always thought I'd go back to open the Blue Peter 2000 time capsule on crutches, but the other day I decided I'd go on my roller blades."

An encounter with a childhood heroine always runs the risk of leaving you disappointed, but Singleton strikes me as just as enthusiastic as she was when she grappled with a home-made Advent crown or an unruly pet. My one regret is that I'm still none the wiser about sticky- backed plastic.

'Backdate', weekdays 4pm C4