Blue Peter: A sinking ship

It is suffering a catastrophic fall in ratings – and its fearsome long-term editor Biddy Baxter accuses the BBC of killing it off as children's tastes change. She's on the war path

This may not be a good time to mention Magpie. Biddy Baxter, the woman who ruled over Blue Peter and its coltish presenters for more than two decades, is railing against the BBC's betrayal of her show. "They are undermining it," she says. "I am sure they would like to get it off BBC1 altogether."

Something terrible has happened to the former flagship. Eight million children used to watch in the days when John Noakes jumped out of a plane, Peter Purves played with Petra, or Valerie Singleton made a model of the New York skyline out of a squeezy bottle, while the "dictatorial" editor Biddy Baxter clacked through the control room in her trademark heels. Now the viewing figures are down to about 100,000, as revealed last week in a report by the BBC Trust, which warned that Blue Peter is in danger of extinction.

The cause is a ratings war between channels trying to build the maximum audience for their early-evening news reports, which leads ITV and others to put on popular adult quizzes in the crucial post-school period. The BBC used to take kids all the way to the news. Now it gives up at 5pm and calls for Anne Robinson and The Weakest Link. Viewing figures for Blue Peter and Newsround, which start earlier these days, have fallen by a third in two years. The result is serious damage to the BBC's constitutional commitment to education and citizenship, said the trust report. "It's really rather shocking that the public service broadcasting channel has sold out in that way," said Baxter on Tuesday, calling the BBC "irresponsible".

A few days later, in a café near Broadcasting House, this formidable 75-year-old was ready to go further. "The programme is starting before a large proportion of the audience is back from school. This is the height of child viewing, with the dark evenings. If it's 100,000 now, goodness knows what it's going to be in the summer."

The content and presenters were still "superb" she said, citing a recent special on the Holocaust. But boys and girls seem to prefer SpongeBob SquarePants these days. When Blue Peter was in its prime, Magpie was its only rival. It was frothy, funky commercial TV versus the upstanding BBC, and parents made their choice. Now, in the digital age, there are so many alternatives. Up against Blue Peter on Wednesday were shows on the CITV, Boomerang, Disney and Nickelodeon channels, and even the quite funny Prank Patrol on CBBC. This has now become the channel parents turn to if they want their little ones to avoid the ads. But rather than synchronise shows, as it does with the news, the BBC chooses to put up quality opposition – aimed at exactly the same audience – to its own former pride and joy. "I find that unbelievable," said Biddy Baxter, who suspects BBC chiefs are aiming to hive off Blue Peter to the satellite channel. "Even that would be kicking the audience in the teeth. I really don't think they'd take it off completely. There would be an outcry."

From whom? Not the six- to 12-year-olds who are already watching cartoons or playing on the Wii instead. The outcry would come from parents who grew up with Val and John (or Peter, Sarah, Janet or even Konnie). Some critics say nostalgia is what is keeping Blue Peter on air. The love is for a golden age presided over by Joan Maureen "Biddy" Baxter, whose name appeared last in the credits from 1962 to 1988. She was in charge. Even last week, giving a rare interview to vent her strong feelings, she set the parameters, sweetly but firmly. No photograph. No visit to her flat. Just tea nearby, at the Royal Institute of British Architects, behind Broadcasting House.

She arrived in a long coat with a fluffy purple feather boa. Her fingernails were painted gold to match long earrings, and a little dog on a chain looked like Petra. Baxter had much the same blonde bob as in the photograph from 1966 that she had brought with her. She was in her prime then, having saved a failing show with animals, competitions, junk modelling, milk bottle top appeals and the badges that became precious. There should be a gold one for asking the awkward questions that fans of the Baxter era had always wanted to put.

Was it true that she smuggled in a substitute Petra when the first Blue Peter dog died after one appearance? "Yes. I absolutely stand by that." Did she – as rumour had it – really use Petra and the other animals who died to fertilise her roses, and not bury them in the Blue Peter garden? She laughed. "Can I say for the record that I have always lived in flats, and they have never had gardens."

Did she know what the presenters were up to? The scandals got more serious when she was no longer around to protect the Blue Peter morality so fiercely – including Richard Bacon's coke-taking in 1998 and the fixing of competitions – but perhaps the most shocking revelation of all came with the recent publication of a book by Peter Purves.

He was the dull one, the doggy one, the one who didn't skydive, who now said he enjoyed a drunken one-night stand with Valerie Singleton. And he hinted at a fling with Lesley Judd. For middle-aged men whose adolescence had been a tug of love between sunny, golden Lesley and dark, mysterious Val, this was a sickener. From the look on her face, Baxter shared that distaste, but she said, gamely: "They were free human beings. Good luck to them. All I cared about was what they did on the programme. Personally, I would rather die than write about my private life." She paused. "Then I'm not an artiste." Sigh. "It sells books."

Incidentally, she had her own clear view on which of the women was the more attractive. It was said clinically, by someone used to plucking actors and dancers out of obscurity: "Lesley had much better legs."

Was she a dictator, as reputed? "Is your editor dictatorial?" No comment. "It's difficult to be an editor and not edit." But Peter Purves called Blue Peter her "control freak empire". He said: "This woman controlled our lives, and she didn't do it very nicely." Valerie Singleton said she acted as if they were children. John Noakes called her awful: "She was a bully who treated me like some country yokel from Yorkshire. I couldn't abide her."

In person, she seemed charming, but that charm was used to great effect. She would not, for example, allow the complaints of her former presenters to be listed in her hearing. "I think you're a bit cruel. I'd rather be an ostrich. I put my head in the sand. I'd much rather dwell on nice things than nasty things." The most her manners would allow was this: "I had only three secretaries in 23 years, so I must have had more bearable moments."

Noakes complained that his most memorable stunts – skydiving with the Red Devils, climbing Nelson's Column – had been done without BBC insurance and "for 25 quid". Baxter bridled. "They were insured. That is a myth. Also, we gave them the absolute top whack we could." Perhaps in revenge, she revealed that the tough guy Noakes was unusually clad when he went on the Cresta Run. "He was wearing his wife's undergarments. He had a big bruise, so he wore her silk knickers."

Baxter was branded puritanical for the greatest alleged scandal of her reign, the Janet Ellis affair. Legend had it that the unmarried presenter revealed for the first time, live on air, that she was going to have a baby and that Baxter was shocked and apoplectic. "Myth," she said briskly. "There was no secret. She said she was going to have a baby and that was that. The viewers sent in baby clothes and it was lovely. I stuck up for Janet. I even had a huge ding-dong from a former fellow student at my old grammar school, who had become a bishop's wife, who went into this whole tirade. I was so aghast. I said I was surprised that a bishop's wife was not rejoicing that there was a new life. It was just outrageous."

So she wasn't "exploding in the gallery" and "smashing monitors" as suggested in one report? "This is absolute total, utter codswallop. You try smashing one of those monitors. Nobody who knows anything about a control room would write that."

Few details of Biddy Baxter's private life ever emerged, except that she married the musician John Hosier at some point before his death in 2000. They never had children. But as her tea cooled, she sprang a surprise by revealing the real reason why she left Blue Peter. It seems she put love and her partner's job first. "I ended it because my husband was headhunted by the Chinese," she said. "They harassed him to be director of the Academy for the Performing Arts in Hong Kong." She wanted to be with him. "I couldn't commute to Hong Kong on any kind of regular basis and still be on Blue Peter."

She also had a deputy she trusted to take over. Baxter was only 55 and there were other jobs, but nothing matched the pipe cleaner years. "It was the job of a lifetime," she said. "We achieved something with Blue Peter. That is why I'd hate to see it being destroyed."

Blue Peter by numbers

1958 was the year 'Blue Peter' first aired. The winner of Miss Great Britain 1957, Leila Williams, became the show's first presenter.

£100m raised by 'Blue Peter' appeals since it started in 1962.

22 pets have appeared on the show. Mostly dogs, cats and tortoises.

5 'Blue Peter' time capsules have been buried on the show. The first was in 1971, the last in 2000.

10,000 children have received a 'Blue Peter' badge each year. Notable recipients include Madonna, Tony Blair, Elton John and Gabby Logan.

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