The sinking of Blue Peter
Biddy Baxter, legendary editor of the flagship children's show, lets fly at the BBC – and Peter Purves
Wednesday 11 February 2009
Biddy Baxter, the longstanding Blue Peter editor who saw to it that a whole generation of children became good citizens by watching the show, has accused the BBC of being "hugely irresponsible" by ignoring its mission to educate.
Her latest cause for anger is the revelation that the programme she devised and ruled over for 26 years now has the lowest audience figures in its history. She blames a culture that prefers game shows to quality children's programmes.
She also accused her old employers of getting in a "panic" when facing tricky decisions such as what to do about Carol Thatcher, or whether to broadcast an appeal for Gaza.
This week, the BBC Trust issued a report warning that Blue Peter's viewing figures have fallen below 100,000, after the show's slot was brought forward 20 minutes, to 4.35pm, to make room for The Weakest Link. A third of its young audience has been lost in just over a year.
"It's really rather shocking that the public service broadcasting channel has sold out in that way," Ms Baxter said. "This collapse in the figures must be due to the time. At 4.35pm, a great many children, especially the older ones, are still in school. I'm sure it's not because of the presenters, because they have got three absolutely great presenters. It's hugely irresponsible of the BBC to renege on their responsibility to a very important section of their audience. Children watch enough adult programmes not to be fobbed off with rubbish."
She also criticised the BBC for their handling of Carol Thatcher. She said: "I'm not condoning what was said, but it wasn't broadcast, but when you compare it with the Jonathan Ross business, it's just so inconsistent. And when I heard that incredible statement by Jay Hunt [controller, BBC1] I could almost see the jackboots."
Now aged 75, Ms Baxter produced and then edited Blue Peter from 1962 to 1988 - the programme's golden years, when children were given advice on gardening, caring for pets, and collecting milk bottles tops for charity. Ms Baxter made a practice of ensuring that every letter the programme received from children was answered. She has collected the best of the correspondence into a book, published last September. The jewel of the collection is a letter she received in 1973 from a nine-year-old named Anthony Hollander, who confessed to a "strange belief" that he knew "how to make people or animals come alive". He asked for a shopping list of materials he needed, including a model of a heart "split in half" and "tools for cutting people open".
Ms Baxter wrote back encouraging him to ask a family doctor. The impact on the child of receiving a reply that took his letter seriously was, he said later, life-changing. He is now Professor of Rheumatology and Tissue Engineering at Bristol University. Last year, he performed an operation that saved the life of a Spanish woman, by giving her a new windpipe made from her own stem cells.
"I still have the original letter," she said. I'm meeting Anthony Hollander next month. I think he deserves to have his own letter back. I'll make a photocopy for the BBC Archives."
Her book is fully in the spirit of the old Blue Peter, down to the detail that she is not seeking to make any money from it. Proceeds will go towards supporting graduates from music academies.
It is very different from the memoir written by Peter Purves, Here's One I Wrote Yesterday, which revealed some steamy happenings behind the scenes at Blue Peter.
To help publicise the book, Purves has talked about his brief affair with Valerie Singleton when they were co-presenters, and dropped a hint that he may have had an affair with presenter, Lesley Judd. He has also revealed he used to smoke cannabis and complained that he would have liked to appear on screen in flared trousers, kipper ties, and cowboy boots but had to defer to Ms Baxter's more conservative dress sense.
"She put me in Norwegian jerseys – awful things with deer on the front," he told The Daily Mail. "I didn't get on with her, and there were times when I actively disliked her intensely. She ruled the show, and she never understood me."
Reminded of these accusations yesterday, Ms Baxter just laughed. "I haven't read the book. Anybody is entitled to write a book if they want to, though whether it will sell, I don't know. What is a 'celebrity'? It seems very elastic.
"Peter was very lucky to have had Blue Peter as his springboard. I am sure he was absolutely terrific when he was introducing Crufts. You know his interest in dogs sprang from taking Petra the Blue Peter dog under his wing. That was one of the springboards the programme gave him."
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