'Blue Peter' has been a nursery for many thrusting talents

THE AGREEABLE WORLD OF WALLACE ARNOLD

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AS ONE of the founding presenters of Blue Peter, it pains me to the very quick that a junior member of the team has seen fit to flounce off, criticising that doughtiest of programmes for not - ahem - "keeping up with the times" (dread activity!).

Has he no sense of history? A quick recap might be in order. When we started the programme, back in 1956, there were just two of us presenting it, myself and the young J Enoch Powell. As you might imagine, we took our duties very seriously, and divided them according to our talents. I was in charge of balsawood modelling, pet's corner and fun with numbers; Enoch was in charge of the forcible redistribution of Blue Peter badges, general deportment, Archie the Tortoise and the reconquering of the Indian sub-continent.

The first few programmes went well, thanks in the most part to Enoch's forthright leadership. Clad in a suit of balsawood armour, Archie the Tortoise was filmed disembarking at Mangalore and distributing, through a series of interpreters, freshly minted Blue Peter badges to those natives who were attracted to our cause. Within less than a fortnight over 5,000 badges had been handed out and the growing band of helpers had constructed a traction engine made entirely out of squeezy bottles and crepe paper. But on the evening before Archie and Enoch were due to have reached Gulbarga, there was a sudden change of management at the BBC, and the new Head of Children's Television recalled everyone to London, stripping Archie the Tortoise of his balsawood armour in the most public and humiliating manner. Archie left the Blue Peter office that day, never to return. Rumour had it that he was sighted at some point during the early 1970s loitering outside an RSPCA hostel near Sandwich in Kent, his shell now unattractively daubed with anti-BBC slogans of a most intemperate nature.

Enoch never quite got over the departure of Archie and what he saw as the BBC's treachery in jettisoning his plans for the reconquering of the sub-continent. For a few months he struggled manfully to teach our young viewers how to make an omelette without breaking eggs, but his head was not in it. After several complaints from viewers that the Blue Peter camera was regularly picking up tears coursing down Enoch's cheeks, it was agreed that he should be allowed to retire from the programme with dignity. He was later to grow a moustache and embark on a career in politics, but he never quite lived up to the early promise he had once shown on Blue Peter, alas.

In her wisdom, our executive producer, Biddy Baxter, decided that the time had come to appoint a young lady as co-presenter. I would then take charge of the boy's activities - sport, history, general knowledge, making things with one's hands - while the young lady would teach flower- arranging and suchlike. After a fortnight of fruitless auditions, Biddy was beginning to think that she would never find anyone suitable.

Exasperated, she went into a neighbouring store to buy herself a selection of fresh fruit - and there, behind the banana counter, was the young Roy Strong. Within minutes, Biddy realised that Roy was not a girl. But there was something about his natural vivacity that made him perfectly suited to the role of presenting a top-rated children's magazine programme. For the first three or four episodes Roy fronted the programme wearing a long dress with ruffles and a sun-hat, but before long the inevitable letters came from eagle-eyed viewers pointing out that the new female presenter was sporting a luxuriant walrus moustache. From then on, Roy was permitted to present the programme as a man, in his trademark velvet knickerbockers and cherry-blossom blouson, supplementing them with a helmet only when out sky-diving with the Red Devils. But after Biddy had forced him to go ten rounds with Joe Frazier in the Blue Peter Boxing Ring, Roy decided that the pressure of the job was too great, and retired to a niche in the National Portrait Gallery, thus making way for the legendary John Noakes.

I, too, was to retire in due course, attracted by the world of letters. Sadly, few of my replacements - "Mad" Frankie Fraser, Paul Johnson, Alan Clark - proved up to the task. It was not until the arrival of the young Peter Purves that the programme fell on its feet once more.

This week's shock departure has been a setback, yes, but I have no doubt Blue Peter will go from strength to strength under the doughty replacement, Mr Simon Heffer. But whatever happens, it must at all costs avoid keeping up with the times. That way madness lies.

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