Blue Peter

Monday, January 7, 2002 by

As TV experiences go there’s still little more thrilling than the shock of rediscovery. Nothing really beats that feeling of nervously preparing to tune back into a programme you haven’t watched for several years, getting anxious over whether it’ll be quite as great as back during your formative years – and then finding that the show in question is not merely as entertaining and exciting as before, but way, way better.

Blue Peter‘s on top form at the moment, and it knows it. It hasn’t carried itself with so much self-assurance for ages. Over the past few years a subtle yet significant overhaul of more or less everything from the design to the running order has worked wonders. BP‘s now the best children’s show on TV. A large part of this brilliance flows direct from its breezy self-confidence – itself buoyed by the obvious fact that everyone who works on Blue Peter is clearly having a great time. This isn’t a self-indulgent display, though, which ignores or prevents the viewer from joining in. What really seals the programme’s class is the way it pulls off that rare feat of never appearing to talk down or up to any of its viewers. Through a cunning mix of presentation, content and tone BP has ended up creating and sustaining a relationship with an ageless audience. Everyone’s welcome in their studio nowadays.

And that’s quite an achievement for a brand that’s heading towards its half-century, and which a few years back was lumbering into a dreadful rut of ultra-smug presenters talking to each other about themselves, and who all seemed to blatantly treat the show as a stepping stone to somewhere warm, better paid and pre-recorded. The current team boast a rare sense of camaraderie and completeness that’s rooted in a mix of maturity and irreverence. This lot know when there’s a danger of going too far and ending up appearing either too proprietorial or pathetically unfunny.

In today’s show there was the usual combination of the genuinely intriguing and the plain daft, presided over by three of the four current line-up: Simon Thomas, Liz Barker and, best of all, Matt Baker. Matt secured his place as one of the finest BP presenters of all time last summer, when – as part of the decision to run the show all year round for the first time – the programme did several seaside roadshows. Though he’d already shown himself impressive enough as the obligatory multi-skilled Blue Peter host/interviewer/reporter, something happened during this tour that took Matt onto a new level of genius. It was the combined impact of ripping off Dom Joly, dressing up as Ali G to do a rap about Rhyl and deciding to conduct a radio interview using only the names of Steps songs which finally rocketed him up there amongst the historicBP greats. But then as now it needs the combination of his personality with that of the others to make the show properly hang together.

Matt was on first today, making a big deal of running into the studio through the famous giant back doors, carrying a strange baton-shaped object. He was much too excited by this to sufficiently explain what he was doing and why, so he quickly passed it to Simon, who in turn handed it onto Liz. This display of elementary relay practice allowed it to become clear that it was the official Commonwealth Games baton they were holding; but exactly why they were pissing about with it would have to wait till “later on”, because there was important business at the Totaliser.

The Wheel Help Appeal, raising money for old people, has been on the go for a few months now; but at times it’s felt the old Bring and Buy Sales haven’t delivered quite a dramatic and quick result as the production team had envisaged. It’s always a shame when, contrary to the presenters’ pleading, the next target on the Totaliser fails to light up. All the better, then, that today’s “spin” of the Wheel portended positively. “I’m kneeling because I’ve got a feeling,” chanted Simon, “that it’s going up!” Indeed, they reached the £300,000 mark, three fifths of the way to their grand total. Rather conveniently it meant they’d now raised enough to buy their first minibus, and so they played in a film of Liz going up to Glasgow to deliver said vehicle in person.

To be brutally honest, this appeal is rather unimaginative compared to some of BP‘s former fund-raising spectaculars. True, it was nice to see Liz revealing the first of the official Blue Peterminibuses to various old folk who’d previously had to contend with a clapped out wreck with doors falling off. But while she was – naturally – given the chance to take the new minibus on an inaugural drive (“I cannot wait to see their faces!”) her passengers weren’t that impressed. “Jean – it’s Liz from Blue Peter!” she whooped, but Jean was decidedly nonplussed. And though Liz was rightly mucking in and not just lazily observing everything, her cargo of elders didn’t come over as that bothered. So there was no big moment of heart-warming emotion, of the kind that would’ve rendered the motives behind the appeal utterly and irrevocably worthwhile. Still, in a way the underlying cause – promoting awareness and care of the elderly – is just as laudable for being so down to earth and everyday.

Back in the studio Matt was chuckling. “I saw the minibus on the M1 – I was very happy, I was blowing my horn and everything,” he cracked. “It was actually heading south, which was a bit of a worry, but anyway …” The rest of the show stuck to a comfortingly familiar formula. Next up was a musical interlude, featuring the cast of the musical version of Beauty and the Beast. Well, it is still the panto season, after all. It was all very professional and the costumes were impressive, but this was really just a harmless bridge from the serious topical part of the show to the more light-hearted entertainment based fare. This comprised Liz again – who’d got the short straw today it seemed – doing a bit of extended plugging for a new CBBC drama, The Story of Tracy Beaker. After a clip the lead actress Danielle Harmer and the original writer Jacqueline Wilson joined Liz for some questions from a bunch of kids. This was gentle promotion of the values of reading, and as the BP pets wandered in and out it was all very relaxed and amiable, if a little worthy. The kids seemed to be having a good time, though.

The pace picked up with the last item, as we joined Simon who was standing in front of some Commonwealth Games props. We returned to the subject of the top of the show – that mysterious baton – which was now being wielded by athlete Darren Campbell. It turned out it was all in aid of your classic BP competition: 50 lucky viewers could get a chance to join in the Queen’s Jubilee Baton relay, bisecting the country later in the year, carrying the baton through 500 towns and villages. The overall winner, however, could get to carry the baton into the Commonwealth Stadium in Manchester. This was much better - BP on a classically epic scale, with a typically educational entry question – how many countries are there in the Commonwealth? – and the stress on the amateur as well as the professional (“You don’t need to be a good runner to take part.”) A suitable climax then, and afterwards the team just fooled about a bit up to the end credits, running about the studio wailing, before promising no less a guest than Barry Davies on the next show.

It was exactly two years ago today that we saw the team, joined by erstwhile legendary former hosts, opening up the feted Blue Peter time capsules. And in a way, the one person who’s formalised the show’s success over the subsequent 24 months – editor Steve Hocking – has done so through a respect for the programme’s historical strengths, but also an awareness of its traditional weaknesses. He’s drawn on the best of what Blue Peter has achieved and represented over the decades (typified not least by the increasingly semi-regular appearances from past presenters) but rather than merely trying to restore former glories he and his team (hosts and crew alike) have reassembled a whole new template for BP‘s future. It’s one that’s totally convincing, thoroughly entertaining and, it seems (going by ratings of an average of a million per show) consistently popular. And consequently, while resembling mere worn out busywork for jobbing hacks and starlets a few years ago, Blue Peter is now a wholly necessary, obvious and fantastic part of the BBC.


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