Blue Peter

Monday, July 3, 2006 by

For all the armies of faces that have marched across teatime screens down the decades, very few have ever possessed the secret of contemporary children’s telly.

Sure, many hundreds have embodied everything that, by whatever measure of success is in fashion at the time, could be said to represent new, exciting and entertaining TV. Most of them did it by simply not trying to be children’s presenters, or drifting into children’s television by accident, or labouring long to give the appearance of not resenting drifting into children’s television by accident.

Most of them used to be a good few dozen years older than the people they were supposed to be entertaining to boot. Age, experience and a rumpled jacket were once the touchstones of the crystal bucket as well as the blackboard.

But all along, up to and including the present day, only a handful have really ever succeeded, not by doing, but by simply being. Who have impressed not by seeking to be impressionable, or even by being impressive, but by appearing not to try. Who somehow match up perfectly with those unspoken assumptions somewhere in the back of your mind that dictate what you should want to see from a children’s presenter. And who don’t always come sporting rumpled jackets.

Johnny Ball was one. So was Fred Harris. And it’s fair to say that, during his time on Blue Peter, Matt Baker has been another of those people who seemed to possess the secret of contemporary children’s telly. What’s more, he’s just shown himself to know precisely the right moment to take his leave and pack up his magic for another time and place.

Today’s edition, a shameless clip show subtitled “Matt Baker: Mover and Shaker”, offered by way of a parting salute a montage of every trick in the conjuror’s book. We saw the man twirling and hollering his way through enough flannel to fill several wardrobes – the same ones, presumably, which Matt had spent seven years emptying in order to arm himself with a canon of costume changes, a plethora of powdered wigs and a fair legion of false moustaches.

We saw him toe-tapping his way around the world and back again. We saw him turn his tonsils to Presley, old-time music hall, Hollywood song and dance, and Billy Joel. A downright spectacular version of Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) was followed by a frankly disturbing performance of I Enjoy Being a Girl, which in turn gave way to a wonderful rendition of New York New York (So Good They Named it Twice) with Matt shimmying and shrugging his way around the strangely oblivious titular city streets.

Heaven knows on what premise most of these glossy production numbers were originally staged. Most times there probably wasn’t one. But that in itself stands as testament to the rude health of Blue Peter‘s recent history, where no longer have things needed to be universally weighed down by the urgency of requiring a purpose or proving a point. The worthy has mixed with the whimsical, neither grating against the other thanks to ability of its ranks of presenters to switch and judge contrasting moods perfectly.

Matt was always the undisputed master of such a technique, and while this particular selection of highlights was only one slice of the man’s endeavours aboard the good ship, here was proof enough of his instinctive feel for all the tenets of textbook children’s TV: the lightness of touch, the self-deprecation, the elder brother-style banter, the passion for silliness, the respect for the sublime.

There hasn’t really been a Blue Peter presenter like him – ever. Those who went before who encapsulated some of the same spirit, the same breathless enthusiasm, the same idea of living life for its own sake, were all too old to ever appear anything more than zany uncles with a tendency to never know when to shut up. Or that’s how it felt at the time. For like policemen, Blue Peter presenters never used to seem as young as they do now. But unlike policeman, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

If there’s one thing above all else worth garlanding as a tribute to Matt’s time on the show, it is the way he helped it to lose its fusty, mildly patronising air, of the kind produced every time your unwelcome snobby cousin turned up in your bedroom when the relatives stopped by for Sunday tea. And this, in turn, has seeped out through the rest of the schedules, arguably helping to make Children’s BBC, since the turn of the century, better than it has ever been.

The fact that practitioners of today’s children’s telly hail mostly from the generation who were watching the stuff as kids 10 years or so ago is no longer something that can be mustered by way of abuse. Nowadays it’s a mark of success. It will be impossible for anyone to follow Matt Baker onto Blue Peter and match his dazzling tenure, but at least his legacy survives him within the fabric of the show itself and the ever-colourful, ever-cheerful world through which he moved. Or rather, hoofed.


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