As Blue Peter gets its lowest rating in a six-decade history and rumours abound about the show coming to an end, Harriet Hall remembers a programme that shaped our childhoods, and wonders where it all went wrong.
Remember Blue Peter? At one point it was the show to watch, and the show to present, kick-starting people’s careers like the British version of The Mickey Mouse Club. Blue Peter presenters did the best stunts, raised the most money for charity and stimulated the minds of creative kids everywhere – creating the world’s future Frida Kahlos and Pablo Picassos.
But something changed in society that led to a gradual decline in viewers, and Blue Peter faded in the minds of children nationwide. The final nail in the coffin came this week, as an episode of the show received a zero rating – as in, not a single person was recorded watching it. It was devastating blow for a programme that was once the pinnacle of children’s TV.
To be fair, it was a repeat episode aired at 2.30pm on a weekday – not exactly the prime time for the programmes school-age audience – and the episode’s premier airing pulled in 53,100 viewers. But it’s a number that still pales in comparison to the eight million that used to tune in during the show’s heyday. Even a decade ago Blue Peter was still pulling in over 900,000. Maybe it’s time we let go and bid Blue Peter adieu, but I’m just not ready to let that happen. Not yet.
It was my childhood dream to be a Blue Peter presenter. In fact, I’ll admit it to you now – I still believe the dream could happen. I used to watch it religiously, tuning in just before homework time to see what the gang was up to. I watched it far past the acceptable age, I just couldn’t say goodbye.
I’d always wonder who the kids were who were invited on for their brilliant crafting skills or singing skills and how – since I had no covetable skills of my own – I would be perfectly placed as a presenter, to simply showcase those of others’.
I loved the show so much I’d write to them regularly, sending pictures of the things I’d made, telling them of how I’d canvased the school for better recycling systems and I painted my bedroom wall using techniques I’d learned on the show – much to the dismay of my parents. I even wrote to the editor and asked him if I could be a new presenter – and he kindly replied, telling me to get back when I reached 18.
My obsessive communication earned me three Blue Peter badges (white, blue, green) and they’re amongst my proudest possessions. I probably shouldn’t be admitting any of this: it doesn’t exactly scream ‘cool girl’, does it? But back in the day, a Blue Peter badge brought serious schoolyard kudos. And though I only ever used them once to get me into London Zoo *for free*, they meant more than just currency to me. I imagined they were a signifier of things to come, that one day as I zip-wired down a mountain on camera, I’d remember how I got there.
Meeting Konnie Huq was another highlight, I saw her in the street and chased her down to grab her signature on my McDonald’s napkin. In a pre-selfie age, it meant the world to me – and I was surprised to discover she spelled her name with a K. But Konnie left the show, too, swiftly in the footsteps of my old favourite, Katy Hill. And then they went and pulled the show from BBC One. That really hurt.
At the age of 16, I interned at the BBC. When asked if there was anything else I’d like to see on the tour, I immediately – and without a modicum of shame – said the Blue Peter garden. I’ll never forget the excitement I felt stepping into it for the first time and how, as with everything on telly, it was so much smaller than I’d imagined.
You see, I was part of the last Blue Peter generation – the younger millennials who grew up with a dial-up modem and MSN, who sat in front of the box waiting for Channel Five to launch. It was a big deal back then. So, for us, the 5.30pm Blue Peter weekday slot was a real treat. There wasn’t much competition and we didn’t need it. Blue Peter satisfied all of our televisual desires.
There was song and dance and animals – animals that were as much our pets as they were the BBC’s. When a tortoise died it was an emotional time, and my own parents still mourn the death of trusty Petra, who passed in 1977. And let's not deny that, for many of us, Blue Peter presenters were our first childhood crushes. The women were cool and bubbly, rocking dungarees and crop tops like nobody’s business, and the men had those ‘I’ll buy you a bunch of carnations on the first date’ vibes, which – as a pre-teen girl – was pretty appealing.
Today’s kids have missed the boat on it. They’re not interested in making their own Tracy Island or crafting a rocket ship from a used toilet roll. Forget the advent of CGI and Freeview, this lot have Netflix, Amazon Prime, the entire internet. IPhones and iPads mean scheduled telly is a dying art. There’s no time for sticky back plastic. The age of Blue Peter is over, along with pen pals and Beanie Babies. I bet if you asked a 12-year-old today what Blue Peter is, they would likely look at you with a baffled, technology-deadened gaze.
Perhaps it was the infamous Blue Peter curse that signalled the death knell for the world’s longest-running TV show: the fact that a chain of presenters found themselves embroiled in scandals more shocking than the Profumo affair. I remember my mum trying to explain that Richard Bacon had been given the sack because he’d taken cocaine in a nightclub (the only Blue Peter presenter to be given the boot in the programme’s 60-year history). I was horrified: it was like finding out that Father Christmas wasn’t real. The façade had been shattered and I couldn’t bear to look at him. The power of Blue Peter was real but, years later, when I realised he was a human, I learned to forgive him.
Blue Peter first aired in 1958 and it’s held a special place in the hearts of children ever since, crossing generations. If today’s kid’s don’t rate it, more fool them. I will always have a special place in my heart for the bunch who set me up for a life of crafting, and taught all of us that being different was something to be proud of. And it certainly left its mark on my bedroom wall…