Everyone of a certain age remembers Blue Peter and Magpie but which was best? There’s only one way to find out….
Whenever the subject of Blue Peter and Magpie arises (as it often does), the inevitable question is asked: which did you prefer? It’s a tricky question as I’m not sure I preferred or even particularly liked either of them. However, viewing options were severely limited in those days and you had Hobson’s Choice due to the fact they were broadcast simultaneously on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so you had to watch one of them. Each had it’s own quirkiness, style and irritating elements and, I would argue, both were intensely middle-class in their own ways, but so was the bulk of children’s television in the late 60s and early 70s.
Whatever you thought of those programmes, though, they were part of growing up and everyone over the age of 50 has memories of them. If not of content, certainly of the various presenters who, despite the lugubriousness of many of the items, were dogged in their pursuit of adventure, learning and, not least, intrepidness. When it comes to intrepidness, Blue Peter wins hands down, though.
Everyone remembers the BP and Magpie themes tunes. A theme tune can define the tone and nature of a TV programme more accurately than anything else. It can also raise a programme above its natural aesthetic station. Would as many people have watched Van Der Valk without its jaunty Euro-jingle? (I love the 70s naffness of The Simon Park Orchestra on re-runs of TOTP with their trying-but-failing-to-be-trendy haircuts, matching Bri-Nylon mustard polo necks, all having such a jolly good time!). Or even (controversially) The High Chaparral? An expansive, epic theme for a fairly formulaic western series. Blue Peter‘s theme was entirely in keeping with the programme’s tone. Laid back, sprightly, unthreatening and would most certainly not upset a type of parent who thought all pop stars were dirty and took drugs. Mind you, the producers did try to get ‘with it’ in the 80s and replaced the old Blue Peter theme with a version by Mike Oldfield. An artist who wouldn’t upset a type of parent who thought all pop stars were dirty and took drugs. It was a bit like when Val Doonican tried to go a bit ‘rocky’ in the 60s. He released an album called ‘Val Doonican Rocks (But Gently).
Magpie producers had no such misgivings. They wanted to hammer their colours to the mast straight away and hired The Spencer Davis Group to record the Magpie theme, even though this group’s best days, sadly, were behind them. And to this day, viewers of the time can still sing the theme tune, though getting the words completely wrong and not being able to get past ‘7’. This theme reflected the mood of Magpie perfectly. A bit ‘out there’, a bit alternative, a bit ‘whay-hey.’ But not irresponsibly so.
Both programmes attempted to reflect the changing music scene throughout the 60s and 70s, although, to be fair, Magpie were a little more cutting edge. As well as using The Spencer Davis Group for their theme tune they had a number of slightly harder edge groups on the show, Manfred Mann for one. BP tended to go for bands that a were a little less challenging. Housewives’ favourites Freddie and the Dreamers for example , or flute-driven soft-poppers Vanity Fair. In 1977 Magpie signed up The Stranglers to appear on the show but things didn’t quite go to plan. The Sex Pistols had just disgorged their filth and fury on that Bill Grundy show (which only people in London had seen anyway) a few weeks previously. This terrified the whole of broadcasting and that included the Magpie production office. The invitation to The Stranglers was promptly withdrawn. What did they think was going to happen? Were they going to shit and vomit live all over the Teddington Lock studio floor before a juvenile audience of 5 million? Just before an item on how toothbrushes were manufactured? Well maybe, but what a show that would have been!
Blue Peter began a whole 10 years before Magpie in 1958. After a couple of years it settled on its two principle presenters, Val Singleton, who became a household name and still is in many households, and Christopher Trace, whose demise from the show was very un-Blue Peter like.
Chris was the classic BBC avuncular children’s host. Greatly fond of Arran jumpers (must have been bloody roasting under the studio lights) his clipped middle England accent was perfect for this new type of fun, educational show. The intrepid days were some way off, but Chris was chummy, unthreatening and you believed everything he said. His BBC credentials were impeccable. Public school, Sandhurst, Artillery Regiment, promoted to Lieutenant. He was even a body double for Charlton Heston in Ben Hur! But it wasn’t going to be enough for poor old Chris.
One of my earliest memories of BP, and one of my favourites, was when Chris and Val took the BP cameras on a visit to that frozen hinterland up north known as Scotland. Most of their items featured people from Surrey or Middlesex (wherever those places were) so for them to come to Scotland was exciting. For some reason they visited a toy shop and seemed to be deciding on the spot what they were going to buy. Val went first. ‘I really like dolls. Do you have any dolls?’ The old wifie behind the counter provided her with some random dolls. ‘And I like train sets. Do you have any train sets?’ enquired Chris. Well it was a fucking toy shop Chris, and he was duly given some train sets. So far so stereotypical. Equal opportunities hadn’t even been invented then. ‘And how much do we owe you?’ giggled Val. ‘A hunner poonds‘ chanced the rapacious old biddy behind the counter. Val fumbles in her purse but Chris beats her to it. ‘I’ve got a hundred pounds,’ says Chris producing a bulging wallet. A hundred pounds on toys!!! Jesus, I just about fainted. Which was a rare event while watching Blue Peter.
Chris’s cavalier approach to cash in this item reflected a cavalier approach to other aspects of the programme, according to reports within the production team at the time. An indiscretion while on a BP trip to Norway in 1965 where he allegedly slept with another woman didn’t help. Certainly not with his wife who promptly divorced him. All this proved to be his undoing and he was dismissed in 1967. And he seemed like such a nice chap.
Chris was airbrushed out the BP picture in true Soviet style. No announcement about his leaving, one week he was there and the next he went the way of Leon Trotsky (minus the ice pick, as far as we know). Chris who? Not a trace was left! The exit door had begun to creak slightly ajar with the appointment of the one and only John Noakes in late 1965. In the same way Chris Trace was airbrushed out, John was airbrushed in. No announcement that this guy who had ridden, yes ridden, into the BBC studios on a shire horse (very Blue Peter!) was the new presenter, he just turned up again the following week and he was actually, like, presenting things. And what an appointment he turned out to be. He was so successful it allowed the producer, the autocratic Biddy Baxter, to get shot of Chris just over a year later.
But what of Val? Impeccable BBC credentials. Daughter of an RAF Wing-Commander, public school, RADA. What more could Lord Reith want? Val was a stalwart of BP as a presenter for 10 years, but as her media interests developed she went part time, and also fronted Blue Peter Special Assignments which were fairly turgid affairs on things like the Niagara Falls and Yukon River and meeting sundry dull royal personages. Throughout her time on BP one of Val’s most memorable roles was to present the ‘Make It Yourself’ (well, she was a lady) section which invariably involved sticky-back plastic, squezy bottles and that white sticky stuff I later found out was called Copydex. Some other items were often used, most of which you wouldn’t be able to get your hands on even if you wanted to. Did anyone, and I mean anyone, ever try to make these things at home? No, of course they didn’t. But it filled in a good 10 minutes of the programme. It can’t have been easy coming up with 30 minutes content twice a week, and a run was probably about 45 weeks a year. Only stopping for a short time while they filmed the Blue Peter Summer Trip, or whatever it was called.
Although Val’s association with BP is probably on a par with John Noakes, it’s difficult to remember many particularly notable moments during her time on the show. That’s, of course, if you choose to forget the time she was nearly killed while filming in a high power boating accident on the Thames! Like the true pro she is, she was back in the Blue Peter studio straight after telling us of the time she was almost decapitated in the cause of children’s light entertainment. Tell that to the bozos across at Magpie!
And, of course, let’s not forget Val’s finest moment on BP, certainly one of BP’s all-time finest moments, when she takes an almost fully grown lion into a corner shop after a short visit to a children’s play park. Well, it only said ‘No Dogs Allowed.’ In true BP style she has borrowed Valentine the Lion from Chessington Zoo for the day and a dishevelled and busy TV presenter has messages to get. As it’s grainy black and white footage we are spared seeing the sweat trickle down the lady shopkeeper’s immaculately coiffed forehead and the blind panic in her eyes as Valentine mounts the counter, or the look of rigid terror on the face of a man inadvertently dropping in for 20 Benson’s when Valentine attacks him as he cowers foetally in the corner. Something a little more than a bull in a china shop, for sure. And 3/5 for a packet of mints and a tin of golden syrup? Robbing bastards.
And talking of risking one’s life to entertain middle-class brats in their middle-class homes, what about John’s quite breathtaking ascent of Nelson’s column? The perfunctory way he describes clambering up the barely secure step ladders and his unharnessed (or should that be unhinged?) stroll around the statue 169 feet above the metropolis was dizzying to say the least. But spare a thought for the poor shlub who was filming this historic moment whilst climbing and operating a camera! No one remembers him. And what was Magpie doing at this time? Taking a barge trip on the frigging Norfolk Broads?
No anecdotes about BP could fail to reference the legendary baby elephant debacle. This footage really is all its cracked up to be and is the classic example of how live TV can go disastrously wrong. Or in this case, right. Its something that cannot be described adequately in words. All I’ll say is that John put his best foot forward.
However, a lesser known item but one remembered fondly by myself featured an East European strongman trying to break a world record through some feat of brute strength. Igor or Ivan or whatever his name was could speak no English. Apparently. After he summarily broke the record he threw up his arms shouting in a deep East European voice, ‘I have eet! I have eet!’, with John shuffling about not quite knowing how to respond. His oddly literal choice of language, obviously taught to him by someone with an academic smattering of the lingo, should he be successful in his endeavour, struck a cord with the young male audience. What if a wag had taught him ‘Fucking brilliant!‘ instead? This was live TV after all. Next day in James Gillespie’s Boys’ Primary School playground 10 year olds were running round shouting ‘I have eet! I have eet! Whenever I successfully perform a task well to this day, I still walk round shouting ‘I have eet! I have eet!’ Such was the influence of Blue Peter.
Recently a wonderfully odd bit of BP footage was released by BBC Archives. From the mid-70s, it featured a middle-aged lady who was a champion whistler. After some perfunctory banter with John she performed her routine to a Russ Conway instrumental played by John on a small Dansette record player. The act was odd enough, but what raised it from the odd to the utterly bizarre was the fact she wore a complete Hibernian FC football strip. No reference was ever made to why she was wearing this and during her interview it was clear she had no connection with Hibs or even Edinburgh. It is footage that demands to be seen, however, and epitomises the strangeness that a desperation for content brought upon Blue Peter. And for this we should all stand up and rejoice because such moments enhance our humdrum lives.
Like John’s low-key introduction to young Blue Peter viewers (they might not be able to cope with such monumental change in their tiny lives), Peter Purves’s introduction to BP was similarly muted. At least Pete got to talk in his first appearance, however. In a link to a feature on life-saving in the swimming pool John just let us know, ‘We sent Peter Purves along to find out.’ Next week, with no acknowledgement, there’s Peter Purves in the studio looking like he owns the place! But the times they were a-changing and Pete’s credentials were very different to those of the early BP presenters. He trained to be a teacher and through acting in Rep ended up in the first series of Dr Who. Like John, he was even from t’north!
And, get this, in 2008 Val revealed she had a ‘brief fling’ with him. As Pete commented in his autobiography about Val:
She is a very pretty girl. Beautiful, beautiful face. Most attractive. I had watched her on the box and thought, phwoar, she’s all right.’
I’m going stop writing for a minute or so, at this specific point, just to allow the revelatory impact of the last few sentences to filter through my brain receptors.
One minute on and its still resonating……..
When it became clear Val saw her future elsewhere (I wonder why?) and became only a part time presenter on BP, a new female presenter was brought in.
Step forward Lesley Judd.
Lesley’s CV up to this point was ‘interesting’. The most intriguing part of it being a role as a hostess on a Rediffusion quiz show presented by Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart called Exit! It’s The Way Out Show! The verbosity of the title, the overuse of exclamation marks, the inclusion of the very 60s punning expression ‘Way Out‘ and, of course, the participation of ‘Stewpot‘ and Lesley make me want to see this, presumably short-lived, series. Desperately. She was a member of Rolf’s Young Generation dancers, like Golden Shot Golden girl Wei Wei Wong, before becoming a Blue Peter presenter. Despite her longevity on BP she was never given a long-term contract. In contrast to, what I thought was, her rather bland personality (this was Blue Peter remember), her private life seemed to be rather turbulent. Her first marriage (of four) was to Basil Brush’s first, and most memorable sidekick, Mr Derek (Fowlds), later of Yes, Minister and Heartbeat, recently deceased. When one of her marriages broke down in the 70s, her aggrieved husband threatened to go to the papers with ‘revelations.’ This, of course threatened her tenure with BP, but, thankfully for Lesley, nothing came of it. One wonders what those ‘revelations’ might have contained. Nicking Copydex? Kicking Jason, the Blue Peter Cat? Vandalising the Blue Peter garden? We will never know as, sadly, all of Lesley’s four husbands are no longer with us.
It’s hard to remember any particular item that featured Lesley. Unless you’d forgotten that she nearly lost her life whilst being hoisted onto the Bishop’s Rock lighthouse in a storm, her harness snapped and she was almost dashed to a pulp on the overhanging bluffs before being frantically pulled on to a waiting boat. And she couldn’t swim. And they still didn’t give her a long-term contract. Biddy Baxter? More like Biddy Bastard.
In Pete’s 2009 autobiography catchily titled ‘Here’s One I Wrote Earlier..‘ he even alludes to a ‘liaison’ with Lesley! Well, I’ll go to the bottom of my stairs. It’s my firm belief that the perpetrator of the vandalisation of said Blue Peter garden may even have been one of Lesley’s ex-husbands in an act of frenzied vindictiveness. Maybe it was a bit like the killers in Murder on the Orient Express. Makes you wonder what Percy Thrower got up to in the Blue Peter studio. And just who was the father of Daniel, the Blue Peter baby?
It’s time we were told.
It’s fair to say that my researches into that middle-class phenomenon that was Blue Peter in the 60s and 70s threw up some facts that surprised, and yay, shocked me. I was really planning a leisurely stroll through the blandness and predictability that I believed Blue Peter epitomised. But in true David Lynch fashion, there’s a dark underbelly stirring below that most seemingly civilised of surfaces. And it doesn’t really take Jacques Lacan to work out that the young me was very much in the Blue Peter camp, I wasn’t really a child who was prepared to take chances. I was, and still am, very BBC.
So what of BP’s noisy neighbours, that thing they called the Magpie?
Magpie was first broadcast at 5.10pm on Tuesday July 30th 1968. Coincidentally, around the same time Blue Peter went out. In 1969 it went out twice weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Coincidentally around the same time Blue Peter went out. It was certainly devised to give BP a run for its money in a much edgier, immediate way. With this in mind, at least for the first couple of years, Magpie was unscripted. But as this proved a nightmare on live telly they soon reverted to autocue.
The first three presenters were a rather mixed bag.
Canadian Pete Brady, a former DJ, was a bit of a dull old spud. He stayed until 1971 but no one really noticed he’d gone.
Tony Bastable, whose name, curiously, always made my dad laugh, was the down-to-earth, facts and science guru. Interestingly, he was the first cover-star of children’s TV Times mag, Look-In (La-La-La-La-La Look-In!) in which he had a column of overwhelming blandness. These were the days when you had to buy TWO TV listings magazines if you were a certain type of couch potato. TV Times for ITV, Radio (how quaint) Times for BBC 1 and BBC 2. So their in-house columnist at Look-In was going to have to be someone da kids would have known from an ITV programme. They couldn’t exactly ask Sooty to do it, although his column would probably have been more interesting.
Tony stayed on as presenter until 1972 when he stepped up to become producer of the show. He went on to front a number of TV shows over the years, none of them particularly interesting with the notable exception of ‘Problems‘, a rather risky for the time programme on sexual problems which he presented with Claire Rayner. As his biography states, it went out ‘late’ as anything which focused on areas below the waist always did. Various mundane car series also followed. One wonders if Tony would present pretty much anything under a flag of convenience.
I know what you’re thinking. Is all this early Magpie stuff going to be this fucking dull? No, it jolly well isn’t because here comes 60s hippy chick Susan Stranks! The third original presenter, Susan provided a little bit of frisson for her young (specifically male) viewers as she famously did not wear a Brassiere! Not that I noticed I have to say. I was too busy trying fruitlessly to source sticky back plastic. But enough of this pathetic prurience. Stranks had been a young actress and had appeared in a number of British B films but shot to relative fame when she, somehow, became the ‘typical teenager’ on David Jacob’s Juke Box Jury in the 60s. Her job was to comment on the records featured and give a young person’s view of them which, I have no doubt, would have been accepted patronisingly by Jacobs and the rest of the ageing JBJ panel. Panelists included ‘with-it’ hep cats such as Eric Sykes, Thora Hird and, bizarrely, Alfred Hitchcock. Now, how ‘typical’ a London-based child actress was is anyone’s guess but it was a pretty cool gig whichever way you look at it.
My one abiding memory of Susan Stranks (note I don’t refer to her as ‘Susan’ or ‘Sue’ in the way I chummily refer to ‘Val’ or ‘John’ which says a lot about the household nature of tea-time behemoths BP), was of her riding into the studio on the back of a camel, and looking rather haughty, I have to say. But that’s not a lot to go on.
She was married to Robin Ray, son of British showbiz royalty, comedian Ted Ray and brother actor Andrew Ray. Robin was originally an actor but gave it up to teach drama at RADA. He then packed this in to become the first chairman of a new BBC 2 show, Call My Bluff, eventually replaced by the wonderfully sarcastic, similarly alliterative, Robert Robinson. He was also a regular panelist on music show for egg-heads, Face The Music (maybe this where ELO got the title for one of their most successful albums?) along with the great Joyce Grenfell and newsreader Richard Baker. To imagine the BBC or any TV channel putting on a prime time show about obscure classical music is unthinkable now. One of the rounds on FTM required chairman Joseph Cooper to play a classical piece on a dummy keyboard which emitted no sound. Three minutes of silence would ensue as the panelists had to try and identify the piece and the composer purely from Cooper’s hand movements. Tell that to kids nowadays and they won’t believe you.
Stranks left the ‘pie (see what I did there?) in 1974 but turned up again with her own series Paperplay shortly after. In this series she had two regular characters made out of paper (unsurprisingly) named Itsy and Bitsy. My brother and I used to refer to them as Titsy and Bitsy. Didn’t half make us chortle, I can tell you. Do you think I’m struggling a bit? Don’t worry, we’re getting there…
We were moving, inexorably, towards the Magpie classic line up, however, and enter, stage left, Dougie Rae. Dougie replaced the terminally dull Pete Brady in 1971 having, to my memory, been a young reporter on the Scotland Today news magazine programme. Next up was hairy researcher Mick Robertson who replaced Bastable after he became the show’s producer. Mick tried to use his hippy Magpie fame to become a pop star. He released two singles, the first being The Tango’s Over. His second release was called, intriguingly, Then I Change hands. Neither charted.
But pray silence for the final piece in the classic Magpie jigsaw which was Miss Jenny Hanley, replacing Stranks in ’74.
At last! Someone worth writing about! And damned interesting she is too.
Hanley, was also from B list showbiz royalty. Her dad, Jimmy Hanley, was a well known film matinee actor. With boy-next-door rather than leading man looks Jimmy appeared in nearly 50 films over 30 years dying prematurely at the age of 51. But not before his flagging career forced him to take a job at that metaphaphorical and literal end of the acting road, the Crossroads motel, in 1966 (But much more on that later). Jimmy was married four times, his first marriage to matinee actress Dinah Sheridan, produced the lovely Jenny.
Dinah Sheridan was, arguably, more famous than Jimmy. Few people nowadays could recall a Jimmy Hanley film, even The Blue Lamp which introduced us to George Dixon of Dock Green fame and a young Dirk Bogarde. One Jimmy Hanley film definitely worth catching is the early 1950s British Noir It Always Rains On Sundays starring Googie Withers. Those good people at Talking Pictures have recently shown it so watch out for a repeat. However, many people over the age of 50 will remember Dinah’s flimsy, unthreatening 1950’s vintage car comedy ‘Genevieve‘ and everyone will remember her as the mother in 1970’s The Railway Children.
Another of the Hanleys’ offspring was Thatcherite pin-up boy Jeremy Hanley who became Chairman of the Conservative Party in John Major’s government. Well, you can choose your friends…..
Before being crowned Magpie nobility, Jenny was an actress of slightly below average esteem. Usually playing glamorous parts she inhabited a number of, to use that favourite of tabloid words, ‘raunchy’ roles. Her CV reads like a 1973 edition of TV times. Department S, The Persuaders! (which always, oddly, had that superfluous exclamation mark), Return of the Saint, Man About The House, Warship, Softly Softly: Task Force and The Two Ronnies all pad out her IMDB listing. Although a few rather ‘racy’ ( another favoured euphemism in the 70s for filth) parts also abound, for example ‘Miss Teenage Lust‘ in the film Percy’s Progress and ‘Handmaid‘ in “Shirley’s World‘. But let’s not forget probably her crowning acting achievement in, what for me is the best Bond film of all, though certainly not the greatest Bond, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Alongside Joanna Lumley and the wonderful Diana Rigg (much more on her to come), Jenny played, implausibly, ‘Irish Girl.‘ Probably not a stretch but it sort of went downhill for her after that and her acting career went the way of the skier pursuing Bond who fell into the snow plough.
But hold that front page! I’d completely forgotten the lovely Jenny was also the Daz woman in the early 80s. I certainly wouldn’t swap my Daz for two cheaper brands if propositioned by Jenny! Would you?
Now I’ve put another unpalatable story to one side for as long as I can but am going to have to acknowledge the elephant in the room, or should I say the horse in the stables. Unsavoury rumours abounded about an item which the lovely Jenny, of all people, was sent along to cover by the Magpie production team. This story, implausibly, was about how horses mated or, more specifically, how horse semen was collected. A visibly shaken and ever-so-slightly aroused Jenny was, as the rumours suggested, the result of the horse’s pixellated phallus producing the substance by the bucketload. A great deal of research has gone into proving or disproving this distasteful anecdote, but to no avail. Only vague fragments pertaining to the story seem to exist within that thing they call the internet. Would a children’s tea-time light entertainment programme feature such an item as young viewers were getting stuck into their fish fingers or crispy pancakes? Would the bastards in the production office have sent the scented Jenny to cover such primordial functions? Why does this rumour persist despite there being so little hard evidence? Why has this rumour been almost pixellated out of existence? We may never find out. Unless, of course, you know differently?
Despite all the rumpy-pumpy and shenanigans going on over at Broadcasting House, it’s fair to say Susan Stranks and Jenny Hanley won hands down in the adolescent boy appeal stakes. Susan’s economy of underwear has already been mentioned and Jenny always seemed to have a slightly faraway look in her eyes. With the narrow range of channel choice on offer in those days, it was always likely you might come across a raunchy clip from Department S, for example, featuring Jenny and 70s sex bomb Jason King in flagrante, which only added to her allure. Let’s face it, it was never going to be Bunty James of How!
In the cultural two-horse race between these broadcasting thoroughbreds there could only be one winner, though. Everyone over the age of 50 remembers a whole swathe of items from BP but, Hanley aside, who remembers any item from Magpie? They may have tried to be edgy, alternative and more zeitgeist but when it came to the crunch, BP won in a canter. Compared to Blue Peter, Magpie’s contribution to popular culture, though significant, was only a drop in the bucket. They just weren’t at the races.
In the end, there is only one word to describe fittingly the colossal and influential effect Blue Peter had on our young lives.