From Andy Pandy to Blue Peter: how the BBC captivated little citizens
The BBC has always been eager to create shows for children, but at first their programmes were often more preachy than action-packed. In part three of our 13-part series on the history of the BBC, David Hendy explores how Blue Peter transformed the corporation’s child-friendly offering
At 5 o’clock on Thursday 16 October 1958, in homes across Britain millions of children, some sprawled lazily across living room floors and others perched eagerly on settees, were introduced to a brand-new television programme. Blue Peter promised its young viewers “Toys, model railways, games, stories, [and] cartoons” in a weekly 15-minute show presented live from the BBC studios by Christopher Trace and Leila Williams.
The launch was strikingly low-key. There were no special features in the Radio Times, which seemed far more excited about the final of Miss World. In any case, the new series was just one more children’s programme among many. That same week viewers just back from school could also lap up Sooty and Sweep, Children’s Newsreel, a “sketch club”, several quizzes, some astronomy with Patrick Moore, or a wildlife show presented by Armand and Michaela Denis “on safari” in Africa. Earlier in the day, younger viewers might have seen Watch with Mother, featuring a rota of puppet characters from Andy Pandy through to the Flower Pot Men.
But if Blue Peter’s debut went largely unnoticed, it would eventually become the most iconic children’s programme on British television. Its distinctive formula – described by one of its producers as striving to “lift [children’s] horizons and stretch them a little bit, give them information that they wouldn’t know about in an amusing way and, through drama, to stretch their emotions” – would also become a symbol of the BBC’s determination to treat its viewers as citizens rather than consumers.
The BBC had always been keen to create content for children. In the 1920s, there’d been a daily Children’s Hour from Savoy Hill, and a Kiddies’ Corner from both the Manchester station, 2ZY, and the Birmingham station, 5IT, each of which featured readings, drama sketches, competitions and talent shows.
Auntie knows best
Even in those pioneering days, however, the BBC’s relationship with its younger audience was far from straightforward. John Reith had promised that it would provide every home with “the best” in ideas and culture. He’d also expressed a duty to avoid exposing the public to “things which are, or may be, hurtful”. Children, especially, had to be introduced very gradually to the world and its wicked ways.
Derek McCulloch, who ruled over Children’s Hour for decades as “Uncle Mac”, saw his mission as instilling impressionable young listeners with Christian values of godliness and neighbourliness. The result was programmes that, while unthreatening, could also sound preachy and cloyingly middle-class. Years later, Broadcasting House decided that every episode of its hugely popular drama serial Dick Barton – Special Agent needed a postscript solemnly explaining the moral rights and wrongs involved in the latest narrative twists.
Behind this nannyish approach, though, lurked a more considered philosophy. The BBC line, widely believed both inside and outside the Corporation, was that there would always be better things to do than merely sit and listen to the wireless or watch the screen for hours on end. As one senior television executive put it, the ultimate aim was “a constantly diminishing audience”. Viewers, she said, should be “so stimulated to new activities that they had no time to turn on their sets”.
Even when young viewers did turn on their televisions, it was important they be served what schedulers called “a full service in miniature”. The BBC had long reasoned that adults would become more “rounded” citizens by being fed a “rich mix” of news, documentary, drama, comedy and debate. Why then would children, the citizens of the future, not benefit from the same variety?
The arrival of ITV in 1955 unsettled everything. The BBC had served the very youngest audiences reasonably well, but slightly older children and teenagers were quickly seduced by commercial TV’s westerns and crime capers. No matter how well-intentioned or well-done, drama serials such as Jane Eyre were always going to struggle for their attention.
Faced with this ratings crisis, the BBC’s new head of Children’s Programmes, Owen Reed, recognised that the eight to 12-year-old age-group wanted plenty of action. Children’s Television Club, which North Region had been running since 1956 – with its three presenters getting stuck in to activities such as riding go-karts, throwing pottery, or training “Conker” the dog – was exactly the kind of thing Reed was after. He now used Manchester’s tried-and-tested formula as the basis for a new series in London. His hope was that Blue Peter would become an “all interest, active, action-based programme for children and adults of all ages”.
Reed’s brainchild got off to a bumpy start, not least because of absurdly tight budgets and a rapid turnover of staff. But in 1964 the programme was upgraded from one to two episodes a week. Three years later, its roster of presenters had settled into the sure-footed and long-running trio of Valerie Singleton, John Noakes and Peter Purves. By the 1970s, Blue Peter was woven tightly into the cultural fabric of the nation, the very embodiment of what might be called “progressive paternalism” in the realm of children’s broadcasting.
Those watching at home were still protected from some of the horrors the world might throw at them. The idea of having a resident pet was nearly scuppered at the start when a mongrel puppy introduced to viewers just before Christmas 1962 died of distemper within days. To avoid unleashing hysteria, two producers secretly scoured the pet shops of London in search of a lookalike capable of scampering about happily in the studio by the time of the next broadcast. Viewers remained entirely ignorant of this well-meaning subterfuge, and later voted to name the hastily found replacement Petra.
Animals were key to Blue Peter’s success: the long line of dogs, cats and tortoises that followed Petra’s own troubled debut were there to act as surrogate pets for all those children who didn’t have ones of their own. Even more important was the programme’s desire to empower young viewers by inventing lots of things for them to do. This meant a constant stream of basic food recipes or simple items that could be assembled from materials found at home – or which entailed the purchase of some sticky-backed-plastic.
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There’s also been the annual Blue Peter appeal. According to Monica Sims, who ran Children’s Television in the 1960s and ‘70s, the idea was to invite children “to understand the problems in the world through helping to solve them”. Blue Peter, she explained, would give viewers this opportunity “not by asking for money, which of course a lot of them didn’t have, but by collecting old scrap materials” – stamps, milk-bottle tops and the like.
Under the series’ longest-serving editor, the formidable Biddy Baxter, Blue Peter’s success was built on its correspondence unit. Thousands of children’s letters poured in every week. Each one was given a card index: if a child wrote a second time, the programme’s bespoke reply would refer to something they’d said in their first letter.
It was this flow of correspondence that ensured Baxter and her team always stayed in touch with what children were thinking and feeling. For those watching at home, therefore, this was never just a faceless BBC broadcasting at them. Years before “user-generated content”, young viewers were shaping the TV they watched. Blue Peter was – and would remain – their programme.
David Hendy is emeritus professor at the University of Sussex. His latest book is The BBC: A People’s History (Profile, 2022)
This article was first published in the February 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine