Anthony Clavane: Critics knocked Blue Peter for being too middle class, wholesome and stuffy. John Noakes was none of these things

The Blue Peter Presenters team back in 1972. (PA).
The Blue Peter Presenters team back in 1972. (PA).
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Here’s a column I made earlier. Ten years earlier, in fact, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Blue Peter, Britain’s longest-running children’s television show.

Actually, I had to update it after watching Tuesday’s special 60th birthday episode, which went out live on CBBC. In these divided times, the veneration of such a legendary programme is something our Brexit-exhausted nation can unite behind.

Daredevil stunts, time capsules, charity appeals and flower pots made out of plastic bottles. Not to mention those iconic badges, these days crafted from recycled yoghurt pots in a solar-powered factory in Cornwall. What’s not to like?

Back in my youth, however, such Blue Peter worship would have come as a shock to a generation brought up on Bowie, Monty Python and the far funkier Magpie.

“Last week,” I remember John Cleese grinning in a very funny Monty Python parody, “we showed you how to become a gynaecologist.”

The sketch ended with a bewigged Eric Idle, channelling his inner Valerie Singleton, telling viewers how to rid the world of all known diseases.

It wasn’t cool, in the late 60s and 70s, to admit you preferred Singleton, Noakes and Purves to the delectable duo Susan Stranks and Mick Robertson over on ITV.

And, yes, I admit it. For a while my head was turned by Magpie, with its rock-based theme music, flared jeans and edgier sensibility. And did I mention Susan Stranks? But I soon saw sense and returned to the Beeb.

I had missed Noakesy’s Boy’s Own enthusiasm for jumping out of planes, climbing up steep buildings without a safety harness and crashing in bobsleighs.

The ever-excitable Yorkshireman was, and remains, the essence of Blue Peter. In the column I made earlier I extolled the virtues of the show’s longest-serving presenter. But, sadly, he is no longer with us. Tuesday’s hour-long birthday celebration was a bit like honouring the play Hamlet without an appearance by the prince.

There was also an elephant in the room. A baby elephant, to be precise. A baby elephant who defecates on the floor, to be even preciser.

That defining cultural moment in 1969 – when the incontinent Lulu trod on Noakes’ toe and stamped around the BBC studio, its keeper slipping in the mess before landing flat on his back – was conspicuous by its absence.

This was an odd omission. For one of the great things about Blue Peter is its gaffes, its hilarious cock-ups, its honest, sometimes scary, failures.

Simon Thomas, who with Matt Baker and Konnie Huq formed the wonderful trio of presenters I watched with my kids in the late 90s and early noughties, recalled learning to sky dive with an RAF team in California.

After pulling the ripcord, “the parachute did not come out and I felt a banging on my back. It was the two instructors trying to bash it out. I completely and utterly lost my bottle and the whole trip ended there.

“It was about showing kids it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to say I’m finding this really hard. I went back a year later and I conquered it. But at that point I came up short I couldn’t get the bottle back.”

The show has always been, in unexpected ways, inspirational. Critics have knocked it for being too middle class, too wholesome, too stuffy. The late, great Noakesy was none of these things. And, as the down-to-earth Halifax action man once pointed out: “All the dockers and shift workers knew us. We got letters from everybody, so I don’t think of it in class terms at all.”

In its own way, Blue Peter 
was revolutionary. It 
pioneered an anti-consumerist eco-friendliness we now take 
for granted – reusing toilet 
rolls, washing-up liquid bottles and so on – and encouraged children to get off their sofas and help change the world. In 1979, it famously raised almost £4m for Cambodia from bring-and-buy sales.

The longevity of such an outstanding show is certainly worth celebrating. So this weekend I will be raising a cup – made out of sticky-backed plastic – for the national treasure that is Blue Peter. And toasting Noakesy with those immortal words: “Get down, Shep!”