First published in The Times, Friday August 10 2018
Like counting the rings on a tree, you can tell a person’s age by which Blue Peter presenter they grew up watching. Love it or loathe it (and there were plenty who thought it sanctimonious, preferring its edgier ITV rival Magpie) the children’s magazine programme has clung on long after its many imitators have fallen foul of the axe. This year the show celebrates a phenomenal 60 years of funny encounters with animals, eye-watering feats of daring, and making models out of old washing-up liquid bottles and sticky-back plastic.
The popularity of Blue Peter may have ebbed in recent years, but it can still provoke a strong nostalgic tug, as evinced by the reaction to this stage play, which features some of the best-known former presenters playing themselves.
Pic: Nick Rutter
Gasps resound around the auditorium when a photograph of Peter Purves in his square-jawed pomp appears on a screen above the stage. Heads tilt and nod furiously whenever a beloved pet is mentioned. There is audible weeping at a montage of clips featuring John Noakes, the show’s original action man.
To be frank, there isn’t much dramatic substance to the piece, scripted by Tim Whitnall from an idea by the 1990s presenter Tim Vincent (who also appears). The premise, which brings together five ex-presenters backstage at an awards ceremony as they bicker over who is going to collect a special gong on behalf of the show, never really pretends to be anything other than a pretext for clips and reminiscences. Yet although the pace takes a while to settle and the show feels under-rehearsed in places, these much-loved stars of television past are as warm and likeable as ever, with genuinely interesting stories to tell about their time on the show, under the dictatorial editorship of Biddy Baxter.
Of the five, the mid-1980s presenters Janet Ellis and Mark Curry are the most at ease with live performance, although the others get their moment to shine via their dynamic younger selves in the footage, which is, of course, the real star of the show. Whether it is the sequence of Lulu the elephant defecating in the studio or Peter Duncan dangling over Parliament Square as he cleans the face of Big Ben, these images bring about a palpable shared sense of comfort and familiarity that is surprisingly powerful.