Blue Peter vs Magpie

Before they lied about cats, or anyone knew that Petra had been secretly replaced or the garden had been trashed, Blue Peter faced its darkest days - when Magpie appeared.

As an adult I’m always amazed when they mention Blue Peter, because it’s disturbing to find out that it’s still on. Being a child of the 60s it was one of those TV experiences that formed my earliest memories.

Children’s TV at the time was a curious blend of the weird and the wonderful, with Blue Peter being at the more watchable end of the spectrum. In hindsight it was implausibly wholesome fare, where the division between childhood and adulthood interests was enforced like the Berlin wall.

As the years rolled by it became an easy means to track the seasonal changes, as Blue Peter always went on ‘summer expeditions’, and made an ‘advent crown’ in the build up to Christmas. Blue Peter was as chronologically as reliable as the Queen’s speech, but often just as dull.

I vaguely remember the Christopher Trace era, but for so many years Valerie Singleton and John Noakes were my extended relatives and surrogate pet owners. I even remember feeling bad for John when in 1967 they introduced Peter Purves, who looked destined to be the proverbial cuckoo in the Blue Peter nest.

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But John was made of sterner stuff, and Purves was soon relegated to making doll costumes while Noakes snogged alligators or survived being blown to small fragments. There wasn’t anything that man wasn’t prepared to try, even if it was likely to kill him.

And then…something unbelievable happened…in 1968 Thames TV launched Magpie.

It wasn’t a subtle move on LWT’s part, they’d clinically copied the Blue Peter model, but injected some well needed colour and verve. Blue Peter was looking dated, but Magpie amplified its old world charms in less than a flattering way. The presenters were young, dressed in a contemporary way and could even be classed as ‘sexy’. The BBC’s worst nightmare had transpired – an adolescent-attracting version of Blue Peter but with a dash of street credibility.

Among school children of the era it caused an immediate schism, you could like one or the other, but not both. Some of this divide was age-orientated, as Magpie seemed pitched for a slightly older audience, but much of it was also how much more accessible they seemed.

The only thing I didn’t get about Magpie was the rhyme, which considering the target audience seemed twee in the extreme.

One for sorrowTwo for joyThree for a girlFour for a boyFive for silverSix for goldSeven for a secret never to be toldEight to wishNine to kissTen is a bird you must not miss

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It was only years later that I discovered they’d butchered another piece of English heritage, because the last three lines should be:

Eight for HeavenNine for HellTen for the Devil himself

But hey, it was curious twaddle, like much of the show. What I did really like was the lovely Susan Stranks whose penchant for going bra-less trumped whatever Val did onscreen entirely. How much hormones had played a part in determining my watching preferences became evident when she left the show in 1974, at the time my interest in Magpie coincidentally began to wane. They replaced her with Jenny Hanley, who just wasn’t my type at all. Of the other presenters I recall Mick Robertson who bore an uncanny resemblance to Brian May, and Tommy Boyd who thought he was desperately funny, but sadly wasn’t. There was also affable cricket fan Tony Bastable, and of course Murgatroyd the Magpie.Blue Peter tried to counter with Lesley Judd, a nice enough lady but hardly a head turner. And then disaster, towards the end of the seventies Simon Groom arrived! He was wetter than a haddock’s bathing costume, and made Purves look positively macho in comparison. The golden era of Blue Peter was over for me, and Magpie had equally lost its way. But more importantly I was also getting older, and I’d stopped watching both the shows when Thames finally axed Magpie in 1980.

In retrospect Magpie was always a pretender to the crown, and somewhat light on its own ideas, rather than ones they’d purloined from Auntie Beeb. Blue Peter did little to check the competition other than to ride out the twelve years of combat and keep on going, doing exactly what had sustained it from 1958.

These days I’m not sure which is more incredible, that Blue Peter is still with us or that Magpie lasted as long as it did.