‘The Blue Peter Diaries’ reviewed

This is yet another triumph for Miwk and a must read if you have any interest in TV history.

Growing up, I was a Blue Peter kid. I watched the show avidly, contributing when I could to the appeals, entering the competitions and collecting the annuals. The show was one of the mainstays of my childhood throughout the 1980s. Like the author, Richard Marson, I vividly remember Janet Ellis joining the team. This episode didn’t have quite the same impact on me as it did on him however, as this was the point where Marson decided he wanted to be editor of the show.  Now in Miwk’s latest book, Richard Marson takes us through entries in the diaries he kept throughout his time, giving the reader a very vivid insight into what it was like to work on the show.

The diary entries take us from his time on Tomorrow’s World, where it’s revealed the editor Saul Nasse saw the Peter Snow and Phillippa Forrester team as being like the Doctor and his companion, through being offered a producer’s role on Blue Peter and his eventual promotion to editor. His sheer joy at being on the programme shines through every entry and there’s a real sense, right from the start, that this is his dream job.  Right from the off, Marson has a very clear picture of what Blue Peter is and what kind of films and items they should be presenting. His enthusiasm is tangible through the early entries when he joins the show and during those early days he really pushes to be as involved as possible in all aspects of the show, volunteering to go and off and make location films and write the Christmas shows, often above and beyond his job description.

Marson’s early days successes coordinating the fortieth anniversary celebrations are, of course, overshadowed by the sacking of Richard Bacon. This turbulent period is well covered and Marson is scathing about the way Lorraine Heggessey dealt with the matter, seeing it more as a chance for her to make her mark rather than looking after the best interests of the show and letting them deal with it.

There are both successes and items that don’t quite work as well as they should. Very often in his early days on the show,  he’s having to learn what he can and can’t do and there are a few instances of the editors, Oliver Macfarlane and Steve Hocking, having to rein him in but both came to increasingly rely on his knowledge of the show over time. Hocking’s hands-off approach to his editorship comes in for some lots of criticism from Marson, who was careful to keep those thoughts confined to his diaries, unlike Simon Thomas, who became increasingly outspoken about the Hocking’s lack of presence.

Hocking’s eventual resignation leads to Marson finally becoming Editor and there’s a real sense of elation in his entries around this period. He spells out his vision for the show and leads it through many successes at this time, including winning a BAFTA, the Blue Peter Books Awards (which was the most watched children’s TV show of the year) and the highly successful Christmas pantos.

Of course many readers will be reading to hear the backstage gossip about the presenters and staff. There’s plenty of it, from Stuart Miles’ drunken reveal of his crush on Richard Bacon, through Katy Hill’s often diva-ish behaviour, to the major tensions between Matt Baker and Gethin Jones.

There’s accounts of lazy behavior when it came to scripts from just about all the presenters he worked with, but while he’s often quick to criticise these moments, he’s also very fair about giving them praise when they deserve it, and it’s to his credit that the team of Simon Thomas, Konnie Huq, Matt Baker and Liz Barker has become one of the most beloved Blue Peter teams.  In fact he’s generally far more cutting about the pop stars who come on the show, very few of whom seem to be free from comments about their lack of professionalism.

Photograph (c) Richard Marson

Perhaps more controversial is the material throughout about the BBC’s attitude about the show. Throughout his time on the show, Marson had to deal with jealousy of the show from other productions on CBBC, executives determined to change the show (he’s very scathing about anyone who says the show is too middle class) and follow the trends that other CBBC shows were embracing. Marson is often out spoken in his opinions about the shows Blue Peter were perceived to be in competition with, rightly realising that they didn’t have the same kind of high standards that he set for his show.

It’s sad then that Marson’s time with the show came to something of an ignominious end. There’s a sense of doom through many of the entries leading up to his dismissal, even before the scandals about the votes in the two competitions come to the fore. It’s almost as if Marson is a victim of his own success and his bosses at CBBC want to move him out of the way to push through the changes they want to make to the show, knowing that he would stand up against them all. It’s sad to read, especially when the news came out about the competitions, as they seem relatively minor. The fact that none of his bosses stood up for him, when he was such a capable editor is very sad, and says much about the BBC.

You really feel for Richard Marson. All he wanted to do was make a great show and two small incidents let him and the show down. What’s admirable is that all his staff stood up for him, but that wasn’t enough to save him. That his fears about the future of the show very quickly came true is almost inevitable and that most of his presenters don’t last long again says much about CBBC at the time. The messages from Zoe, Gethin and Konnie are poignant; they cared about the show as much as Marson did, and had so much respect for their boss.

Photograph (c) Richard Marson

What is also abundantly clear is the respect that the pervious editors of the show had for him. There’s a brilliant long entry about a dinner which all the former editors attended. I really enjoyed hearing all their views about the show and the presenters they worked with. It’s clear that Blue Peter was a show that they all adored, and wanted the best for. If this meant making tough decisions, then so be it; the show was the important thing. The talk about who made good presenters was also fascinating to read, and it was interesting to read that the views of the editors didn’t necessarily favour all the ones that the viewers hold dear. Valerie Singleton, for instance, doesn’t seem to have been thought of fondly by Biddy Baxter and Edward Barnes.

I came away from this book with a feeling of real respect for Richard Marson.  He took on the show when its relevance to children was being questioned on all sides and lead it through one of its most successful periods, working with a set of presenters who became a classic line-up for the children of that era. Although tinged with sadness at the end, what is clear throughout is that Marson absolutely adores the show. His love for Blue Peter shines through every entry, even when things are bad, there’s always a sense of the joy of working on his dream job and if he’s bad tempered, it’s only because the show hasn’t lived up to the high standards he feels it should strive for.

This is yet another triumph for Miwk Publishing and a must read if you have any interest in TV history. It’s a long book, but I devoured it over two days. Even if Blue Peter wasn’t your show, this is a brilliant read. Just don’t tell Richard Marson you didn’t watch it because it was too middle class for you!

‘The Blue Peter Diaries’ by Richard Marson is available from Miwk Publishing, RRP £14.99. Order by clicking here.

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