Such was Biddy Baxter’s justification for exiling her presenters away from the clean friendly environment of the BP studio where we knew and loved them best, and out into the most unfamiliar and hostile of countries of the world with no preparation whatsoever other than the instruction to bring back at least four week’s worth content for the new series.
So began the annual Blue Peter expedition – never a holiday (“one sure way of infuriating presenters and production team alike,” says Biddy, “was to refer to the expeditions as holiday. They were anything but. Paid for out of the programme’s meagre budget and crammed into our so-called summer break, they were back-breaking assignments”) – and the tradition of signing off every June with a show proudly unveiling the location for this year’s soiree, usually with the help of an impressively oversized plastic globe and a couple of will-this-do? props.
The first one in 1965 was a shameless jolly fixed up by some Shepherd’s Bush spiv who offered to send Val and Chris Trace to that most obvious of destinations, the Arctic Circle.
They got better.
There isn’t one this year, unless you count a one-way ticket from Shepherd’s Bush to Salford. So by way of a tribute and to tide things over until the autumn in much the same way and manner as a few hastily compiled episodes of Blue Peter Flies The World, here is TV Cream’s pick of the best BP summer expeditions.
WHERE? South East Asia, specifically the jungles of Borneo.
HOW? A notoriously expensive RAF-sponsored effort sets the formula for glossy expeditions as much about look-how-we-got-here as look-what-we’ve-found. Numerous passenger jets, freighter planes and military helicopters show up, all of suitably bone-rattling condition, and all seemingly off the back of a friend of a friend of Edward “Cravat” Barnes.
HELLO THERE! A sweaty Val and Chris star in the first of many visits to uncommunicative kids caught in the middle of a confusing civil war somewhere in the Developing World.
ONE FOR THE REVIEW OF THE YEAR: The team visit a group of jungle-dwellers who have never seen a white woman before, are introduced as being “from the BBC in Britain,” and are, of course, instantly made welcome. They repay the debt by presenting the tribe with a plaque and a crate of light ale.
OFF DUTY: Val is terrorised by leeches. Chris wanders off one night with “a party of young officers and their wives.” Edward has trouble with too many bare-breasted women in shot.
BIDDY RECALLS: “The entire unit was kitted out in jungle green, not the sexiest outfit ever invented, although Valerie still managed to look stunning.”
HOW? A rather melodramatic exit from the BP studio in a Land Rover, as if the team were fleeing the country that afternoon.
HELLO THERE! Val, John and Pete play the innocents abroad. Earnest attempts to make sense of exotic customs and rituals are offset by Val taking comedy umbrage at having to ride a camel, and John doing pratfalls when the Land Rover breaks down in the middle of the desert.
ONE FOR THE REVIEW OF THE YEAR: The gang attempt a spot of Carry On Spying-style surveillance on a bunch of mysterious traders in Marrakech marketplace. “There they go!”
OFF DUTY: A terrified Val is menaced by a black scorpion in her room, and Edward Barnes has to summon the hotel manager to kill it with a walking stick and a broken beer bottle. Two of the production team get sunstroke.
BIDDY RECALLS: “Setting off for the Sahara Desert was a romantic notion we all found irresistible. The fact that the Sahara in August boasts temperatures of 135 degrees tempered our enthusiasm.”
HOW? The British Overseas Airways Corporation.
HELLO THERE! The team bravely do justice to an entire sub-tropical nation, trying to forget how their farewell show in Britain had been upstaged by a pissing pachyderm. When they get back, they find everyone’s still talking about the heffalump.
ONE FOR THE REVIEW OF THE YEAR: Wearing nothing but strategically placed teatowels, John and Pete fail to find anything amusing to say about sitting atop thin wooden poles in the middle of the sea practising the art of stilt fishing.
OFF DUTY: Edward Barnes faffs about trying to get re-takes of an elephant being dressed in a large smock. The beast promptly flays him with a nearby branch.
BIDDY RECALLS: “The elephant that carries the eye tooth of the Lord Buddha was not going to be messed about by some white, bearded pipsqueak who kept on changing his mind.”
HOW? More exposure for the BOAC, as recommended by Beatles band.
HELLO THERE! The gang debut a sightseeing/local history format, ticking off the tourist spots while trying to re-tell ancient myths and legends. Potential for irritating Noakes-led larking about is, accordingly, high. The expedition coincides with the World Cup, allowing scope for unashamed voiceover scapegoating in post-production: “We had an altitude problem, just like our football squad!”
ONE FOR THE REVIEW OF THE YEAR: While indulging in some bareback rodeo in Mexico City, John charms the locals by hilariously riding his horse right out of the stadium gates.
OFF DUTY: Val and Pete refuse to speak to each other for the entire trip.
BIDDY RECALLS: “It was pretty frightening – especially for Val. She’d been given a gunbelt and a six shooter to wear, and every time she bumped up and down in the saddle she was afraid she was going to shoot herself!”
HOW? The team head back to the tropics and touch down at Tongatapu Airport to the sounds of “guitars and singing”. Royal tour-style bowing, scraping and garlanding of heads follows. John notes how “everyone was wearing skirts, both the men and the women.”
HELLO THERE! Pete visits a building site but fails to make a wall out of dried leaves. Lesley does some knitting. A can’t-be-arsed John settles for Tongan coconut-collecting: lying on the ground under the tree waiting for them to fall off.
ONE FOR THE REVIEW OF THE YEAR: A massive feast laid on for the visitors begins with the compulsory imbibing of dubious shit-coloured powdered substances. An hour later Lesley is shimmying across the lawn in a grass skirt.
OFF DUTY: A suited and booted team pay a social call to the local palace, only to learn the King left for Britain the day before. Diplomatic embarrassment is averted when the Princess grants an audience instead, and turns out to be a fan of basketball.
BIDDY RECALLS: “We were delighted when we were presented with the cloth that Lesley helped to make. At this very moment it’s hanging over the entrance to the BBC canteen, so that everyone who works at the Television Centre can enjoy looking at it.”
HOW? A short hop via British Airways to Istanbul. Very convenient.
HELLO THERE! Midway across the bridge spanning the Bosphorus river, the team ponder in which continent to begin. “Let’s start in Europe,” says John. “And what’s more, let’s have a cup of coffee before we do anything else,” adds Lesley. Much antiquity-based antics ensue. Pete and John revel in a Turkish bath. Lesley inspects the ruins of an ancient 60-seat lavatory. John shouts inside an open-air theatre.
ONE FOR THE REVIEW OF THE YEAR: The team do the hokey cokey with a bunch of wrestlers covered in salad cream.
OFF DUTY: A visit to an abandoned underground city reveals the presence of a working discotheque, giving Pete the chance to catch up with the latest sounds he’s missing on The Old Grey Whistle Test.
BIDDY RECALLS: “Their ferocious moustaches turned out to be stuck on with glue.”
HOW? Sarah signing on the dotted line warrants a last minute hastily-booked extra seat on the overnight from Heathrow, in the process avoiding an expedition fronted by the Groom alone.
HELLO THERE! Low-key affair with much surveying of sedentary temples and local wildlife. Sarah tries on a sari. Simon fondles a baby turtle.
ONE FOR THE REVIEW OF THE YEAR: Simon gets invited to join rehearsals for the Penang annual dragon boat race. After only ten minutes he claims his “back is breaking” and bails out of the chance to row in the race proper. Elsewhere, Sarah has an encounter with an over-excited cox.
OFF DUTY: Sarah has trouble adjusting to Malaysian night life outside her hotel window, being disturbed by frogs, cicadas and the Government Turtle Inspector: “It wasn’t too long before a shrill telephone bell broke into my sleep. ‘Missy Green?’ ‘Mmmm?’ ‘The turtles are coming. You must hurry!'”
BIDDY RECALLS: “It wasn’t quite like the three cheers for your opponents that marks the end of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, but Batu Feringgi is a far cry from the tow path at Mortlake.”
HOW? A grisly seventeen-hour flight. No break on arrival to allow for jet lag. Unusually high level of chicanery follows (see below).
HELLO THERE! Simon, Sarah and Pete sample life on the Pacific rim including, conveniently for Simon, a 50s rock and roll revival (“I spoke the two magic words ‘Elvis Presley’ and their faces broke into smiles”). Sarah tries on a kimono. Pete lies in some mud. Simon goes harvesting for eels.
ONE FOR THE REVIEW OF THE YEAR: A weedy-looking Pete displaying textbook Blitz-spirited stoicism while receiving repeated slaps from a big fuck off sumo wrestler.
OFF DUTY: A sake-fuelled Simon steals a giant inflatable waiter from outside a restaurant and runs amok across an eight-lane highway, causing gridlock and immediate visitation from a battery of squad cars. Simon and director Renny Rye spend the night being interviewed at the local police station but escape charges. Simon also inadvertently gives an interview to Playboy, claiming he’d never heard of the magazine.
BIDDY RECALLS: “Watching Simon bopping in Harajuka Park with the rockers, no one would have guessed what he had gone through.”
HOW? A no-nonsense piss-easy flight from Heathrow reminds everyone they should make a point of visiting ex-colonies more frequently in the future.
HELLO THERE! During a lumberjack tournament Simon decides to show off his knowledge of pop culture by warbling some Monty Python. Sarah goes white water rafting. Pete gets short straw: watching a burning forest.
ONE FOR THE REVIEW OF THE YEAR: Pete and Sarah visit an aerodium. “‘Pas d’interet a vous, je pense,’ our guide replied, ‘Eet ees just a place where peepul arr fly-ying’. ‘Flying?’ Pete said. ‘Stop the car!'” Slapstick scenes of the duo inside Clouseau-esque inflatable body suits ensue.
OFF DUTY: Bugger all, perhaps wisely after the previous year’s palaver. Simon plays word association games, “when you’re given a word and then you’ve got to say the next word that leaps into you mind.” Pete falls asleep in the back of a taxi.
BIDDY RECALLS: “Canada is not only a big country – it’s a country where they do things big.”
WHERE? The USSR
HOW? Aeroflot, presumably. Permission to enter the evil empire is very much a last minute job, thanks in part to a few words in the right ear from then Foreign Secretary Geoffrey “I hope you can go, they should be good films” Howe. Caron, Yvette and the crew fly out in mid-July; Mark has to follow later due to “other commitments” (he’s playing the lead in Billy Liar in Harrogate – had nobody told him being a BP presenter is a full-time job?)
HELLO THERE! Inevitably, the gang only see what they’re allowed to see, but viewers get a number of “firsts”, as the voiceovers never fail to point out, including, erm, the inside of a pet market and a street artist doing one of those crappy line drawings of Yvette’s face. Caron does “death-defying” trapeze business. Much jumping about in Red Square for photo opportunities. Footage inside a candle-lit monastery brings “tears to Biddy’s eyes”.
ONE FOR THE REVIEW OF THE YEAR: Someone up in the Mir Space Station sends his regards.
OFF DUTY: A trip to a sanatorium in the Crimea makes headlines for the wrong reasons, principally thanks to unnecessary shots of Mark’s naked arse while climbing out of a mud bath. The Sun says: Very Blue Peter. Woman complains of seeing Mark’s “naughty hair”. A contrite Biddy has to go on Open Air.
BIDDY RECALLS: “One correspondent, who also sent a copy of her letter to the Controller, even objected to Yvette wearing a one-piece swim suit being covered in sand.” And, of course: “It was ironic that Blue Peter should be accused of lowering moral standards when we made such efforts to uphold them and were frequently criticised for that as well.” Hear hear!