On my first day as a 28-year-old production trainee on Blue Peter in 1975, I looked at the office and wondered how this celebrated TV programme was created out of such chaos. Then legendary editor Biddy Baxter arrived, firing off ideas; it was like being on a boat going at full throttle, everyone clinging on for dear life.
In fact, it was all a bit alarming as I began a six-month attachment to Blue Peter, which eventually stretched to 36 years as I rose to become a producer.
Naval display team
Biddy threw challenges at you and if you couldn’t make it work, there would be an inquisition. When I failed to get a naval display team, she grabbed the phone and told the navy exactly what she wanted. I both respected and feared her.
Early on, I fell foul of studio protocol, handing Lesley Judd a piece of the ‘make’ – creations using the ubiquitous sticky-backed plastic. I heard a gasp as my arm was transmitted to six million viewers. And when I was directing the live show, my heart would thump if, after the run-through, I heard Biddy’s heels clacking down from the studio gallery to make last-minute changes in her quest for perfection.
My big break was in 1977, shooting John Noakes climbing Nelson’s Column up a 140ft spindly wooden ladder to clear pigeon droppings. A sound glitch meant he had to repeat the climb. As he prepared to go again (no safety harness, just a rope-break) the steeplejack told him to kneel down and ease himself backwards. ‘Kneel down? I’m already praying,’ he quavered. He wasn’t the only one. I always made all the safety checks, but I would lie in bed the night before a shoot thinking: ‘What if?’
In 1987, Janet Ellis became the first woman to freefall from 20,000 feet, filming with an RAF parachute team. I said I’d train with her and gave myself a hernia jumping from a practice tower cheerfully nicknamed the ‘Knacker Cracker’. Matt Baker caused my heart to pound when, filming him hang-gliding, a sharp wind took him above the agreed height of 300ft to a chilling 800ft. He finally touched down, ploughing into a bush, narrowly escaping being skewered.
Helen Skelton showed nerves of steel changing the light bulbs at the top of Salisbury Cathedral spire, the tallest in the UK. Both mics failed and she clung to hoops on the roof for 40 minutes until sound was re-established.
She also attempted a ‘beard of bees’ in which 20,000 of them swarmed around her, attracted by the queen, hanging in a wire cage under her chin. If aroused, they can sting a victim to death: as it was she was stung four times, while 14 got me.
The excitement of location filming was matched by the tension as we ran out of time, the weather changed or the equipment malfunctioned. In Namibia, after our radio mics were left behind, we improvised with a woollen sock over a hand-held mic and in Egypt I turned down an offer of 20 camels for former beauty-queen presenter Zöe Salmon.
I left in 2011 when the show moved from London to Salford and now make website videos. I often meet Biddy, as well as many of the 30 presenters with whom I worked. For along with the laughter, danger and wonderment, Blue Peter gave me lifelong friendships.
You can buy Alex's book on Amazon:
Or you can buy Here's One I Made Earlier: Classic Blue Peter Makes on the Saga Bookshop for £11.68.