The BBC's flagship magazine programme for children, Blue Peter had already been on the air for a staggering 16 years when, in 1974, the show's editor, Biddy Baxter, and her production team decided on a new regular feature for the show. Realising that many children live in flats or in houses without a garden, they came up with the idea of creating Blue Peter's very own garden which would allow the presenters to show children how gardens change during the seasons, how different plants can thrive under different weather conditions and even how to make a bird-feeder for the sparrows, robins and tits that remain constant visitors to gardens through the winter.
From Little Acorns...
The production team approached Percy Thrower, British television's first 'celebrity' gardener. Thrower first appeared on the BBC's Gardening Club in 1956 before presenting the BBC 2 show Gardener's World from its first episode in 1968 until 1976, when he was unfortunately sacked for appearing in a weed killer commercial on ITV (something which, at the time, was seen as a conflict of interests). Gardener's World, though, is still being broadcast as of 2002.
For Blue Peter, Thrower set about designing a working crop garden with different areas for different types of plants. The finished garden was unveiled on the show on 21 March, 1974, with Thrower accompanied by the regular presenters, who at the time were Peter Purves, John Noakes and Lesley Judd.
The layout of the garden remained the same for a number of years, until 1979, when it was redesigned - again by Percy Thrower - to look like an Italian sunken garden, complete with fish pond and small benches for the presenters to sit on while introducing items. Sadly, the garden was partly vandalised shortly before completion, causing a lot of distress to Percy, the presenters and the viewers. But although the damage could be repaired, worse was to come.
It was in the November of 1983 that the show began with photo stills of a devastated garden. Children across the land watched in horror, wondering what kind of freak weather might have caused such destruction. But then presenter Janet Ellis confirmed their worst fears. Vandals had once again broken into the Blue Peter compound at Television Centre and run amok. An expensive ornamental sundial had been tipped over and smashed; plants had been ripped up and strewn across the garden; an urn had been thrown into the pond and, worse, the vandals had poured oil into the water. While the team all leapt in to repair the damage, for Percy Thrower it was all too much and, in a memorable scene, with tears in his eyes, he forgot himself for a moment and declared that in his opinion, the kind of people who could do such a thing must have been 'mentally ill'. No-one would admonish the man for his temporary political incorrectness. A nation was emotionally scarred that day.
To this day, the culprits have never been identified. However, in 2000, footballer Les Ferdinand boasted that he had been a member of the gang who trashed the Blue Peter garden. Having misjudged just how the public might react to such an admission, though, he later recanted the claim.
The ransacking of the Blue Peter Garden has become a popular element in fiction. In 2002, author Paul Magrs revealed in his hilarious novel All The Rage how it was all down to the transvestite manager of the fictional band Things Fall Apart, while Doctor Who author Lawrence Miles claimed it was the work of the amoral time-changing cult Faction Paradox. The repeated boasts of culpability by numerous readers of the 'adult' comic Viz can, however, be discounted.
Old FriendsIn 1979, the editorial team commissioned a bronze bust of the Blue Peter dog Petra, who had died a couple of years earlier. Petra, an Alsatian, was first unveiled to the adoring public in 1965. As television's first 'virtual' pet, Petra won a special place in people's hearts, so when she died in 1977, a special bronze bust of her was commissioned from Blue Peter artist William Timym (who also made the sculpture of Guy the Gorilla in 1983). What Petra's fans through the years were not aware of at the time was that the original Petra died when she was just a few weeks old, just after her first appearance on the show. To avoid unnecessarily distressing the children, a replacement was hurriedly acquired and the deception wasn't revealed for many years later. For many years, the bust stood outside BBC Television Centre, but when the building was extended in 1984, Petra's bust was relocated to the safety of the garden.
In 1988, presenter Mark Curry visited Percy Thrower, who was in hospital, to show him a compilation of Blue Peter highlights and to award him the prestigious Gold Blue Peter badge1. Sadly, Percy passed away just seven days after the programme was broadcast.
Still, Percy's work continues with the garden remaining a constant feature of the show. Indeed, it has, over the years, been the home to three 'Time Capsules' - boxes of mementos and publicity material for the show. The first, assembled in 1971, was moved there when, like the Petra bust, its original location was about to become a building site, while a second box was buried in 1984. Both capsules were unearthed in 2000 as part of the Millennium celebrations. Sadly, while the original capsule remained intact, the cheap container of the second one had allowed water to seep in, leaving most of its contents disintegrated into a brown slurry, proving a great disappointment to the presenters who had buried it with such expectations years earlier. A third capsule, not to be opened until 2029, was buried that same year.