In his five years on Blue Peter, Andy Akinwolere has performed a formation skydive despite being petrified of heights, raced an HGV and taken a thousand-mile road trip across Turkey. But when the programme relocates to Salford from west London following today’s broadcast, the Bafta-nominated presenter won’t be going with it.
“I’ve come to a natural end,” he explains, when my son and I meet him in what’s soon to be the former Blue Peter garden at Television Centre.
I ask whether his departure is down to the show’s move up north, but it appears not. “It’s a lifestyle rather than a job and it takes over everything. It’s phenomenal and the things you do are brilliant, but it’s just constant.”
Life has certainly been a whirlwind for the 28-year-old since he landed this first presenting role back in 2006. He freely admits that he wasn’t a big fan of the show growing up and had to learn about its heritage while on the job.
But what’s obvious is that he has a natural rapport with children that’s down to the fact he neither lectures nor patronises. I suggest that this hasn’t always been the case with Blue Peter hosts.
“In the past, it’s had this snooty, twee image but nowadays we don’t want to talk to the audience like that. The buy-in is that you’re their elder brother or sister. Language has moved on so much and it’s essential that we stay current.”
Fans of Andy will be disappointed that his future doesn’t lie with the programme, but what’s ahead for Blue Peter? Every so often, there’s talk that it’ll be shifted off BBC1 and onto CBBC. What does Andy make of the non-terrestrial option?
“When you look at the CBBC channel as a whole, it’s a great place. I think because of the way children watch television now, they need to have a home for something. Where we’ve struggled over the last few years is that we’ve constantly changed days and timeslots, which had an effect. People need to know where Blue Peter is so that its longevity can be ensured.”
It sounds unthinkable to me that this staple of BBC1 could ever switch to Freeview, but maybe I’m just being sentimental while sitting in a garden surrounded by sculptures of Mabel the dog and that other famous canine, Petra. Such feelings also leave me pondering how the show can remain identifiable when it’s not based in Shepherd’s Bush.
“As long as it has the same ambition, then it’ll be fine. And ambition is something we’ve never been shy of,” says Andy. “Blue Peter understands its viewers a lot more now and as long as we continue to cater to their needs, then it can go on for ever.”
What is clear is that, although he has a desire to branch out into such fields as primetime documentary, Andy doesn’t see his time on Blue Peter as a hindrance to success away from kids’ TV: “I’m looking forward to bigger and brighter challenges, but this programme has put me in such a good position to speak and negotiate with people. Everywhere you go in the world, there’s an ex-pat who recognises the show. I’m going to miss it like you wouldn’t believe.”
But before he leaves, he must face one final challenge. It may not be as daunting as conquering that fear of heights, but children can ask some pretty tough questions. It’s over to my seven-year-old for Andy’s exit interview:
Which challenge scared you the most?
My parachute-jump and skydive with the RAF Falcons. I was 11,000 feet in the air and I had to do 11 jumps. Nobody knows this, but on one jump I blacked out. I was hurtling through the air and my instructors had to jump out, slap me around the face and pull my cord. That’s top-secret information. We kept it off screen.
Which was your most enjoyable challenge?
Taking part in a massive truck race at Brands Hatch. I’m a real speed junkie and I loved driving fast on the track. I now have an HGV trucking licence, so if you ever need anything delivering, I’ll sort you out.
Who have you most enjoyed meeting?
Lewis Hamilton. I love meeting people who inspire others. I once did a skidpan challenge with him and I was slower by 0.9 seconds. I could have got him if I’d concentrated just that little bit harder.
What was your favourite subject at school?
I liked drawing. I moved over to Birmingham from Nigeria at the age of eight and I remember that, at first, I really didn’t understand the differences in teaching methods. So all I could do for the first few weeks was draw. I made lots of friends by doing pictures for people.
What were you most afraid of as a child?
Swimming. I found it horrible just to put my face in the water. Luckily, I’ve now been able to overcome this fear as well, thanks to my deep-water challenge [Andy recently set two world records when he swam five miles across the Palau Trench, an 8,000-metre abyss in the Pacific Ocean].
What kind of programme would you like to do next?
I’d like to travel the world and do a Michael Palin-style documentary. I’d also like to work on The One Show because it’s like the grown-up version of Blue Peter. And I could be reunited with former BP presenter Matt Baker.
Andy Akinwolere’s final Blue Peter can be seen on Tuesday 28 June at 4:30pm on BBC1