Blue Peter presenters have undertaken some phenomenal challenges over the past 60 years.
From desert marathons to kayaking the Amazon and trekking to the South Pole, a big part of one of the most coveted jobs in TV is being fearless in the face of danger.
But, as I recently discovered, nothing can be packed with more jeopardy or terror for a Blue Peter presenter than staring down the barrel of a toilet roll tube, an elastic band, a plastic bottle and two minutes of live air time to fill.
The Blue Peter ‘makes’ are as synonymous with the long-running CBBC programme as time capsules, badges and loose-bowled elephants. They’re iconic, and the chance to have a go myself – despite the fact that an Arctic trek sounds less daunting and stressful – simply cannot be passed up.
At Blue Peter’s home at Manchester’s MediaCityUK, I’m ushered into a green room. In one corner is my soon-to-be nemesis (a shoe box filled with crafty bits); in the other, a TV screen. I’m told I’m going to be making a ping-pong ball propelled wind bag contraption – a genuine ‘make’ originally demonstrated on the show more than 40 years ago by the late, great John Noakes.
I watch a clip of Noakes making, effortlessly putting a bit of tape here and some glue there. The whole thing seems rather straightforward: after all, this is a toy that’s designed to be made by six-year-olds.
Then it’s my turn.
In the studio, I have a microphone attached and am talked through the contents of the box. Underneath the desk, I’m told, everything I will need has been handily laid out. The tape has been portioned up, there’s a pre-cut kitchen roll should I need it and there’s even a ready-made fully functioning example of the finished article within grabbing distance.
I’m also given a crash course in presenting. Make sure what you’re doing faces forward to the camera and, most importantly, just keep talking. There’s nothing worse than silence, so whatever you do: Just. Keep. Talking.
Then there’s quiet in the studio, the light on the camera turns red, and I get a cue from the director to begin. “Now today we’re going to be making…” I open with, looking at the finished example in my hand. What even is this?
Noakes didn’t say, and I didn’t think to come up with a name like ‘ball blaster’ or something beforehand. And so the words come out. “An air ping pong plastic…bottle…bangy…thingy…”
This is already going incredibly well.
I begin muddling through, somehow managing the hard bits of the make, like securing the whole thing together with an elastic band, yet failing spectacularly in something simple such as putting a piece of sticky tape onto a bit of cardboard.
Stuff falls on the floor, I lose sight of things that are right in front of me, and I’m concentrating so hard on talking that I’m not giving much thought to what I’m actually saying. The advice of continually speaking backfires somewhat when in one particularly desperate moment I come out with “tapey tapey tape. Tape tape tape.”
Noakes would never say that. Noakes, calm and clear as you like, made this whole thing look irritatingly easy. This is a man who, on Blue Peter in 1977, climbed Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square entirely unaided with no rope or safety net, and barely broke a sweat in the process.
The next two and a half minutes pass in a blur of panic, glue and far more ball innuendos that are acceptable in children’s television. As I vastly overrun on the time it should have taken me to finish the ‘ping pong plastic bottle bangy thingy’, one of the floor managers animatedly motions for me to wrap up. It’s then I realise that my contraption is all sag and no bang, and if I attempt to launch the ball across the studio, it’s going to plop sadly out.
I can’t face the final indignity of this, and so revert to the one that’s been set aside for me ‘just in case’. But I don’t have a spare – the only ping pong ball to hand is wedged in my crappier version. The ball has accidentally become affixed with the shoddily-applied glue that I slapped on 30 seconds earlier.
And so inexplicably, off-camera and with more palpable anger and passive aggressiveness than is suitable for a programme aimed at 6 to 12 year olds, I rip my lovingly-made creation apart with my bare hands to retrieve it. Yet it was all in vain, because by the magic of television a new ball magically appears, hurled at me from off camera. I ram it in, launch the bag with adrenaline-fuelled enthusiasm and, to my amazement, it actually works. I’m rather pleased with myself.
Until I remember is the one that was made earlier. The thing I created is lying in torn up shreds on the floor. It’s a rather fitting metaphor for my foray into children’s presenting, a job which, exactly like this Blue Peter make, might look simple and fun but actually requires a lot of skill, and is best left to John Noakes.
Blue Peter’s 60th anniversary special airs Tuesday 16th October at 5pm on CBBC