Someone's Being Menaced By An Out-Of-Control Studio Campfire, My Lord, Kum Ba Yah
You can tell Those Children From The Cover Of Music From BBC Children's Programmes that it's safe to come out from behind the sofa now. The Doctor Who medley has finished, and it's time instead for the theme music from the exact the sort of programme that appealed to gentrified Shrivenzale-fearing swots. The sort of programme that has always polluted any attempt at waxing psychedeli-nostalgically lyrical about children's television of the past. The sort of programme it was always tacitly dictated that you ought to be watching, as opposed to the sort that you actually wanted to watch. The sort of programme that was an unwelcome trade-off against the thrills of Battle Of The Planets and the laughs of Rentaghost. The sort of programme that was, well, Blue Peter.
Let's be absolutely blunt about this from the outset. Yes, you might have enjoyed it, and nobody's arguing with that, but if we're plotting a star chart rendered in Goodies Font typography where the constellations form representations of Mr McHenry and Farmer Barleymow inside a larger strobing swirl of psychedelically-hued cosmic flares, then Blue Peter has no place on it. Yes, it was popular, yes, it was long-running, and yes, it may have to be grudgingly accepted that its live nature sometimes led to immensely watchable moments of cat-goes-berzerk-and-pushes-John-Noakes-backwards-over-couch hilarity, but none of that can do anything to counter the fact that, in this context at least, Blue Peter is to all intents and purposes an Engelbert Humperdinck accidentally included on the bill of a 14 Hour Technicolour Dream.
You either loved Blue Peter or you hated it. And if you hated it, it was a dull teacherish Reithian exercise in instructing you in what you should be interested in, populated by over-enthusiastic presenters and suffering from a disconcerting over-devotion to retelling the story of The Stone Of Scone. No doubt many of those who loved it, and TV Cream's Steve Williams in particular, will have stopped reading by now, but please be assured this is no idle and opportunistic exercise in Blue Peter-bashing. Well, it is a bit, but the cold hard fact of the matter is that, station of origin aside, Blue Peter had little in common with the more absurdist and chronologically adrift shows that it might have been hoped were to be found on Music From BBC Children's Programmes, and yet was - and still is - always the first to get mentioned whenever anyone sought to evoke memories of children's television past, with reminiscences about 'double-sided sticky tape' and 'makes' that nobody ever made and the Time Capsule and That Sodding Elephant and when Princess Anne joined them for something or other as if anyone ever cared about that in the first place anyway just generally getting in the way of rightful Chegger-skewed revelry, leading to no end of Barnaby-fuelled resentment towards Peter Purves and company. What was more, while Doctor Who had proved a welcome and musically pleasing diversion from the path to Play Away-soundtracked enlightenment, Blue Peter came equipped with formal if jolly stiffly orchestral theme music that literally belonged to another age. All of the hopes that had been pinned on Music From BBC Children's Programmes were, it seemed, rapidly fading. The Day Of Those Children From The Cover was upon us.
Still not convinced? Well, let's consider this in slightly less critical and slightly more pseudo-scientific terms. Many years ago, probably while Music From BBC Children's Programmes was still on general release, the BBC used to use flag up their daily children's television schedules on a caption slide in an horrendous navy/mustard/white colour scheme. On either side of said schedules were a set of illustrations featuring iconography from some of the more popular and enduring programmes of the day, complete with two archaic-looking children gazing up at them in gleeful awe. On the left were the Play School house and Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout, and on the right were Scooby Doo and - you knew it was looming on the horizon - the Blue Peter boat.
"So what?", you're probably thinking. "It stands to reason that they'd slap a few random representations of view-enticing shows onto an otherwise bland-looking schedule which probably had bloody God's Wonderful Railway in it on top of everything else, without even considering that in the far and distant future someone would use it as a flimsy springboard for launching into yet more unwarranted Blue Peter-bashing". And yes, in the conventional sense, you'd be exactly right, but consider the contrast more in terms of the cognitive associations of this juxtaposition. The shows on the left are precisely those that would appeal to the more arty and cerebral subsector of the audience, who had 'seen' the free jazz influences of Play Away and became consumed by pre-school existential rumination on the modern condition and its relation to the pop-art ethics underpinning the Play School toys, doubtless growing up to cultivate an obsession with French cinema and sixties pop music and indeed with regaining para-psychological access to the lost 'white void' studio of the mind. Whereas those on the right pointed towards more of a sense of structure and order and academic rigour, with precision and achievement and fresh-faced fun taking precedence over angst-ridden doodling intended to somehow 'take down the government'. In a sense it really is the whole 'Left Brain/Right Brain' theorem writ large, only the wrong way round, and with more Barnaby.
And so it was that if you went through childhood with the imprinted image of a Franco-English stop-motion bear seared into in your subconscious, Blue Peter was merely something that Other Children Liked. Its adherence to formality and achievement and unobtrusive modes of dress, not to mention its obsession with historical facts and figures and ever so slightly patronising exploration of 'foreign' cultures, was sometimes more than the unfocused creative mind could cope with and as such simply rejected. Others may have had their Bring And Buy Sales and free entry to the Natural History Museum for Blue Peter badgewinners, but this was a world you could not understand and were not invited into anyway, forced instead to stand peering through the window with Mr Davenport from Rentaghost. It is worth mentioning at this point that there is something of a misconception that those who were barred from entering the Blue Peter party automatically sought solace in Magpie, the ITV counterpart that folk legend would have you believe was something tantamount to a 'roller disco' in comparison. However, that's ignoring the fact that underneath its more modish trappings, Magpie had much the same obsessions as Blue Peter - almost as if Brotherhood Of Man had decided to go 'New Wave' - and the last thing you wanted was to replace something you didn't like with more of the same in trendier jackets. You can read more about that here, incidentally, and only some of it wildly contradicts the preceding sentence. Of course, Magpie did have one very significant thing in its favour, but we'll come back to that in due course.
No matter how enviably classy a complete run of Blue Peter 'books' - never 'annuals'; the whole argument encapsulated in one word right there - may look on a bookshelf now, back when vintage Blue Peter wasn't actually vintage, it was the prim and proper diametric defuser of any theoretical Fingerbobs firework lit by Keith Chegwin. And here it was, slap bang in the middle(ish) of the first side of Music From BBC Children's Programmes, poised to do exactly the same thing again. So, yes, it's time for the Blue Peter theme. And the original orchestral pre-Mike Oldfield one at that. Much as we might prefer to avoid it, it's there on the album and has to be listened to if we want to get to The Electric Kool-Aid (Made By Windy Miller's Cider Press) Acid Test, so let's just get it out of the way and move on.
The Blue Peter theme is a jaunty re-arrangement of Barnacle Bill, written by one Ashworth Hope and definitely not to be confused with the rather off-colour traditional sea shanty of the same name, and similarly not to be confused with the programme's closing theme Drum And Fife, which is apparently an entirely different tune despite sounding almost identical. The version included on Music From BBC Children's Programmes, as used onscreen from 1958 to 1979, was performed by the New Century Orchestra and conducted by Sidney Torch, who perhaps better known as creator and mainstay of Radio 2's Friday Night Is Music Night. It sounds pretty much as you remember it, from the opening drum roll to the shrill sign-off. It's jolly but formal strings and woodwind all the way, and as it had its origins in the world of 'proper' orchestral composition, there isn't even a hastily-written weird-out 'middle bit' to enjoy, just more of the same with occasional variations in emphasis. It's nice enough as far as it goes, and it would be a brave person who suggested that it was anything less than a pleasant and jaunty light orchestral piece, but it just doesn't belong on Music From BBC Children's Programmes. Well, actually, in a literal sense it probably has more claim to be on there than any of the other inclusions, but in a more esoteric and hypothetical sense it's a real fish out of water, redolent of an earlier age of ration books and Calling All Workers and whistling postmen and, well, children's TV of the late fifties; and, let's be honest, Blue Peter had done little in the way of modernising since then. It's worth reflecting on the fact that, had this been Music From ITV Children's Programmes (and oh for such an album to exist), we we would have got The Spencer Davis Group's pseudonymous swirly Hammond dancefloor-friendly Magpie theme song instead. Musically and indeed aesthetically the Blue Peter theme has little in common with the two preceding tracks, nor indeed what might - hopefully - follow. Still, it could have been worse. At least it wasn't the brass band rendition of On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at that bookended outward bound Blue Peter spinoff Go With Noakes.
We came looking for something akin to The Walham Green East Wapping Rodent And Boggit Extermination Association appearing on Cheggers Plays Pop. We left, as ever, under the disapproving gaze of those clean-cut youngsters who didn't like that uncouth popular beat music but knew everything there was to know about getting up at six in the morning to do their bugle practice, recite the Kings and Queens of England in both chronological and dynastic order, and then get to work on the latest Blue Peter 'make'. The effect was somewhat like finding Edwelweiss by Vince Hill in the middle of side one of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and this fading of the psychedelic dream will get worse before it will get better.
As you may remember, it was customary for each track of Music From BBC Children's Programmes to be made up of several shorter tracks segued together. In the absence of Drum And Fife, there was nothing else obvious to pad Barnacle Bill out to track length with and so BBC Records And Tapes had to scour their archives for something tenuously suitable, eventually opting for a version of Kum Ba Yah credited to 'The Girl Guides'. BBC Records And Tapes were an eccentric outfit at the best of times, but in their first couple of years of operation they apparently compiled their output by cutting up a copy of the Radio Times, throwing the pieces up in the air and using the first five words that landed as the basis for an album title. Hence alongside the more expected fare like Jackanory story albums, Morecambe & Wise sketch collections and BBC Radiophonic Workshop shenanigans, you'd get the likes of Sir Peter Ustinov Says: How To See Jupiter Through A Telescope, Whither Paraguay? A Musical Journey In Speech and Sound Effects No. 874: Steam Train Buffet Cars Of Old Shropshire, none of which are quite as much of an exaggeration as you might be thinking. And yes, there was a Test Card album, but more on that later. Needless to say, they would pile any passing musical ensemble into a recording studio, and so it was that this non-location specific collection of 'Girl Guides', under the supervision of one Hettie Smith, came to record an album's worth of campfire standards including Hol' Yo' Han', Mr Banjo, Images And Reflections and Tingalayo, better known to erstwhile viewers of the BBC schools' programme Music Time as that peculiar song about a donkey that eats with a knife and fork, which was released in 1971 as Singing Along With The Girl Guides, complete with a disturbing cover depicting a terrifying mutant Guide. They also may or may not have released a single on the label except it might actually have been a cover of the Doomwatch theme but nobody's quite sure, though you can find the full story of that in Top Of The Box.
Presumably as part of the 'improving' remit, Blue Peter was always given to allowing members of the Guiding and Scouting movements to demonstrate their 'gang show' antics in the studio, most infamously resulting in a shower of Guides being menaced live on air by an out-of-control campfire while, hilariously, singing If You're Happy And You Know It, so the connection kind of writes itself. Sadly there's no crackling flame effect to enhance this performance, just a terminally dreary performance of a terminally dreary song, rendered in that 'ghostly' looming-from-out-of-nowhere style much beloved of The Cliff Adams Singers on Sing Something Simple. Of course, there's a whole subgenre now devoted to the unexpectedly spooky and spectral folky sounds of throwaway background music of yesteryear, which presumably accounts for the bafflingly inflated sums Singing Along With The Girl Guides now changes hands for. But spooky and spectral folky is not what we're looking for here, let alone jaunty orchestral nauticisms, and Blue Peter has once again succeeded in intrusively disrupting an hallucinogenic vista that should be backward sitars and the shopkeeper from Mr Benn as far as the eye can see. But wait... is that the sound of the cavalry, galloping up on a 'Tricy-bus'?
Top Of The Box, The Complete Guide To BBC Records And Tapes Singles, is available as a paperback here or an eBook here; a sequel covering the albums is coming soon!