The Blue Peter Peatbank

28 07 2009

In the mid 1970’s the BBC decided to increase their output of regional programmes for children. The BBC Charter set out a requirement to include the whole of the country in some shape or form, taking account of local regional issues that might be of interest to children.

But what to do to keep kids in the Hebrides ‘involved’? On the back of the success of the Blue Peter Garden, Biddy Baxter the Editor of Blue Peter was keen to explore similar features which could provide long term sustainability and keep the wee maws engaged..

After extensive research (finding a copy of the Stornoway Gazette left on a tube train and seeing a feature about ‘The Most Fashionable Peatstacks of 1973’) the powers at be commissioned a series about the ‘Blue Peter Peatbank’. This was felt to be sufficient to appeal to minority audiences, as well as tick the ‘regional requirement’ box and perhaps provide a few hours of vaguely interesting tv.

The plan was to film regular features from a real peatbank, showing the way it transformed throughout the course of a year, and how peat played an important role in island life.

John Noakes, Peter Purves and Lesley Judd would fly up to Stornoway every so often and would be filmed doing things like turfing, cutting and taking the peats home. Local children would be invited along to help out with the peat cutting and to talk about their pet sheep.

The BBC carried out a number of screen tests on various peatbanks to try and get the most photogenic. After several weeks of tramping over the moors, a small peatbank was chosen at the back of New Valley on the outskirts of Stornoway. This peatbank featured picturesque heather, artistic bogs and a better class of clegs.

The BBC sent John Noakes down to the Crofters Store on Island Road to open a tab and to purchase a tarasgeir and a creel. Two local worthies were chosen to play the ‘Percy Thrower’ role, to provide expert advice on how to cut peat and to stack them neatly. ‘Bogie’ was chosen due to his authentic traditional dress sense (turned down wellies, torn boiler suit and tweed jacket with a half bottle hanging out of the pocket) and his dexterous skill at throwing whilst under the influence of strong drink. His contemporary, ‘Old King Cole’ was chosen for his unique Gaelic burr (which was only later discovered to be English sweary words).

The Blue Peter Peatbank feature ran for less than a year due to complaints from many parents that their children were picking up naughty words from the ‘scary peatmen’ but also from the  political fallout from a long running courtcase involving John Noakes’ dog Shep and several instances of sheep worrying. It was also discoovered that the kids from Laxdale School, who featured regularly in Blue Peter, were being ruthlessly exploited by the BBC who were using them as slave labour to farm vast quantities of peat to power the BBC boilers in Broadcasting House.