The BBC had Blue Peter as their staple children's magazine programme for well over ten years before ITV really found its feet and produced a programme to rival it. While Blue Peter could be argued as representing the 'establishment' point of view, with well intentioned features often presented in an 'after-class' type atmosphere, the independent show was styled as much more 'streetwise' and trendy. It was left to Thames to produce the goods, and this they did when they launched Magpie in 1968.
Like Blue Peter, Magpie was transmitted twice a week from Thames' Teddington studios. Its original trio of presenters were former disc jockey Pete Brady, academic Tony Bastable and arts student Susan Stranks. With a brief to bring kids up to date on interesting pastimes, pop music, fashion and the like, the show was far more 'with it' than its rival.
The titles announced this immediately, with bold graphics and a pop-influenced theme based on the old rhyme:
Fab and groovy
The fat, cartoon magpie mascot, emblazoned on the graphics as well as the badges given out for various awards - and there were more of them than Blue Peter watchers could expect to win - was named Murgatroyd. The whole effect was one of the 'fab and groovy Sixties', a far cry from Blue Peter's very 'sober' appearance and suggested a radically different programme. However, it did share a lot of similar features with Blue Peter. Cooking featured strongly, along with other 'how-to-make' projects. The Beeb's show had its own pony, Rags, but Magpie featured one first; Puff, together with regular minder Pauline Voss. The early Blue Peter's had included a narrated strip cartoon, amongst one of the best remembered being Bleep And Booster. Magpie went further, featuring the character of Captain Fantastic, portrayed by David Jason and usurped from Do Not Adjust Your Set for his own short-lived slot.
Making learning fun
Education was not neglected just because the show tried to be more fun and it featured many subjects kids could relate to as part of schoolwork. But Magpie educated in its own inimitable way. 'A Date With Tony' featured Bastable looking at selected events from history, often dressed for the part in period costume rather than just narrating, while 'The ABC of Space', which informed on current projects such as the Apollo moon missions, were authoritive. This segment was presented by ITN's then Science Correspondant Peter Fairley, already familiar to the audience from his introductions to the children's fantasy series, Timeslip.
Appeals also figured in the makeup of Magpie, but unlike the Blue Peter appeals where children would be asked to collect milk bottle tops or old paperback books, Magpie, as a commercial channel's programme, asked for cash. Known as the Magpie Sixpence appeals, the total raised to date was indicated by a red line running round the outside of the Teddington Lock studios, and while modest at first, they grew as the years went by.
Foreign trips by the presenters featured on both programmes; whereas Blue Peter would go to Ceylon, Magpie would go to Hong Kong. This was probably one of the few areas where the BBC programme always seemed to win out over its independent cousin, with its trips often perceived as superior. This was largely due to the Blue Peter Special Assignment and Blue Peter Flies The World programmes, which featured as themed extras to the regular editions of Blue Peter, rather than any lesser degree of professionalism on the part of the Magpie team, which had to cram everything in to the regular editions.
Time to leave
When Pete Brady left the show, his place was filled by Gilbert O'Sullivan lookalike, Mick Robertson. Robertson had been a researcher on the programme for several years, and was deemed a natural successor for the 'go anywhere, do anything' part that Brady had previously provided. He stayed with the show until its eventual demise in 1980, when he went on to present the programme's short-lived successor, Freetime.
Comings and goings
Other presenters came and went. Douglas Rae, brought in when Tony Bastable became one of the programme's producers, lasted only a short time before being replaced with another disc jockey and actor, Tommy Boyd. Boyd would also go on to other roles and presenting jobs when the series ended including The Professionals.
Bastable himself would continue to present in the Eighties with programmes including one of the first 'proper' computer shows, Database. Susan Stranks left the series in the mid Seventies, but continued to make programmes for some time after. A popular show for youngsters, which followed on from the Magpie 'makeovers' was Paperplay. A crossover between story programmes like Picture Box, preschool shows like Rainbow and 'doing' shows, such as Magpie, Susan continued to make interesting things and narrate stories for younger children, accompanied by the puppet spiders, Itsy and Bitsy.
Stranks' successor, Jenny Hanley, continued with Robertson and Boyd until the show's end. Hanley, daughter of actress Dinah Sheridan and former child star Jimmy Hanley, was, by and large, not as popular nor as talented as Stranks at presenting at the time, but has made a career from the area since. She hit the headlines in the late Eighties when she almost drowned in a river accident near her home as part of a freak accident.
When Magpie finished
in 1980, ITV's children's programmes never saw its like
again. Although Mick Robertson was still presenting Freetime, it never
achieved the same following. But arguably, Magpie itself
lost out due to the following Blue Peter built up
prior to its arrival. But Magpie did have
its own special place, and it couldn't easily be replaced
by a new show. Commercial children's television
fragmented, and the BBC's show became once more the only
major children's magazine.
article copyright PPS / M.Hearn 1999