The saying goes you should never work with animals and children. Yet Blue Peter has thrived doing just that. Since Petra the pooch first appeared in the Blue Peter studio in 1962, there have been 55 wonderful years of dogs, cats, tortoises and the rest who’ve woofed, purred and charmed their way into Blue Peter history.
The show’s long-standing editor, Biddy Baxter, always said, “Fur and feather are more popular than flesh,” reminding presenters of this when their birthdays would pass without a mention while all the Blue Peter pets received a glorious birthday party on air. Each Blue Peter presenter had to contend with their co-star pets for the audience’s affections. But how many of them do you remember?
It’s a dog’s life
It was Christmas 1962 when Valerie Singleton cut the ribbon on a surprise present in the studio. Inside was a plucky mongrel pup, Petra, the first ever Blue Peter pet, who joined the show after producers realised some viewers might be living in the new high-rise flats of the Sixties and unable to keep a pet of their own. Petra would be the dog all Blue Peter children could – virtually, at least – call their own.
Unfortunately, Petra was a sickly little thing and sadly passed away after just one appearance. Anxious not to upset the show’s audience, producers frantically searched for a look-alike Petra which seamlessly replaced the original a few weeks later. Petra went on to be a star of the show for 15 years, 555 television hours and 1192 episodes! She loved blue trousers and hated The Hollies, once biting a hole in the trousers of the band’s bassist.
She was unconditionally loved, not least by her long-standing chum Peter Purves, who shed a tear when he announced Petra’s death on the show in 1977, prompting 20,000 letters of condolence.
Petra’s legacy lived on in her daughter, Patch, who joined the show in 1966 as the late John Noakes’ first pet. But it was John’s next partnership after Patch that was to become arguably the show’s most famous double act. From the moment a boisterous Border Collie called Shep first began a rather fun habit of jumping on an unsuspecting John at inopportune moments, prompting him to coin the memorable catchphrase ‘get down, Shep’, the pair were inseparable.
Goldie was the next top dog, partnered with Simon Groom in 1978. Donated by Guide Dogs for the Blind, Goldie was one of a long list of Guide Dogs on Blue Peter. The first was Honey, bought by viewers who collected silver paper to be melted down into aluminium and sold. Goldie starred on screen for eight years before retiring to a farm to live with Simon’s parents.
Claws, cats and vanishing acts
It wasn’t just dogs who stole the spotlight from their co-presenters. Jason the Siamese was the first cat to join the Blue Peter team in 1964 and went on to have a number of starring appearances, most memorably playing the Cheshire Cat in the show’s 1975 Christmas production of Alice in Blue Peter Land. Jason generally did such a good job of sitting still on camera, viewers often wrote in to ask if he was in fact stuffed!
This is more than can be said for the next felines, Jack and Jill, who were nicknamed the ‘disappearing cats’, after their knack of legging it whenever a camera pointed their way.
Presenter Janet Ellis told Richard Marson who wrote the book Blue Peter: 50th Anniversary, “They didn’t like being on television […] But they had to be in shot sometimes, so I’d assume a vice-like grip on them and they’d assume a vice-like grip on my thighs. I’ve still got the scars.”
But that was nothing compared to the terror that was Willow, who arrived in 1986 and is the only Blue Peter pet to have ever got the sack. Her crime? A penchant for clawing any presenter or child visitor who dared to come near her and wailing horribly at all the wrong moments during broadcast!
The best of the rest
At least there were no such problems from the show’s tortoises, which began in 1963 with Freda – who was initially Fred until an eagle-eyed viewer spotted he was a she! Her party trick was constantly nodding off on the show.
Maggie and Jim, named after the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition in 1979, were next in line, before George, who became the longest-serving Blue Peter pet. lasting 22 years. Parrots also made a brief cameo on the show in the Sixties when Joey and Barney arrived and point blank refused to speak or do anything interesting on camera!