Children’s early afternoon magazine made as a rival to Blue Peter
“One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold and seven for a secret never to be told…”
Approx 1000 episodes of 25 minute duration.
Transmitted live twice weekly - Tuesdays and Fridays
From Thames TV Studios, Teddington 1968-80.
Back in the 60’s and 70’s middle class children called Tristram and Jocaste collected stamps, went to gymkhanas and watched “Blue Peter” on the BBC. Working class kids called Jason and Charlene kicked tins around the street, cheeked their teachers and watched “Magpie” in ITV. Or at least that was the perception.
‘Magpie’ was almost identical to “Blue Peter”. Both were children’s magazine programmes transmitted twice weekly. Both had three presenters - 2 boys and a girl and both featured annual “Appeals” for assorted good causes. (As nice middle class children like Tristram and Jocaste weren’t expected to soil their hands with cash “Blue Peter” asked its viewers to send in ‘stuff’ - stamps, brass buttons, old toys, milk bottle tops and so on which by some obscure process were converted into money. ‘Magpie’ on the other hand, who knew its audience, simply asked its viewers to send in the dosh.)
There were other differences too. Whereas the “Blue Peter” presenters read their carefully scripted lines from an Autocue machine - thus reducing any chance of slang, inappropriate language or dropped ‘H’s appearing on air, the Magpie presenters were given “Green Sheets” - pages of useful information and facts about the particular item they were presenting - and told to get on with it.
Another major difference were the pets. Although both programmes featured animals as ‘on-screen’ surrogates for those children who weren’t able or allowed to have pets at home, only “Blue Peter” had useful pets - pets you could take out for walks, stroke or have sleeping on the bottom of the bed. They had dogs and cats and that old tortoise who appeared twice yearly around hibernation time. “Magpie” had a small pony called Puff.
Now there isn’t much wrong with having a small pony called Puff but once the programme had done the usual features on “Grooming Puff”, “Shoeing Puff”, and “Puff at the Gymkhana” there wasn’t much else you could do with him. He was far too small for the presenters to ride and far too big for them to take home. Each week the programme researchers wreaked their brains trying to find things for him to do. Suggestions like “Puff visits a glue factory” or “Puff goes sky-diving” did not go down at all well with the Executive Producer who loved Puff to pieces. On the one occasion when Puff appeared in the ‘Magpie’ Christmas Panto pulling a coach he absolutely refused to relieve himself all over the studio floor and so increase the programme’s notoriety and ratings. “Blue Peter” had that crowd pleasing, often repeated, incontinent baby elephant, “Magpie” had anally retentive Puff.
In Tristram and Jocaste’s house it was Mummy who controlled what the children watched. Blue Peter’s success lay in the fact that it still hadn’t got over that 1950’s, Enid Blyton, scones for tea, “Swallows and Amazons”, Uncle Mac view of children and childhood. During the 1970’s Magpie began to realise that at Jason and Charlene’s house it was the kids who controlled the telly. They didn’t want stamp collections, things made out of toilet rolls and being seen but not heard. What they wanted was honesty about the world they lived in and loads of fun! In October 1973 Magpie became the first of the two programmes to feature pop music in the shape of Alvin Stardust. When the Executive Producer (and Puff promoter) first saw the leather clad, massively quiffed Alvin in the studio she said, “He’s only going on the show if you can guarantee me he’ll get to Number 1.” On 3rd November 1973 “My Coo-Ca-Choo” did just that and from then on pop music, pop stars, fashion designers, film stars, footballers and similar icons of the young became a regular feature on “Magpie”. The programme also became sharply aware of the environment. A regular feature, “Who Cares?” took a realistic look at our world, what we humans were doing to it, and what we might do to save it.
With their annual fund raising ‘Appeals’ Magpie’s approach was honest, direct and non-patronising. In 1974 the programme raised over £79,000 for children with Spina Bifida. The following year it raised £73,000 and the public awareness of Autism, a condition that very few people knew about at the time. In 1976 nearly £83,000 went towards buying specially equipped holiday homes for disabled children who up to then had been unable to get away. In 1977 Magpie’s viewers, the Jasons and Charlenes of the U.K raised over £128,000 for PHAB clubs, where ablebodied and disabled children could meet and have fun together.
“Magpie” has gone now. It packed up 30 years ago in 1980 but in its small way it helped produce a generation of children who were no longer content to accept that “Mummy knows best”. What they wanted were ways in which they could engage with the world they were living in. Magpie gave it to them.
8 for a wish, 9 for a kiss, 10 for a bird you must not … Ma-a-a-a-ag-pie! Ma-a-a-a-ag-pie!
– from Martyn Day