After the announcement in March that Blue Peter was recruiting for a third presenter via a TV series, the reactions were mixed. As I said at the time:
[the series] has always been at the pioneering end of audience interactivity, long before ‘interactivity’ was even used in television circles… In that context, it makes perfect sense for the children who have always been part of the show’s ethos to be let in on the audition process.
Others I spoke to were a little more concerned that this was part of the “dumbing down” of television, that Blue Peter had succumbed to the reality TV format. But concerns like that didn’t stop the applicants: some 20,000 audition showreels were sent in before the production team whittled them down to just ten hopefuls.
The resulting series, Blue Peter – You Decide, was something of a misnomer, since it was only once the series ended that the audience was involved at all. Instead, the candidates were put through a series of challenges, from building rafts to having to recite several facts to camera from the top of Blackpool Tower, talking about the importance of five-a-day and interviewing (and dancing with) pop band Stooshe.
The resulting series demonstrated that, while the range of experiences that a Blue Peter presenter gets to take part in is enviable, the amount of hard work and skill involved in making it look effortless is not. Back in my childhood, we only had articles in the annual Blue Peter Book to tell us how hard the presenters work: 2013’s generation of children have now had a full series.
As the ten finalists were whittled down, I am sure the series said goodbye to people who may one day become TV presenters on other shows. The decisions were made by a panel of existing presenters Myleene Klass, Eamonn Holmes and Cellach Spellman. I have to admit that I find Klass’s presenting style efficient, but rather clinical. Holmes I can take or leave – but Cellach Spellman is one to watch. I met him briefly when producing a podcast for The Stage about Sylvia Young Theatre School’s new buildings, when Spellman was at the time juggling a life at the school wih a role in Waterloo Road. Since then, he’s become a presenter of CBBC’s Friday Download magazine show and has also joined the channel’s on-screen continuity team. Still only 17 years old, he’s got potential for a long career in presenting.
The three finalists were, I think, the best trio of the ten to throw open to the public vote. All three were different in styles: Ben Hunte’s gung-ho, laughter-filled attitude contrasted well with Freddie Ingleby’s more relaxed and controlled style. Lindsey Russell’s experience in teaching drama to children clearly helped her rapport with the young people she encountered during her audition process, getting information across clearly and enthusiastically.
As I saw the three of them go through their paces in the final episode of the audition series, doing mock broadcasts alongside regular presenters Helen Skelton and Barney Harwood, it occurred to me that the three finalists together would make for a great team. But that wasn’t the aim of the show, and only one job was available at the end. I think that, ultimately, the CBBC audience made the right decision for the presenter to work regularly alongside Helen and Barney as an equal in Lindsey Russell. But I’d be shocked if Ben and Freddie aren’t presenting programmes very soon indeed.
What does strike me is that any one of the three finalists could have emerged from the ‘conventional’ casting process – which is as it should be. This was never couched as a way of spotting talent that would otherwise be missed, as the theatre recruitment shows liked to pitch themselves, before weeding out the untrained contestants who didn’t have the training to stay the distance. This was about creating a fun TV series and finding talented presenters in the process, and it did just that.