I once ran a fraudulent operation where I conned Blue Peter out of Blue Peter badges.
I did this by pretending to be members of my family who did not exist.
I didn’t do this because I hated this show.
No, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I conned Britain’s longest-running kids’ programme from a place of love and admiration.
I was 8 years old.
You were supposed to be allowed a maximum of three different badges from Blue Peter. If you sent them a letter, you got a badge. A different drawing or a poem? Another badge. A note about the environment? A third.
At one point I had about 15 badges. All of these were gained through a con. All of these were meant for brothers whom I created in my head.
You’re probably wondering why on earth I did this.
Now, aged 29, I have wondered this too.
One reason was that I had three older sisters, and everything in the Bryan household was a competition — even down to who used the tallest cup at dinnertime because of a theory that it held the most orange squash (it didn’t). At one stage, being the sibling who received the most post was everything to me.
So, this con partly began because I wanted more post than my sisters.
But more importantly, I was a huge fan of Blue Peter. Too much of a fan, some might say. Take this actual letter that I wrote aged 8 and tried to send to Katy Hill, one of the show’s presenters at the time.
But one day the team at Blue Peter were the ones writing to me. It was an email.
That’s right, an email. I was no longer 8. I was now 29.
To celebrate the show’s 60th birthday, Blue Peter was asking if I would like to visit the set in Salford; meet the current presenters, Lindsey Russell and Radzi Chinyanganya; have a tour of the studios; and also present a pretend feature on camera, to prove how hard it is to make a show like this.
As you can imagine, I said yes. So quickly, in fact, I don’t think I asked my boss if I could actually go first. When I did ask, I said something like: “I am going to Salford to visit Blue Peter, and if you say no I am going to go anyway, and if you don’t want an article about this written I will write one anyway.”
Blue Peter is now broadcast once a week on CBBC. While on the train up to Salford, I decided to watch a recent episode to see whether the show is still how I remembered it. It felt as relatable as it always had been, right up until the moment when Lindsey and Radzi reviewed the contents of a time capsule that the show had buried. (It was accidentally dug up 33 years too early.)
I immediately aged 10 years in 10 seconds.
The worst thing was that I actually remember watching that very same episode in 1999 when Richard Bacon and Katy Hill buried the time capsule.
When I arrived at the Blue Peter studios, I started to develop this weird feeling in my stomach. It took me a while to work out what it was. At first, I thought it was a croissant I had at Manchester Piccadilly station. I then realised it was guilt. Specifically, Blue Peter badge guilt.
What if they knew? I thought. What if they immediately turn me away after I arrive? I knew that was very unlikely — I mean, it would make a really rather short BuzzFeed feature — but it still rattled my mind anyway.
So the best course of action, I decided, was to immediately tell the editor of Blue Peter, Ewan Vinnicombe, literally everything about my badge con not long after I arrived — pretty much an audio version of this article — in the incredibly unlikely event that he happened to know.
As it turns out, he didn’t.
I mean, of course he didn't.
When I said that I felt guilty, he simply joked: “I hope you feel guilty.”
My specific presenter challenge that day was to do, on camera, one of the famous “here’s one I made earlier” demonstrations, or “makes”, something that’s still a feature of the show today. Not Anthea Turner's famous Thunderbirds Tracy Island make. No. Imagine. I was to show viewers how to make a contraption that fired ping-pong balls, which you could make at home out of a toilet roll tube, a paper bag, and a rubber band.
I would have three minutes to do this, the same amount of time the presenters would have if they were made to do it.
To help me prepare, I was told to watch a video of legendary Blue Peter presenter John Noakes attempting the same make. This looks easy, I thought, as I watched him do it.
I was then transported to the studio. Ewan gave me some useful advice: Remember to use the “here’s one I made earlier” models under the table, keep going even if you make a mistake, and whatever happens, keep talking.
The first 10 seconds of my make attempt on camera were perfect. The next five seconds consisted of the sound of the microphone box attached to the back of my trousers smashing on the floor, followed by me scooping it up.
I then quickly realised that I had made a fatal error. Instead of paying attention to the Noakes video as I had been told, I had simply been thinking to myself “This looks easy” in a loop throughout.
As a result, my instructions to the audience started to sound more than a little convoluted. I thought they were making sense. Make up your own mind.
I really wanted to say the famous Blue Peter line: “Here's one I made earlier.” However, with my make looking like I’d just smothered some bog roll in tape, I ended up being honest and saying this instead:
I mistakenly blew into the contraption at one point, which caused a bang to explode through the toilet roll and just about broke the whole thing. I also failed to attach it to the bottle correctly, so it just tilted over.
And when my make came to an end, surprised that with great force the contraption actually fired something, I ended my segment by showing my belly button and saying this:
I said “And then it’s just done” twice until everyone in the studio started clapping.
I spoke to one of the show’s presenters, Lindsey, afterwards. She was rather sympathetic, having once gotten into the habit of saying stuff like “overplonk it”, “whack it”, and “slop it” during her makes.
Lindsey also helped me feel better about the whole thing.
“The best advice I ever got given when I started Blue Peter, when I was ‘Oh my gosh, what if I make a mistake? What if I go wrong? What if the make goes wrong?’” Lindsey said. “An assistant producer just took me aside and went: ‘You do realise this is not the BBC News at Ten. Firstly, we don’t have that viewership. Secondly, kids don’t care.’”
But in short, my attempt was far from what the below GIF would suggest.
I was then asked by the production team whether I would like a tour of Blue Peter. At first I wasn’t so sure. I mean, a tour of BuzzFeed consists of a fridge with different blocks of cheese inside followed by a brief look at my dead plant.
I couldn't have been more wrong. The Blue Peter tour was, without a doubt, the best tour of anything I have ever been on in my entire life.
This is not an exaggeration.
First, a visit to the CBBC props cupboard, for anything the presenters might use on air. The cupboard was full to the brim of hundreds and hundreds of props, clearly organised in boxes under every category you can think of: “sea life and dinosaurs”, “British wildlife”, “puppet glasses”, “percussion instruments”.
There were seven boxes alone that separated wigs by colour.
There was a literal room full of totalisers and a Blue Peter advent crown stored in a corner, now with fake electric candles — all ready to be used again so that nothing was wasted. It was a catalogued theme park.
I also took a photo of this box below. I don’t know why, but every single time I look at this photo I laugh. I still don't know why.
Next, I visited Blue Peter editor Ewan’s letterbox. It seemed an odd place to visit until I learned about its contents. It contained a letter sent by the show to Ewan when he was a child, telling him that he was a runner-up in a competition. This, incidentally, is a status I never achieved despite all of my letters and entries.
Ewan went on to explain his reason for keeping the letter: “When I phone kids who have won our competitions or are the top runners-up, I can say, ‘I was a runner-up when I was your age, and look what happened to me.’ You might be taking my job in a few years’ time.”
And we were shown a one-off Blue Peter badge. But not just any badge. It was a large aluminium badge designed by Jony Ive, chief design officer of Apple, which was given to the show after they interviewed him.
Then, the sacred Blue Peter letter-writing department. Every single letter that arrives here gets sorted by the team, read on a stand next to their computer, then logged in a database.
Yes, the guilt came back. Don’t @ me.
In fact, in an era of social media you would expect the post to have dried up, but far from it. They can receive 3,000 letters in a single day. An employee showed me a picture he took on his phone of a stack of letters the team got a couple of days after they launched a recent competition.
It was at this point that Ewan brought out a bag containing a collection of Blue Peter badges, dating back many years. And next to it, encased in a small box, a cultural rarity, something that I would have never been able to con out of the programme: a gold Blue Peter badge.
This was the highest rank of Blue Peter badges, reserved for people living gold-star lives. The Mary Berrys among us. The David Attenboroughs. The Beckhams. The absolute best of Britain. The recipient would invariably have done something truly exceptional and in almost every case would be given their badge on camera.
“Is it real gold?” someone next to me on the tour asked.
“It is not made of gold,” a BBC employee leading the tour responded.
“It’s the BBC!” I replied.
And then, just when I assumed that the tour had come to its conclusion, it continued. We went into a room, but it was not any old room. It was a Blue Peter archive. Essentially, an archive of my entire youth.
The kayak Helen Skelton went down the Amazon in. Every single Blue Peter annual. A poo emoji make. Boxes and boxes of heavily contextualised costumes and outfits from travels and trips that the presenters cover.
“Close your eyes,” said Ewan.
When I opened them, right in front of me, Ewan was holding one of the Tracy Island models Anthea Turner originally made on Blue Peter.
I quietly lost it.
“Would you want to pose with Tracy Island?” asked a CBBC member of staff.
“When else am I going to pose?” I thought.
You won’t find a photo of me happier.
After this photo, I looked down near my feet. Near one of them lay some of the remains of the Blue Peter time capsule that was accidentally dug up early — the same capsule I saw being buried to mark the turn of the millennium when I was 10 years old.
They had to get an angle grinder to open it.
“What a weird coincidence,” I thought to myself.
But then there was an even bigger one — for me, probably the biggest.
Katy Hill was there that day. That’s right, the Katy Hill whom I sent a letter to, asking her to come round to my house for three days and two nights. She was there to prerecord a short feature on camera with Lindsey and Radzi. I was asked whether I wanted to have a chat with her.
For most of the time we talked, I didn’t know whether or not to tell her about the letter. We chatted about how she’d wanted to do this job from the age of 5, and how one of the current presenters had watched her on TV when they were a child.
We then talked about specific episodes: when she was in a bobsleigh; and when she was training for the Royal Air Force, which involved her being put into a cage and lowered into a swimming pool. I told her that I had watched both episodes.
“Are you my stalker?” she joked.
When was I going to tell her?
“Screw it,” I thought. Knowing that I had a photo of the letter on my phone, I decided to tell her about it. As she discussed the weird things she’d had to do on the show, I made things even weirder by saying:
“Speaking of weird things... I tried to send a letter to Blue Peter, addressed to you.”
“Yes!” said Katy, excitably. “Did I reply?”
“We didn’t send it, because my parents found it a bit creepy.”
I then read out the letter. I then passed her my phone. And for the life of me, I cannot remember exactly what happened next. I can only imagine that it is like being asked to perform onstage at a concert with a band you love after being picked from the crowd. It is an absolute blur — a moment so good it’s been cut out of my memory for good.
Plus, though I recorded this conversation on my phone, there is no audio of it. Katy was accidentally covering the microphone while she was looking at the photo of my letter to her when I was 8.
But she loved it. Thank goodness.
When I listen back to the audio, Katy reading the letter sounds as though it unintentionally brought on the apocalypse.
If only I could tell my 8-year-old self about this. How this weird, stupid letter had actually led to something. Not days, not weeks, but years later.
In fact, if I could, I would also tell him that separate from my visit to Blue Peter that day, I also once heard back from Stuart Miles, in regards to the birthday party he couldn’t go due to “filming commitments”.
I mentioned this anecdote briefly in an old BuzzFeed post. He then responded to it all, out of the blue, in an email.
I really should tell him about my 30th birthday next June.
After the interview, Katy just...hung around. Even though her segment had been recorded, she stayed to watch the current live episode go out with her daughter.
During that day’s rehearsal, there was a feature about what it was like to drive a tank. We all went into the studio together, behind the cameras, to see it all go out live. While the pretaped film was playing out during the rehearsal, Katy and Radzi were comparing notes on what it was like to shoot this sort of thing.
Twenty years apart.
And this wasn’t for the benefit of anyone else — the journalists who were there that day, or the crew or crowd filming around them. It was just for the benefit of the pair of them, the show somehow weaving their lives together so closely, yet decades apart.
After that rehearsal and before I headed home, I was asked whether I would like to have a picture taken against one of the Blue Peter signs.
I told another journalist who was also there everything that had happened that day, and how it felt to finally reveal my letter to Katy Hill.
“It appeared like this was the end of a long journey of your life,” he said, shortly before the photo below was taken.
And you know what?
I reckon he was right.