When you talk about Christmas, many things come to mind such as mince pies, home-made decorations and mince pies. But one woman link these all together and I have been interested in her story for a very long time. As a viewer of Blue Peter for many years, I had heard the name Margaret Parnell nearly ever time when a 'make' was made. I knew she lived only couple of miles from me in Hampshire, to have such a person so influential in one show was exciting to me.
But in a way, we have all been one of Margaret Parnell's children with her ideas copied and made by millions of children over the years, I wanted to find out more about this woman and how she got to supply ideas to the world's oldest Children's programme. The story starts in 1963, with Blue Peter having been on the air for five years by that stage. The programme was already doing 'makes', but Parnell decided to send in some ideas that the programme might like to use. Being a mother of two young children, being creative was always a good skill to have. In her own words “I had this idea for dolls' hats, made of crepe paper. I got them together with all the stages and sent them to Valerie Singleton. And much to my surprise, she wrote back and said they liked them and were going to use them, and had I got any more ideas.”
In reply personally to Parnell, Valerie Singleton wrote “We all feel you contributed so splendidly to the programme. Have you ever been taught art?” Parnell's answer was no, she had no formal art training but as she explained in Dear Blue Peter, a book about the letters received by the programme over the years “During the war, when you couldn't but them, I used to make toys for my little sister. That started it off really.”
From that one letter to Valerie Singleton, the production team were so impressed that they wanted to see if Parnell had any more ideas which could be used, though the key thing that her ideas used easily available materials to children on pocket money and also by using disregarded packaging such as old packaging and plastic bottles, inadvertently a new form of recycling was found before the term had been invented.
Over the years, Parnell supplied 700 original makes for the programme over nearly a forty year period. The encouragement of the presenters wanted children to ask their parents or guardians for old packaging so they could make the latest Parnell creation. It is a testament to her ideas that the memories of them being made are so vivid to viewers that they can remember them years on from when they were shown on the programme as viewer Ray Bennett remembers “The task was to turn a part of a stiff type of cardboard box, which in this case was a washing powder container, into a book-stand. In effect, we were to cut the bottom of the box off to about distance of 1½ inches high and deep but retain the ends – so an extruded "L" shape with the ends still filled in. As I recall, the demonstration went on to offer different ways of decorating the stand and, of course, any robust box would suffice. It was the only thing I ever made as a direct result of a BP insert, but as this shows, some 33 or so years later, I've not forgotten what or how.”
Though these makes always seem to have longevity and places in the hearts of their maker as Steve Williams of TV Cream remembers “My Blue Peter make story is about the Santa's Sleigh which appears in Blue Peter Book 19. It involves rolling up pieces of paper (the Radio Times, they suggest) and then covering them with papier mache to make a reindeer, then cutting up a cereal box for the sleigh. We faithfully made this in the mid-eighties and it was put under the tree every Christmas until at least the late nineties.“
The most popular was a model of Tracy Island, with the reshowing of Thunderbirds on BBC2 in the early 90's. The model play set was the thing to have for children wanting to recreate the adventures of the Tracy Brothers. So Margaret Parnell designed the same thing, but using boxes, plastic pots and packaging which could easily be found around the house, thus reducing the cost for parents of buying the model new and allowing children to create their own version, knowing that it was hand made. Such was the response, that the BBC post room got flooded by viewers asking for fact sheets of how to make it. With the make being one of the most popular in the programme's history, such so when the film version came out in the year 2000, the idea was reused where as in the 1990's Anthea Turner did the make, this time Konnie Huq made the model on the screen.
One of the problems with the BBC not allowed to have commercial endorsement was that when ever a piece of packaging was shown that the brand name was obscured by pen, but the show had interesting ways of getting around brand names too, biros became ball-point pens, plasticine became modelling clay and most famous of all Fablon, regularly used to cover household items in became the now infamous 'Sticky-back Plastic'.
The cooking items were the most popular with children, mostly done by the male presenters. But Biddy Baxter had her own ideas why the male presenters should do those items “It was marvelously encouraging for boys to see one of our boys doing the cooking. After all, some of the best chefs in the world are men.” But John Noakes used the spot to turn it into a comedy routine by call his co-presenters 'Poison Tasters' in reference to his bad cooking, rather then putting boys off this seemed to encourage them even more to step into the kitchen. How much this influenced the likes of Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumental, to take up cookery, who knows.
But what about the woman herself? Former presenter Sarah Greene remembered her “She was a sweet encouraging and very clever lady. Incredible imagination & affinity with viewers...” That was the measure of the woman, inventive and amazing though as former Blue Peter Editor Richard Marson recalls on the occasion of The Queen visting the Blue Peter studio “ I remember MP as very down to earth, unassuming and obviously incredibly creative. When the Queen visited the studio, she showed HMQ her loo roll version of the nativity scene. The Queen was more interested in the dogs and I teased MP that it was only because she had a Faberge version of the nativity at home! A genuinely lovely woman and so talented.”
Though her legacy has to be the Advent Crown, simply some wire coathangers, flameproof
tinsel and candles. But its iconic status, made sure that whenever it appeared on the programme's titles they knew there was only one more programme before Christmas. Many presenters had the pleasure of lighting the crown over the years, each and everyone having a part of the programme's history. But it was the genius of Margaret Parnell who made it so, she left the programme in 2001 after 38 years of supplying ideas. Even though the programme's moving from BBC1 at the end of the year, Parnell's ideas are still being used today.
“Here's one I made earlier..” became a an iconic catchphrase loved and spoofed by some of the top comedy shows of their age, but if it was for Margaret Parnell we wouldn't know Christmas was on its way...