Edward Barnes, television producer who helped to make Blue Peter must-see television for children – obituary

Edward Barnes in the studio - BBC
Edward Barnes in the studio - BBC

Edward Barnes, who has died aged 92, was one of the great names in British television children’s programmes; a pioneering producer on Blue Peter, he did much to set the style and distinctive content of the legendary programme.

Becoming first the deputy and then the head of BBC children’s programmes, he devised, nurtured and guided a whole host of fondly remembered shows which would help to inform, influence and shape the memories of generations of viewers. Among them was Newsround, the first regular news service for children anywhere in the world; Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, launch pad for decades of Saturday-morning TV and, later, the inspiration for Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast.

There were also entertainment shows like Record Breakers, which revived the career of Roy Castle; and a slew of much-loved dramas including the magical hit The Box of Delights. He made stars of some of the most loved presenters and actors in television, among them John Noakes, John Craven, Sarah Greene, Keith Chegwin, Todd Carty and Phillip Schofield.

Barnes’s background and upbringing was unusual for a BBC man of his times. Unlike his generally public school and patrician contemporaries, he hailed from Wigan, where he was born Herbert Edward Campbell Barnes on October 8 1928. He left school aged 14 to become an office boy at the Miners’ Permanent Relief Society. He lasted just three weeks.

He tried several other professions, but his real dream was to become an actor. National Service intervened, and in 1947 he was sent to Vienna, where he became an announcer for British Forces Network Radio. It was there that he met his future wife, the historian and writer Dorothy Smith, whom he married in 1950.

Following demob, Barnes secured a job in repertory, but by 1951 he had set his sights on the emerging television industry. Reasoning that there might be a need for stage managers in this new medium, he invested in a copy of Radio Times and wrote to every producer credited in its pages.

Only one responded – Michael Mills, who offered him a job as stage manager and small-part player in his production of Our Marie, the life of the music hall star Marie Lloyd.

By 1953 Barnes had joined the staff of the BBC, quickly rising to floor manager in an era in which almost everything was transmitted live. In 1960 he moved to the children’s department as an assistant producer, and two years later applied to become producer of Blue Peter, then a simple studio-bound magazine programme which went out once a week.

He did not get the job, but his head of department asked him to spend a few months supporting the successful candidate, Biddy Baxter, who had arrived from children’s radio. He was less than thrilled but swallowed his pride and quickly discovered a deep mutual understanding with his new boss.

They shared an ambition and the work ethic required to transform Blue Peter into a “must see” programme which would truly belong to its audience. The partnership between Biddy Baxter and Barnes was the catalyst for the modestly successful programme to evolve and expand, and it did so rapidly.

The series went twice-weekly in 1964, with Biddy Baxter promoted to editor and Barnes to producer. Among their lasting innovations were the Blue Peter badges, awarded for children’s contributions, the annual appeals at home and abroad, and the vastly popular menagerie of pets.

On location with Blue Peter
On location with Blue Peter

Barnes transformed the film content of the show, establishing a tradition of thrilling edge-of-the-seat action films and masterminding the intrepid summer expeditions at a time when overseas travel was far from usual. In 1969, this outpouring of creativity and craft was rewarded with a SFTA (later Bafta) award.

Shortly afterwards, Barnes was appointed deputy head of the children’s department, accepting the job on the understanding that he would still be allowed to make programmes. In 1971 he took charge of the Blue Peter Royal Safari, in which Valerie Singleton accompanied Princess Anne to Kenya – the Princess’s first solo TV project. The film was screened three times and achieved an audience of 24 million people. It led to the popular spin-off Blue Peter Special Assignment (1973-1981), which Barnes produced and sometimes directed.

This was an era of constant expansion for the BBC’s children’s output and Barnes took full advantage. In 1972 he originated John Craven’s Newsround, the first regular TV news bulletin for children. “If they pass an act to stop caning in schools at the same time someone drops an atom bomb on Washington, I’m leading our bulletin with the caning,” Barnes later said. “The team would all laugh at me but that was the key to it, how you should think if you were working on it.”

Newsround’s mission to explain the world to children in a way they can understand has won countless awards, and in 2012 Barnes was given as special Bafta award for his creation.

The Record Breakers was also launched in 1972, and was another hit for Barnes. Blue Peter had been regularly presenting record-breaking items, and Barnes spotted the potential for a spin-off. It ran for 30 series, and the epic item in which Roy Castle tap-danced with hundreds of children in the heart of BBC Television Centre became a much-requested classic clip.

Part of Barnes’s skill was holding his own in the labyrinthine BBC management system. Children’s programmes could easily be overlooked and needed staunch champions unafraid to fight their corner. Until 1976, Saturday-morning TV for children had been a half-hearted ragbag of repeats and odd shows that didn’t fit elsewhere. The BBC One controller, Bryan Cowgill, wasn’t happy. Barnes pointed out the risible budget available, to which Cowgill replied: “You come up with the ideas and I’ll come up with the money.”

Barnes made Blue Peter visually more exciting, with more filmed inserts and trips abroad
Barnes made Blue Peter visually more exciting, with more filmed inserts and trips abroad

Barnes swiftly came back with Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, which used phone-ins to harness interactivity long before the internet. Swap Shop became the first in a fine lineage of live Saturday-morning programmes in which it was perfectly feasible for the prime minister to share a sofa with the latest pop stars.

In 1978 Barnes was appointed Head of Children’s Programmes. In the same year, Grange Hill was launched; it was Barnes who made the show twice weekly and staunchly supported it through many controversial storylines. He launched a series of shows aimed at teenagers, which included the Grange Hill spin-off Tucker’s Luck, as well as the cult conundrum The Adventure Game.

He also found the considerable resources needed for classic serials like The Box of Delights, as well as triumphing in the much-contested negotiations to adapt CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia for the BBC.

Unhappy with the increasingly staid presentation of his department’s output, Barnes lobbied the BBC controller Michael Grade to gain control. Grade backed Barnes’s idea of in-vision continuity slots, housed in the “broom cupboard” and presented by yet another star find, Phillip Schofield and his puppet sidekick Gordon the Gopher.

Barnes was a charismatic leader. Not for him the seclusion of his office in the East Tower of Television Centre; he liked to see and be seen, to trade forthright opinions, and to enjoy the perennial buzz of the creative process. He was always dapper, his wardrobe reflecting his penchant for the theatrical: an eye-catching cravat, a hat worn at a dashing angle. He was an instinctive talent spotter, off screen and on, giving breaks to many writers, directors and producers, as well as presenters and entertainers.

He stepped down from children’s programmes in 1986. He reflected: “A few months before I went, I was watching the Christmas Blue Peter and the last episode of Box of Delights, which was sensational, and I thought: “I’m never, ever going to do anything better than this.”

The Royal Television Society marked his departure by awarding him their Silver Medal for Outstanding Creative Achievement, while the Writer’s Guild honoured him with the Pye Award for services to children’s television.

For a time, Barnes continued to work as a freelance film maker and writer. In 1989, he wrote Blue Peter: The Inside Story with Biddy Baxter. This joined a shelf-load of other books based on the series for which he was responsible.

He adored opera, cricket, and continued to travel, while his Catholicism inspired him to study for a diploma in Pastoral Theology. He became a Eucharistic Minister, taking communion to the sick and housebound.

Edward Barnes married, in 1950, Dorothy Smith. She died in 1992, and he is survived by their two daughters, and a son, the author and journalist Simon Barnes.

Edward Barnes, born October 8 1928, died September 7 2021