50 things we learned from Blue Peter

The BBC's most famous children's show celebrates its half-century today. Here, Alice Wyllie lists the triumphs and – often comical – tribulations that have earned it a special place in the hearts of the British public, since it made its debut on our screens in 1958

1 BABY ELEPHANTS AND LIVE TELEVISION DON'T MIX

In a 1969 show, Lulu the elephant defecated and urinated on the studio floor, trod on presenter John Noakes' (1965 to 1978) foot and then took off, dragging her keeper along the ground behind her in one of the most hilarious television bloopers of all time.

2 HOW TO SAVE A PERSON FROM DROWNING

No, really. In 1984, 11-year-old Martin Pout saved a man from drowning in a hotel pool while on holiday in Spain, having remembered the life-saving instructions from his Blue Peter annual.

3 SEXUAL INNUENDO IS FUNNY

Presenter Simon Groom (1978 to 1986) made a hilarious on-air gaffe when he commented on two restored door knockers at Durham Cathedral, with the line: "Mmm, what a beautiful pair of knockers."

4 COOKERY IS SOMETIMES CONFUSING

Particularly when presenter Peter Duncan (1980 to 1984) instructed viewers to "finely chop one raw egg".

5 NEVER PLAY WITH FIRE

During the 1970 Christmas edition, a studio full of Girl Guides and Brownies grew increasingly alarmed as they gathered around a campfire that quickly became a towering inferno, in one of the most comical breaches of health and safety in television history.

6 MAKING PANCAKES ISN'T AS EASY AS IT LOOKS

Poor Yvette Fielding (1987 to 1992) was given the simple task of cooking a pancake live on air one Shrove Tuesday. Despite her best attempts, she produced a horrific brown blob that cowered at the bottom of her frying pan.

7 WE WERE NOT ALWAYS SUCH A POLITICALLY CORRECT TV AUDIENCE

The producers meant well when they featured Joey Deacon, a man who had cerebral palsy, on a 1981 show. Unfortunately, his appearance mainly inspired boys and girls in school playgrounds to shout "Joey!" at each other whenever one of them did something ungainly.

8 FASHION NEEDN'T BE OVERPRICED

The 1987 Blue Peter book advised that "a 100g pack of stockinette roll from a supermarket or car-care shop, costs under 1 and makes a lovely snood or scarf".

9 THERE'S MONEY IN DOG FOOD

When John Noakes left in 1978, it is said he was initially forbidden from taking Shep the dog with him, because BBC bosses were afraid he would try to make money advertising dog food. He found a Shep lookalike and did them anyway.

10 NO-ONE IS SQUEAKY CLEAN

They seem as pure as the driven snow, but more than one Blue Peter presenter has been exposed as a hell-raiser. Richard Bacon (1997 to 1998) was famously fired after being caught snorting cocaine, while Michael Sundin (1984 to 1985) was filmed stripping at an all-male night in London's Hippodrome club.

11 YOU CAN FASHION JUST ABOUT ANYTHING USING "STICKY-BACKED PLASTIC" (IF YOU KNOW WHERE TO BUY IT)

Blue Peter has a policy of never mentioning brand names on air and so "sticky-backed plastic" was the term used for the product marketed under the trade name Fablon. This meant that no child eager to make the Blue Peter models ever knew exactly what sticky-backed plastic was or where to get hold of it.

12 FEMALE PRESENTERS IN THEIR UNDIES PULL IN VIEWERS

Millions of pre-teen boys enjoyed a sexual awakening in the early 1980s, when Sarah Greene, Maggie Philbin, Tina Heath and Isla St Clair modelled historical underwear.

13 STRONG EMOTIONS CAN CLOUD YOUR JUDGMENT (AND YOUR VOCABULARY)

In 1983 the Blue Peter garden was vandalised, leading to a solemn on-air appeal for viewers to come forward with information. Blue Peter's gardener, Percy Thrower, declared with tears in his eyes that the culprits "must be mentally ill".

14 NEVER ADMIT YOUR CRIMES

Years after the vandalism of the garden came whispers that among the perpetrators were two youths who went on to become Premier League footballers. "What I will say is that I helped people over the wall," Les Ferdinand revealed in 2000, "but I'm not at liberty to say whether Denis Wise was one of them."

15 ALCOHOL ISN'T JUST FOR ADULTS

One of the two original presenters, Christopher Trace (1958 to 1967), showed viewers how to make an alcoholic version of ginger beer.

16 NOT EVEN BLUE PETER IS IMMUNE FROM MONEY SCANDALS

A phone-in competition supporting the UNICEF "Shoe Biz Appeal" in 2006 was rigged. Owing to a technical fault, the person who appeared to be calling from outside was in fact a child visiting the studio that day, who was asked to pretend to be the winner of the phone-in who had the chance to choose a prize. Blue Peter got a 50,000 fine from OFCOM.

17 PET NAMES ARE A MINEFIELD

In January last year viewers were invited to vote online to choose a name for the new Blue Peter kitten. The most popular name with viewers – Cookie – was ditched in favour of Socks. Why? It's unclear, but it's rumoured staff feared that the name Cookie might have some influence on child obesity. Another scandal ensued when this was exposed, an on-air apology was made and a second new kitten, called Cookie, was quickly added to the show's menagerie.

18 YOU REALLY CAN GET MONEY FOR OLD ROPE

Or old cutlery, at least. The Blue Peter appeals started in 1962, when viewers were asked to collect stamps to raise money for the homeless. There have now been 46 appeals, raising more than 100 million in today's money. Programme editor Biddy Baxter decided to ask for 'convertible currency', like cutlery, so that even the poorest child could contribute. Other items collected include aluminium cans, wool and shoes – including a pair of David Beckham's boots.

19 ALWAYS COME PREPARED

Tina Heath (1979 to 1980) had an unfortunate moment while on an expedition to Egypt. She was caught short with a dodgy tummy and had to use her script as loo paper.

20 HOW TO MAKE JUST ABOUT ANYTHING

Housewife Margaret Parnell sent in the idea for the first "make" in 1962. She subsequently spent nearly 40 years designing each of the show's makes – more than 700 in total. These included 1993's Tracy Island, the wire-coathanger advent crown, a doll's hammock and a life-size Dalek, made from egg boxes and a sink plunger.

21 NEVER WEAR YOUR WIFE'S UNDERWEAR ON TELEVISION

On one occasion, John Noakes was asked to drop his trousers to display the enormous bruise he had received while bobsleighing. He later revealed that he was wearing his wife's knickers, which he had put on by accident in the dark.

22 HOW TO KEEP YOUR COOL UNDER PRESSURE

Plans for a lion cub to appear on the show in the early 1960s went awry when the animal that was brought into the studio was almost fully grown. It attacked its owner live on air, drawing blood and sending the camera crew fleeing. Throughout, presenter Christopher Trace remained unfazed.

23 IT ALWAYS PAYS TO MAKE ONE EARLIER

The programme's most famous catchphrase, "Here's one I made earlier" was coined by Christopher Trace.

24 YOU SHOULD ALWAYS INSIST ON ROYALTIES

The programme's logo – a sailing ship – was designed by Tony Hart, who asked for 1p each time it was used, but was instead paid a flat rate of 100.

25 HOW TO LANDSCAPE WITH PPIER-MACH

The most famous make of all, a fabulously complicated Tracy Island, was designed in 1993, a response to the fact that a re-run of Thunderbirds had led to a shortage of official Tracy Island models in shops.

26 HEALTH AND SAFETY FIRST

A terrified John Noakes was sent to clean Nelson's Column in 1977, scaling a rickety ladder and met at the top by a cleaner with a bucket in one hand and a cigarette in the other. His fear was apparent, but he kept his cool, uttering such bizarre lines as "By gum, his hat's a bit dirty", to conceal his nerves.

27 GAFFES ARE GOOD

Presenter Mark Curry (1986 to 1989), was famous for his on-air cock-ups, including the time he bumped into a life-sized Lego man, knocking its head off.

28 NEVER SHOW BUTTOCKS ON CHILDREN'S TELEVISION

On a summer expedition to Russia, Mark Curry and Yvette Fielding (1987 to 1992) visited a health farm where Curry was covered in mud, which he then washed off in the shower. The image of his mud-caked bottom shocked the teatime audience.

29 HOW TO MAKE AN ADVENT CROWN

The Advent Crown was introduced in the early 1960s and comprised two wire coathangers tied together and decorated with tinsel, with candles at each of the four corners. One candle was lit on each of the last four programmes before Christmas – a fire hazard rivalled only by the campfire incident of 1970.

30 THE BEST PRIZE OF ALL IS A SMALL BADGE

Almost as coveted as the Victoria Cross, Blue Peter badges are awarded for deeds ranging from writing an interesting letter to saving a life. Proud owners include Madonna, Brad Pitt and David Beckham.

31 TIME CAPSULES AREN'T AS EXCITING AS THEY SOUND

When the 1971 Blue Peter time capsule was dug up in 2000, most of its contents were unidentifiable mulch. The 1998 time capsule was buried under the Millennium Dome and contains a Spice Girls CD, a picture of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Teletubbies dolls.

32 SINS OF THE FLESH WILL NOT BE TOLERATED

In 1987, presenter Janet Ellis faced national scrutiny when she had her baby, Jack, out of wedlock. However, rumours that she was sacked for it were untrue.

33 TORTOISES LIVE A LONG TIME

George the tortoise was the longest-serving Blue Peter pet. He first appeared in 1982 and died in 2004, aged 81. His most memorable moment was when he mistook Sarah Greene's shoes for another tortoise and got a little over-friendly with them.

34 DOGS DON'T ALWAYS LIVE FOR SUCH A LONG TIME

In 1963, Blue Peter got its first dog, which died after its first appearance on air. It was replaced by a lookalike, later named Petra. There have been eight other dogs, five tortoises, nine cats and two parrots.

35 THE QUEEN IS A FAN

The Queen visited the Blue Peter studio as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002 and was presented with a gold badge. This honour allows her free entrance into both the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace. How very useful.

36 HOW TO WORK THE LATEST TRENDS

Spent all your pocket money? Never fear, Blue Peter showed viewers how to make a tabard and matching legwarmers by cutting the arms off their mother's old sweaters. Other fashionable suggestions included necklaces and bangles made from drinking straws.

37 YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE BUFF TO BE A BLUE PETER PRESENTER... BUT IT HELPS.

Christopher Trace was the body double for Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur; Gethin Jones, who left the show this year, had a strong following among viewers' mums.

38 DON'T FORGET YOUR ROOTS

Another housewives' favourite, Tim Vincent (1993 to 1997) was famed for mentioning his home town of Wrexham at every opportunity. During his last show, the mayor of Wrexham presented Vincent with a silver salver.

39 BECOMING A PRESENTER IS PRETTY COMPETITIVE

Stars including Kevin Whately, Sally James, Howard Stableford, Gail Porter and Todd Carty were all turned down for presenting jobs on Blue Peter.

40 THE PORN INDUSTRY CAN BE A LAUNCHPAD FOR A BLUE PETER CAREER

Presenter Peter Duncan (1980 to 1984) appeared in a 1975 soft-porn film, The Lifetaker.

41 THE BLUE PETER SUMMER EXPEDITIONS ARE GREAT FOR PULLING

Christopher Trace fell from grace in 1968 on a trip to Norway, when he cheated on his wife with a 19-year-old girl and consequently left the show.

42 IT'S FUN TO GIVE – AND TO RECEIVE

Perhaps the most popular of the Blue Peter appeals were the bring and buy sales. Viewers held glorified jumble sales where visitors were encouraged to donate something to the sale and buy something another person had donated.

43 YOU CAN'T MAKE A SILK PURSE OUT OF A SOW'S EAR

When viewers were invited to design outfits for presenters, the resulting ensembles included Peter Duncan's huge green-and-white checked suit and the late Caron Keating's giant flower-fairy outfit.

44 A BLUE PETER PRESENTER'S JOB CAN BE DANGEROUS

In 1975 Lesley Judd visited the Bishop Rock lighthouse, travelling by rope to the lighthouse from a boat. Disaster struck when her harness snapped, leaving her no back-up had she lost her grip. It made for gripping television.

45 NEVER WORK WITH CHILDREN OR ANIMALS

In 1977, when introduced to Doctor Who's mechanical dog, K-9, Shep suddenly turned hostile, attacking the robot on air and having to be restrained.

46 HARSH CONSEQUENCES FOR PRE-WATERSHED SWEARING

After Mo Foster of the R J Wagsmith Band performed The Papadum Song live on air and sang "f***" instead of "duck", he had to hand back his Blue Peter badge.

47 CATCHPHRASES ARE CATCHY

John Noakes' famous catchphrase was "Get down, Shep!" to his lively dog. In 1978, The Barron Knights released a pop song of the same name.

48 WEAR A SAFETY HELMET

Another Mark Curry gaffe: this time he drove a mini-traction engine into part of the set.

49 THAT THEME TUNE STILL MAKES YOU NOSTALGIC

The programme's signature tune is a sea shanty called Barnacle Bill, composed by retired solicitor Ashworth Hope in the 1930s. There have been ten different arrangements of the tune since then.

50 CHILDHOOD IS WONDERFUL

Edward Barnes, the show's long-time producer, said of editor Biddy Baxter that her greatest asset "was an absolutely idyllic childhood and a total recall of that very special time in her life".

HOW WE WON OUR BLUE PETER BADGES

• LYNDSAY MOSS, 31

"My sister, Kelly, and I got our badges in 1983, for making models of the characters from the Willo the Wisp TV cartoon and sending in a photo of them. We used the badges to get free entry into almost every Sea Life Centre in the country!"

• JEREMY MANSFIELD, 37

"I got my Blue Peter badge in the Natural History Museum Centenary Poster Competition in 1980. I came first in my age group (8-10) and was interviewed by Sarah Greene on the programme. I got teased about it at school for years after, but it was great to go on Blue Peter."

• KITTY SLATER, 10

"WHEN I was in P4 I really wanted to win a Blue Peter badge, so I drew all the presenters as superheroes. I waited for weeks, then I got a letter containing a badge: the producer said they loved my pictures and had put them up in the office. I was really pleased to win it, but I haven't worn it much."

• KIRSTY HENDERSON, 33

"WHEN I was nine I entered Blue Peter's wildlife poster competition. I drew whales, dolphins and a globe with 'Save the World' around it. They showed it on TV! I got the badge and a mention in the local paper – great publicity."

• EMMA COWING, 31

"MY CLASS got very involved in the 1985 Lend an Ear appeal. We badgered our parents for old keys, pre-decimal coins and scrap metal. We deluged Blue Peter with so much of the stuff that everyone in the class got a badge. I wish I knew where mine was now."