How the Blue Peter model became a TV phenomenon

Ed Cumming with his own attempt on Tracy Island - Heathcliff O'Malley

Ed Cumming with his own attempt on Tracy Island – Heathcliff O’Malley

I just bought two packs of Swan Vesta matches at the corner store and am emptying them into a cup. I just want them in boxes. Throwing them away

I have a flashback: suddenly I’m five years old again. It’s funny what keeps you coming back. Proust had his pies, Gatsby had his green light; I have Blue Peter Tracy Island.

On September 20, 1991, BBC Two rebroadcast “Trapped in the Sky”, the first episode of Thunderbirds, a children’s program that arrived on our television screens in 1965. Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s puppet show continued the adventures of International Rescue, the pair – a government search and rescue organization funded by wealthy American widower Jeff Tracy and employed by his five sons: Scott, John, Virgil, Gordon and Alan, with the help of a scientist named Brains, the enigmatic British aristocrat Lady Penelope and her cunning former chauffeur, Parker.

Their base was Tracy Island, a private island somewhere in the South Pacific, from which they operated a fleet of more or less likely vehicles. Elon could learn something from Jeff.

Thunderbirds was a hit when it first came out, and the BBC was optimistic enough about the rerun to follow its takeover on the news. Still, they couldn’t have predicted that seven million viewers would watch it. In those days, if you were a kid and you wanted to watch TV, you watched Thunderbirds.

Tracy's family has been a fixture on children's television - Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Tracy’s family has been a fixture on children’s television – Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

By Christmas the following year, the toy on every wish list was Tracy’s plastic island. They were sold out everywhere. “It was rumored that the manager of one famous toy store even had mothers who offered to sleep with him in exchange for one,” says Jamie Anderson, Gerry’s son. [Gerry died in 2012.] I don’t know if he accepted the offer.

Blue Peter stepped in to save the day with a simple solution: make your own. Thirty years ago, on January 7, in a 13-minute live episode, presenter Anthea Turner showed avid viewers how to make Tracy’s Island using nothing but cardboard, aluminum foil, papier mâché, toilet paper, pipe cleaners, tissue paper, yogurt pots, paint and sandpaper. A model of mid-century American chic inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, Willa Tracy was crafted from a cream cheese pot lid, straws and a box and a half of Swan Vesta.

“I can’t say how many of those things we’ve done,” says Turner. “It was a live concert, so you couldn’t make any mistakes. And we would never give 13 minutes to anything, especially a brand. To do it live on air, I practiced, practiced, and practiced. I think I could probably still do it, it’s so ingrained in me. The program encouraged viewers to sign in – of course with a stamped and addressed envelope – for instructions. They were sunk. “We couldn’t make it,” says Turner. “Newspapers came to the rescue. One of them did a pull out that showed readers how to do it. Schools have started doing this. Tracy Island clubs were formed.

While doing the island again, it struck me that it was broken on the right difficulty. Not so easy that you can do it in an hour and forget about it, but not so hard that you give up halfway through. There is satisfaction in making something with your own hands. Nevertheless, the idea that you have these things lying around the house has always been an illusion. Toilet paper and an empty tissue box may be, but probably not sawdust. If pipe cleaners and cotter pins were common in stores in 1993 and they weren’t, they are even less common now.

“I think we have to admit that no single child has achieved this together.” says Turner. “It was a group effort. Usually moms did these things, but it was dads who helped create Tracy Island.”

Not in my family. It was my mother who had to stock up on pipe cleaners and spindles, and find a place in the house warm enough to dry the papier mâché, made of flour and water paste. “I think some people had a bit of a hard time with the flour and water paste,” Turner recalls. “And some of the islands got moldy.”

Tracy Island has become a cult spot - Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Tracy Island has become a cult spot – Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Jamie Anderson says the cross-generational fervor surrounding the Thunderbirds revival made his father happy. “My friends were watching my dad’s show,” she says. “They gave me 60s vintages to take home and sign. It was great. For years, Dad thought Thunderbirds was a millstone around his neck. Then suddenly this legacy became good. When Blue Peter did Tracy Island, he took it to a whole new level. The process of making something tangible and experiential means a lot to people.” When Anderson Entertainment held a contest during quarantine so people could create Tracy Island, Jamie says “we had hundreds of submissions. In some cases, there were three generations.”

When I told my mom I was doing a Blue Peter makeover, she revealed that she still had a plastic one in the attic (my family got one in 2000). Best of all, she had the original Blue Peter instruction booklet with her, printed with the signatures of Turner, Diane Louise Jordan, and John Leslie, three presenters at the time. “Looking back, I’m surprised I was able to create Tracy Island at all, with a job and two small children,” says the mum. “Perhaps it was a reaction to Blue Peter being such an important part of my childhood. I was pleased that the final result was approximately correct, but I got the color wrong. I don’t think it’s supposed to be slime brown that much. It took ages to dry. Maybe it never dried completely.

If the Tracy Island phenomenon was surprising in early 1993, it seems impossible now. Blue Peter is reduced strength; Television generally more atomized; children are even less willing to sit for hours over papier mâché.

Ed Cumming was delighted to discover his mum still had the original Blue Peter instructions - Heathcliff O'Malley

Ed Cumming was delighted to discover his mum still had the original Blue Peter instructions – Heathcliff O’Malley

“When we went to school, everyone watched the same show the night before; now it’s a diluted medium,” says Turner.

“I can’t think of anything else that would attract that kind of audience and mass excitement. It’s a shame, but aren’t we lucky to have survived it? Those were wonderfully innocent times.”

She is right. Despite the novelty of building something with your own hands in the iPhone era, making Tracy Island felt more like a chore this time around. Partly because I’m 35, with a job and a family, but also because I actually had to do it myself instead of asking my mom to do it for me. My school friends and their parents weren’t doing theirs at the same time. Ghost Blue Peter Tracy Island seems to be a long time ago. I’m afraid the Thunderbirds have flown away.

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