Tuesday 11 November 2014

Michael Sundin's Short Lived Blue Peter Career

Michael Sundin died of an AIDS related illness on 23rd July 1989 just a few years after his Blue Peter career had ended in acrimony and tabloid accusations.

The tragic backdrop against which Michael lived his last few years really piqued our interest. It's so at odds with the wholesome image of Blue Peter, but also raises the important question of whether people in the public eye are allowed private lives.

We decided to take a look at the whole affair to see exactly what happened.

Promising, Early Years

Born 1st March 1961, in Gateshead; Tyne and Wear, to Alan and Joyce Sundin, Michael began to demonstrate his efforts as a performer by winning a myriad of trampolining awards. By 1976 Michael was able to boast the World Synchro Champion title which he captured with partner Carl Furrer in the 15 - 18 year old age group.

Before long, Michael was part of the British Men's national squad, but real life came calling and, following completion of his O-levels, he took up a position as a computer programmer

However, Michael couldn't resist the throbbing heartbeat of disco and his natural talent for dance found him placing third in a national disco competition. The desire and passion bubbling inside Michael led him  to forming his own dance group, Midnight Fantasy.

Michael first started climbing the ladder, in 1980, when he appeared with Barbara Windsor in the pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk, at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle.

It was here that Michael was first talent spotted and, before he knew it, was wowing West End crowds as Bill Bailey in Cats; his performance in this role would prove to be pivotal in his turbulent future. Michael was spotted by Disney and considered for their upcoming film, Return to Oz.

Return to Oz

One of the most intriguing and iconic characters from Walt Disney's 1985 Return to Oz film was the mechanical man, Tik Tok. Somehow managing to contort his body to fit inside this squat, tin dome was Michael.

Lyle Conway, creator of Tik Tok, illustrated just how dedicated Sundin was to his craft in an interview with Cinefex Magazine: "Michael was about five five and Tik Tok's about four foot.  So Michael had to bend with his head between his legs, bolted in, and he did the actual walking around in the thing—backwards.  Sometimes, in the morning, he wouldn't be able to fit; so it was just a matter of forcing him in.  Then everything loosened up, and his body settled into it.  When you took the suit off of him, this rush of hot air hit you and there were pools of sweat at the bottom of the thing".

Little did Michael know that a chance piece of promotion for the film would lead him to securing a presenting role on one of British TVs biggest kids show.

Michael's Dream Job

It was during the filming of Return to Oz that the Blue Peter team paid a visit to the studio and were impressed with the young Michael Sundin.

Biddy Baxter, longtime editor of Blue Peter, decided to offer Michael an audition for the presenting role being vacated by Peter Duncan. By a stroke of luck, Michael's audition involved performing an interview on a trampoline.

Michael was very different to previous male presenters in that he had a youthful vitality rather than the previous incarnates who seemed like a succession of geography teachers. Here were the blonde locks of a surfer coupled with the body of a gymnast - John Noakes he wasn't.

Sundin appeared in a total of 77 episodes of Blue Peter between 13th September 1984 - 24th June 1985. This remains the shortest amount of time served by any Blue Peter presenter, not including stand in presenters Tony Hart, Anita West and Sandra Michaels during the 1960s.

The Dream Turns Sour

Michael's contract with Blue Peter was not renewed and this is where numerous, numerous stories have begun to circulate.

Biddy Baxter has maintained that Michael was dropped due to his lack of popularity with viewers. Biddy wrote in her autobiography that "every post brought new evidence that Michael was getting a huge thumbs down".

We've only watched a handful of clips of Michael's Blue Peter work, but we certainly didn't dislike him. However, his delivery is very wooden and he doesn't come across as natural in front of the cameras as his fellow presenters.

Biddy goes on to state that "Sadly because of his voice and manner he came across as a whinger - and an effeminate whinger to boot". Is this the statement that confirms Michael was the victim of homophobia?

No. Sure, it's not fair to label being effeminate as a negative, God knows there were enough campy TV presenters in our youth, but it never bothered us.

For Michael, though, things were about to get much worse.

Tabloid Scandal

The 1980s were much a different age in which to be gay. The shame and horror that had previously been reserved for such behaviour was suddenly increased tenfold with the emergence of AIDS. Known for some time as the gay cancer, AIDS was the decade's bogeyman.

The last thing Michael needed was for the following story to hit the press:

michael sundin daily mirror
Reproduced with kind permission from the Daily Mirror

The language of the piece is indicative of the public's attitude towards homosexuals at the time and the article must have been a crushing blow for Michael. However, he had left Blue Peter by this point, so the myth that this article caused him to be sacked is nothing more than conventional wisdom.

Michael immediately rushed a statement out the following day which confirmed that he had a homosexual past, but this had been nothing more than a phase. This itself was a brave statement in a time when other public figures were far too scared to admit such a past. However, the damage had been done.

michael sundin daily mirror
Reproduced with kind permission from the Daily Mirror

Later Years

Michael's career never really recovered from the scandal, but he did go on to appear in the 1987 film Lionheart and his final appearance was as a dancer in the Rick Astley music video She Wants To Dance With Me.

In 1988 rumours began to surface that Michael was ill and on 26th July 1989 it was reported that he had died of liver cancer. It has since been revealed that his actual death was AIDS related.

Was Michael Unfairly Treated by the BBC?

After weighing up all the evidence we don't believe Michael was badly treated by the Beeb. Michael's main stumbling block was that his presenting style was below par and failed to engage and connect with the audience.

The internet, as ever, is awash with rumours that so and so saw Michael at this and that gay club and the BBC were adamant this was no place for a children's TV presenter. It didn't help that Biddy Baxter described Michael as an "effeminate whinger", but this is more a poor choice of words rather than any homophobic smoking gun.

Baxter has gone on to say that "his leaving the programme was to do with the fact that children didn't like him, nothing to do with his sexual proclivities". She also claimed that perhaps the gay angle does just make it a "better story". And this article is proof of that fact.

Ultimately, in the AIDS hysteria of the day, there was no way back for Michael. As Richard Bacon found out a decade later, children's TV presenters are not entitled to a private life. They are, first and foremost, role models as defined by society's taste.

Sadly, Michael Sundin was never able to fully voice his side of the story, so a definitive end is unlikely to be found.


  1. The whole thing was very tragic.

    1. Yes, it's a sad tale, but hopefully some progress has been made in the last 30 years and society is now less bigoted to some degree.

  2. The honest truth is that most kids couldn't stand him- not for being effeminate (-didn't hinder Larry Grayson or Duncan Norvelle-) but because he was an irritatingly enthusiastic & simultaneously wooden presenter.
    Still a terribly sad story though, in hindsight..

  3. Fascinating piece and clippings. Would like to see the same for SIMON GIPPS-KENT whose entire adult life seems to be shrouded in mystery before his untimely death in 1987 -- also at age 28, just like Michael.

    1. I wasn't aware of the Simon Gipps-Kent story, but just went and had a look. Certainly sounds a curious tale, so will investigate a bit more.

  4. One of the things I had heard was that the BBC were warned in advance that the Daily Mirror were planning to run the articles about Michael's private life. Due to this they were given time to sack him and have it look like his contract being cancelled was unconnected with the articles. That makes more sense to me. He may not have been the greatest TV presenter but he was far better that the others, who were always really straight laced and looked thoroughtly bored to tears. Me and all my school friends loved him Michael.

  5. Hmmmm. You are right to say that Michael never got to represent his side of the "story". For heaven's sake, he was in his 20s when he died. He had little opportunity to live much life, let alone reflect on it. And anyone who recalls the ferocious anti-gay invective of the press in those days, the fanatic hostility of the churches, the general gloating over gay men's deaths from AIDS etc etc (I remember it all, only too well) will wonder what opportunity Michael ever had to be himself - let alone develop the sort of presenting style that the public presumably loves ... Meanwhile, Biddy Baxter has enjoyed a nice long life into her 80s and been showered with honours, decorations etc.

  6. I had no idea about most of this. Brought a tear to my eye. I remember him on Blue Peter. I was 18. I didn't realise at the time that I fancied him, let alone that I was gay. I think he did the gymnastics in the video for 'I'll tumble for ya' by Culture Club. Now 53, I have some very fond memories.

  7. I remember seeing Michael on Blue Peter and thinking how handsome he was and how he appeared to have the right athletic attributes needed to be a BP presenter. I also recall that his presentation style was a bit wooden at times, but that's what a producer or editor is there to sort out. It's their responsibility to help mould presenters and find the right way to get the best out of them. I also recall being shocked and annoyed at how the programme just dropped him and never mentioned his name again. The same applies to another BP presenter in the 1980s who disappeared without a trace: Christopher Wenner [correct spelling?].

  8. Michael Sundin was sacked because he was gay! No way was he " effiminate"!

  9. michael sundin was my 3rd cousin i never was able to meet him as he died long before my time but my mam was fortunate enough to meet this incredible man and i am proud to know he was part of my family. i am loving getting to know more about him i just wish it could have come from his own words rather than a newspaper repot. He managed to live a life I could only dream about !! it is crazy some of the comparisons in our lives that are so similar despite never knowing, I too performed in jack and the beanstalk in the theatre royal and have done a handful of other shows. and it is also shocking to me as someone who quite publicly and actively speaks up for gay rights and equality that i have a relative who as we can all see was blatantly sacked because of his sexuality!!!

    1. >>we can all see was blatantly sacked because of his sexuality!!!

      With all due respect it's quite bold to claim that "we can all see..." Please don't presume to speak on behalf of other people.

      Was Michael Sundin sacked because of his sexuality? Or was he sacked because he wasn't popular with the kids? I suspect he was sacked because of the crap the tabloid rags came out with and the BBC cowardly gave him the boot to try and avoid the resulting scandal.

  10. I just came across this posting by chance,and kind of remembered Michael as a presenter and decided to see if any old BP episodes still existed on You Tube.
    One did, and it was truly awful tv, from everyone involved circa 1985! Janet Ellis was like a disinterested school mum, with a rather squeaky voice that I'd fortunately forgotten about and Simon Groom sounded as tho he'd been on the communal wine, fluffing his lines and missing his cues. Michael was pretty unnatural, but very enthusiastic. The camera work, direction, script were all below par, so well done Biddy Baxter too!
    It's not a great compliment to say that he was no worse than the other two in this episode, but he wasn't as bad as has been made out.
    A life cut tragically short sadly.

  11. His boss justified firing him for his "effeminate" voice and manner. Obviously, this is homophobic. If a manager spoke this way about an employee today they would undoubtedly be found guilty of discrimination at an employment tribunal and have to pay damages.

  12. RIP Michael you deserved better.

  13. Check out the 3 YouTube videos at the bottom of his Wikipedia page to get a feel of the boy/man in his prime. The first being a Blue Peter segment of Michael interviewing "The Tripods" cast. Second is a Blue Peter on-location segment of Michael one-on-one with Elton John. And the third is a dance number of Michael touring in a "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" road show. It would appear professional management would have done wonders for his career as there was talent there.