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BBC TV's Play School is 50 years old today

By WMNSteveGrant  |  Posted: April 21, 2014

  • Play School staff mark the show's 5th anniversary

  • Brian Cant with Julie Stevens

  • Brian Cant with Humpty

  • Floella Benjamin

  • Derek Griffiths

  • Johnny Ball

  • Carol Chell with Jonathon Dennis

  • David Mitchell

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It was the first TV programme to be shown on BBC Two and was loved by generations of children right up until 1988. Today, Play School celebrates the 50th anniversary of its first ever screening.

Devised by Joy Whitby, pre-school series Play School accidentally became the first programme ever to be seen on brand new channel BBC Two after a power cut interrupted the planned schedule. Making its debut on the day after BBC Two’s launch – April 21, 1964 – the series ran for 24 years up until March 1988.

Making household names of many of its presenters – Brian Cant, Carol Chell, Johnny Ball, Derek Griffiths, Floella Benjamin (now a Dame and Chancellor of Exeter University) – Play School was ahead of its time with its cheerful combination of songs, dances and lively presenters, accompanied by a cast of toys and pets.

And it broke new ground in becoming the first children’s programme ever to be seen in colour on BBC Two and the first children’s programme ever to feature a black host - Paul Danquah.

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Play School’s influence is still being felt today, inspiring children’s television talent both on-screen and off.

Two former presenters – Brian Jameson and Iain Lauchlan - went on to create successful children’s series Balamory and The Tweenies and Woolly and Tigg respectively.

Baroness Floella Benjamin, OBE, continues to be a staunch voice on the subject of children’s media issues as chairman of the All Parliamentary Group on Children’s Media and the Arts; and today’s presenters – such as CBeebies’ favourite Justin Fletcher – continue to cite Play School and its presenters as early inspirations.

To celebrate the 50th Anniversary, Play School will be part of a special exhibition commemorating Children’s BBC – Here’s One We Made Earlier due to open at The Lowry in Manchester in July.

And campaigning audience advocacy group, the Children’s Media Foundation, are supporting a special reunion for all those who worked on or were involved with the iconic children’s show.

“Play School was absolutely ahead of its time in terms of its content, production techniques and presenting style”, said Anna Home, former head of BBC Children’s, previously a Play School researcher and now chairman of the Children’s Media Foundation.

“You only have to look at today’s children’s programming to see how it has inspired generations of presenters and programme-makers way beyond its 24 years on screen.”

50 FACTS ABOUT PLAY SCHOOL

1. Play School was originally commissioned when Michael Peacock, the Chief of Programmes for BBC Two who had two young children of his own, was looking to redress the lack of nursery age programming on air.

2. The thinking behind the programme’s title was that ‘play is the child’s first school’.

3. Play School was the very first programme to appear on BBC Two on April 21, 1964. Play School only became the first programme to be shown on BBC Two accidentally, after a massive power cut blacked out the previous day’s launch schedule.

4. Play School ran for 24 years, right up until March 1988.

5. There were 5,692 editions of Play School transmitted in total.

6. Only 1,900 editions of Play School have survived in the BBC archives.

7. Play School was the first children’s programme to be shown in colour on BBC Two in May 1968.

8. Play School’s revolutionary mixture of fun, games, songs and live presenters was a big hit. In the Seventies it regularly attracted around 5 million viewers.

9. There were a total of 104 presenters – mostly actors, comedians and singers.

10. The Play School presenters always presented as pairs. The programme’s producers frequently mixed up the pairs to provide a different onscreen chemistry.

11. The very first Play School was presented by Virginia Stride and Gordon Rollings.

12. Play School presenters included Brian Cant, Johnny Ball, Floella Benjamin, Derek Griffiths and husband and wife team Eric Thompson and Phyllida Law (the parents of Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson).

13. The longest serving presenters were Carol Chell (763 episodes), Brian Cant (620), Julie Stevens (600), Johnny Ball and Chloe Ashcroft (545 each).

14. Brian Cant is seen by many as the “face” of Play School. His first appearance was on May 4, 1964 and his last appearance was on July 19, 1985.

15. Only four presenters (Brian Cant, Carol Chell, Johnny Ball and Chloe Ashcroft) had the distinction of appearing in all three decades - 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

16. Play School was the first children’s programme in the UK to feature a black host. Paul Danquah, from Guyana, presented the programme from January to June 1965.

17. Play School presenting alumni who subsequently moved behind the camera include Brian Jameson (who went on to create and produce children’s favourite Balamory) and Iain Lauchlan (who went on to co-devise and produce pre-school hit series The Tweenies).

18. Play School had 12 foreign presenters: Rick Jones (Canadian), Marla Landi (Italian), Paul Danquah and Carmen Munroe (Guyanese), Dibbs Mather, Diane Dorgan, Don Spencer (Australian), Jon Skolmen and Vibeke Sæther (Norwegian), Miguel Vila (Spanish) and Evelyn Skinner and Janine Barry (New Zealanders).

19. During the theme tune of Play School there was a deliberate break. This was to allow viewers to shout out what day it was.

20. The original toys were Humpty, Hamble, Jemima the Ragdoll and Teddy. Teddy was stolen in 1970 and replaced by Big Ted and Little Ted while Hamble was replaced in November 1986 by a black doll called Poppy.

21. After Play School ended, the toys went on display at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford. All except Hamble who has not been seen since her axing in 1986.

22. Big Ted was apparently a favourite with comedian Eric Morecambe who allegedly used to visit the toys when filming with Ernie Wise in a nearby studio.

23. Hairy Bikers star Dave Myers was BBC Television’s first male make up artist and was photographed for the front cover of BBC’s in-house newspaper Ariel curling Hamble’s hair.

24. Although the Hamble doll had been available to buy from retailers like Woolworths, by the time Play School was in its prime it was believed there were only two in Britain. The other was owned by a woman in Chester, who would hire it to the BBC for £40 a week whenever the Play School regular was injured. Recently a vintage 1960s Hamble appeared on e-bay and was sold for £199 but no-one could verify if it was ever used on the programme.

25. Poor Hamble was allegedly unpopular with both the audience and presenters, with Play School regulars speaking of kicking her across the studio and worse.

26. Presenter Brian Cant considered Humpty to be his favourite of the toys because “you could always have a conversation”. Johnny Silvo also liked Humpty but confessed to sometimes playing football with him around the studio...

27. A rocking horse named Dapple was first shown on Play School in May 1965 and made several appearances over the decades.

28. Humpty’s country cousin made a single appearance on Christmas Day 1971. Dumpty was brown and fatter than his urban cousin.

29. Each day had a different theme:

Monday Useful Box Day

Tuesday Dressing Up Day

Wednesday Pet’s Day

Thursday Imagination Day

Friday Science Day

30. Play School’s first outside broadcast was on October 13, 1964 when the programme came from Cuttlepool Farm in Knowle, Warwickshire.

31. The Play School pets included a cockatoo (Katoo), rabbits (including Buffy, Mopsy, Peter, Benjamin and Becky), two goldfish (Bit and Bob), several mice and a guinea pig called Lizzie.

32. The Play School pets were originally sourced by Harrods pet buyers Ken Exall and Anna Thompson and from 1965-88 were looked after by Wendy Duggan, a fellow of the Royal Zoological Society.

33. Working with the Play School pets was no walk in the park. The mice were said to be dangerous and cockatoo Katoo once bit presenter Johnny Ball, causing him to utter a non child-friendly expletive on camera.

34. Play School was known for its music and songs. Perhaps the best known pianists were Bill Blezard, accompanist to Marlene Dietrich and Joyce Grenfell, who played for 20 years from 1964-84 and Royal College of Music graduate Jonathan Cohen who performed on the show for 20 years from 1967-1987.

35. Novelist, poet and former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen worked as a script-writer and director on Play School from 1970 to 1971.

36. In each episode of Play School a story was shown, introduced by the telling of the time on the big clock and accompanied by a woodwind and glockenspiel jingle. “The long hand is pointing straight up, so that’s something o’clock and the short hand is pointing to the number two. So today the clock says: Two O’clock!”

37. Play School was hit by various strikes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. An ongoing dispute between the show workers and the studio electricians about who would operate the switch to turn on the small revolve beneath the famous Play School clock flared into a full-blown walk out. One disgruntled fan who wrote in to complain was a six-year old David Mitchell, now better known for his comedy partnership with Robert Webb.

38. Talent queuing up over the years to read the Play School story included Athene Seyler, David Kossoff, Ted Moult, George Melly, Elizabeth Welch, Percy Edwards, Mollie Sugden, Richard Baker, Roy Castle, William Mervyn, Edna Doré, Rolf Harris, Val Doonican, Sam Kydd, Clive Dunn, James Blades, Spike Milligan, Quentin Blake, Martin Jarvis, Cilla Black and Ruth Madoc.

39. When Cilla Black read the story she originally started in a posh, constrained accent and was delighted to be asked by the director to read it in her more distinctive Liverpudlian tones.

40. The majority of Play School episodes were recorded at BBC Television Centre from 1968-88, though its first home was Riverside Studios in West London. However if the studios were busy it was recorded in BBC Birmingham or BBC Manchester instead.

41. In every episode of Play School, viewers were invited to watch a film of everyday life by choosing to go through one of three windows – square, round or arched. A triangular window was added in September 1983.

42. Play School was transmitted in Australia and New Zealand before both countries starting making their own local versions. Other countries transmitting their own versions, based on a kit supplied by Play School, included Canada, Norway, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Austria and Israel.

43. Play School was known as Giocagio in Italy, Das Kleine Haus in Austria and Polka Dot Door in Canada.

44. The foreign versions of Play School all followed the same format including two presenters, a clock and three windows. But every single broadcaster dropped Hamble from the toy line up...

45. The Australian version of Play School started in 1966 and is still running today. It is the longest running children’s television programme in Australia and the second longest running children’s programme in the world, after Blue Peter.

46. Presenters from the Australian version of Play School included Neighbours’ stars Anne Haddy (Helen Daniels) and Tom Oliver (Lou Carpenter) and broadcaster Trisha Goddard.

47. From 1964 to 1974 the opening to Play School went as follows: Here’s a house - Here’s a door - Windows one, two, three, four - Ready to knock - Turn the lock - It’s Play School. This was modified in 1974 and again in 1979 and 1983.

48. Play School has won several awards including a prestigious Prix Jeunesse and the Children’s Programme Award at the International TV Festival in Monte Carlo.

49. Play School has been parodied in several comedy shows including Three of A Kind, Victoria Wood as Seen on TV, The Rory Bremner Show and Goodness Gracious Me.

50. Play School has received the Royal seal of approval. In 1966 the 500th programme was celebrated with a visit from Prince Andrew (aged six) and Viscount David Linley (aged four), who came to the Riverside Studios with six friends and their governess, Nanny Catherine Peebles and spent the afternoon looking round and playing on the set. The programme was recorded on Tuesday March 15, 1966 for transmission the following Monday with presenters Julie Stevens and Brian Cant. Brian recalled: “We were not told beforehand about the Royal visit but knew something was different when on arrival at the studios, we saw the commissionaires wearing white gloves We were gathered together after lunch and were told that we had some special visitors and to carry on as if they were not there. I remember Prince Andrew polishing the shoes of Viscount Linley and also pulling the windows set apart. After the rehearsals, Julie and I played with the Royals and their friends around the set before having afternoon tea.”

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