The legacy of Play School

Johnny Ball, Carol Leader and Derek Griffiths on Playschool Johnny Ball, Carol Leader and Derek Griffiths were favourites among children in the 1970s

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Ready to play, what's the day? Well it's nearly the bank holiday and this Saturday sees a reunion to mark the 50th anniversary of the much-loved Play School.

With its songs and rhymes, the children's show became the first full programme on BBC Two after a power cut wiped out the channel's launch on the previous night. It had already been recorded a week earlier with presenters Virginia Stride and Gordon Rollings welcoming viewers to the Play School "house".

"There were live musicians and animals in the studio," recalls Alison Stewart, who worked on Play School in the 1980s, first as a stage manager and then a studio director.

"There used to be a cockatoo called Katoo who was vicious - the presenters didn't like him because he bit their fingers."

Training ground

Audiences grew to love regular features, including cuddly toys Humpty and Jemima, and a clock that meant it was story time. There was also the set of three windows - round, square and arched - which introduced films of everyday life.

Embedding itself in the schedules for another 24 years, Play School was devised by Joy Whitby and launched the careers of presenters such as Brian Cant and Floella Benjamin, who became firm favourites among viewers.

The programme was eventually complemented by Saturday entertainment show Play Away and both proved to be a training ground where on and off-air talent cut their teeth.

Jeremy Irons, Anita Dobson and Tony Robinson Jeremy Irons, Anita Dobson and Tony Robinson presented on Saturday show Play Away

"Everyone used to train on it, not just directors but people in sound, camera, lighting," explains Stewart.

"We really did have to pull together - you didn't get experienced people on the show because it was one of those bread-and-butter programmes."

The 25-minute episodes were made as live, because there wasn't enough time to edit.

"People would be running around, setting up props and moving the piano, and things would go wrong. Even though it wasn't going out live, you really didn't want to stop, so that was a good challenge and skill to learn."

One-child policy

Stewart has since risen through the ranks to oversee production and acquisitions for CBeebies, and says Play School nurtured a family tree of people who "carried the torch, in terms of pre-school production".

Start Quote

Alison Stewart

We don't talk down to kids and we don't assume they know”

End Quote Alison Stewart CBeebies head of production, animation and acquisitions

"Some of the presenters set up a company called Tell-Tale, which made the Tweenies, and another presenter Brian Jameson is now a producer, who has made Balamory and Woolly and Tig."

She also works with two CBeebies executives who started off on Play School and its successor Playdays - former presenter Vanessa Amberleigh and former runner/researcher Tony Reed, who is now working on Cookie and Elmo's forthcoming show The Furchester Hotel.

Today's crop of CBeebies programmes also borrows many of the tools used in Play School, one of which is the gentle and more personal on-air style. New presenters are always trained to forget about the size of their audience, and to talk as if they're just chatting to one child.

"That whole idea stops them being big and over-the-top and children really respond to it," explains Stewart.

Comedians would sometimes parody the presenting style in sketches, by wearing dungarees and waving to camera. "I suppose it was flattery in a way but [the show] wasn't meant for them," Stewart says.

When some of the Play School presenters featured in last year's CBeebies panto The Christmas Carol, they were greeted with rapturous cheers and whistles from parents in the audience, thrilled by the nostalgic flashback.

Current hosts were also awe-struck at working with their presenting heroes - CBeebies megastar Justin Fletcher (aka Mr Tumble) often credits Brian Cant as his inspiration.

Katrina Bryan, Alex Winters, Dave Benson-Phillips, Derek Griffiths, Baroness Floella Benjamin, Andy Day, Iain Lauchlan, Steven Kynman and Cat Sandion Dave Benson-Phillips, Derek Griffiths, Baroness Floella Benjamin and Iain Lauchlan joined current CBeebies hosts for the channel's panto last year

Play School also had international success when the format was adapted in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, and Stewart says the show's DNA has also spread to pre-school channel CBeebies, which caters for the BBC's youngest viewers.

"We don't talk down to kids and we don't assume they know. You just find presenters who are really, really good communicators, who would be brilliant with children if they just came and sat down in front of them."

But she acknowledges that technology is changing how children interact with content, and so now CBeebies is producing some online-first output.

Pui Fan Lee and Chris Jarvis Show Me, Show Me on CBeebies is a descendant of the Play School tradition

"You can see how pre-schoolers are using touchscreen and tablets - they all love the online offering but it's still, nearly always, the characters and stories that they first see on television that takes them to those other areas.

"We'll have different platforms to deliver for but it will always be about finding the best things that pre-school children want to engage with."

Stewart is very proud of her link with Play School and the show's legacy. "It was a quick turnaround and the budgets were very, very tiny but that didn't stop you being creative with it.

"You'd laugh yourself stupid sometimes because it was so intense.

"My contemporary trainee directors are still some of my best friends so it was that sort of environment, where you went in there in your early twenties and you made friends that lasted a lifetime. I loved it, I loved doing that programme."

Picture shows (l-r standing) Bruce Allen, Fred Harris, Delia Morgan, Chris Tranchell, Johnny Ball, Derek Griffiths, Carol Leader, Ben Bazell, Chloe Ashcroft, David Hargreaves. (l-r seated) Sarah Long, Floella Benjamin and Carol Chell Play School presenters and toys reunited in 1979 for the show's fifteenth birthday
  • Tickets for the Play School 50th anniversary event on Saturday can be bought here.
  • Radio 4 Extra will air a repeat of The Reunion: Play School on Sunday 11 May, 10am

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