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Ready to Play... Ten Notable Things About Play School

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome

Two of the best remembered Play School presenters, Brian Cant and Chloe Ashcroft, provide invaluable support to toys Humpty and Jemima

Play School, which ran from 1964 to 1987, made an indelible mark on the shape of children’s television in the UK. It was shown five mornings a week on BBC Two, and eventually repeated at the start of the afternoon's BBC One children's schedule. Here are 10 reasons why it was so memorable, influential and fun - and not just for the under-fives...

Innovative – There had been nothing quite like Play School on British television before. New educational theories had been developing for years and were coming to fruition in the early 1960s. Many of the new generation of BBC executives emerging at the time had young families and appreciated that television could help with their education. It was already apparent that even quite young children loved watching television, so it made sense to give them something specifically directed at them. The resources allocated to Play School were naturally not huge, but imagination played a big part in it, both in front of and behind the cameras.

Though the BBC had made children’s programmes from the very beginning on radio, and there had been a regular children’s television service since 1950, programmes for the pre-school age group were confined to daily animated series under the Watch with Mother banner (Andy Pandy, The Flowerpot Men, The Woodentops, Rag, Tag and Bobtail and Picture Book). These were popular, but there were a limited number of episodes, endlessly repeated, and there were no in-vision presenters (except in Picture Book).

The early 1960s was a time of change, not least for the BBC. The Children’s Programmes department was merged with the Women’s Programmes department (yes, there was such a thing, making shows that went out on weekday afternoons) to become Family Programmes, while production of children's drama and light entertainment was handed to the relevant adult departments. With a clean sheet to begin with it was time for new thinking, and one way this manifested itself was in a programme for pre-school children, for the new and experimental channel BBC Two. It would be called Play School, and it would change the face of children’s television.

Gordon Rollings and Virginia Stride, who presented the very first edition of Play School on 21 April 1964.

Theme Tune – Composed, like the Jackanory theme, by musicologist and broadcaster Roger Fiske, the original Play School theme is a television classic. With the easy-to-follow lyrics “Here’s a house… here’s a door…” and the simple graphics of a child’s idea of a house, there was never any doubt of what the programme to follow would be like. Music was an important element in Play School, with live musicians featured in every episode. Many of them were serious jazzmen in the evenings, but Play School helped keep them from starvation…

Educational – Play School taught children essential skills, such as being able to tell what day it was, and how to tell the time. The show was devised by the original producer Joy Whitby to help cope with the shortage of nursery school places in the early 60s, although since you couldn’t see it at first unless you lived in the London area (where BBC Two was initially confined) and had a dual standard (405/625 line) TV set, which was needed to receive BBC Two, its immediate impact was limited. But it went on to have nationwide coverage by the end of the 1960s and its influence grew as a result. The programme was also a great proponent of storytelling, and gave an outlet for younger children’s authors and illustrators, as Jackanory later did with books for older children.

The set used in the earliest editions of Play School. Dapple the rocking horse can be seen on the left - less troublesome than some of the show's featured animals

Windows – Before Microsoft was even thought of, Play School’s windows opened up a whole world of film sequences – factory visits, the countryside, and other stuff. There were famously three of them, square, round and arched, and children would sit entranced, wondering which one would be chosen. There was apparently a clue to the kind of film that followed, depending on which shape of window, but that level of subtlety was probably lost on the average four-year-old.

Presenters – Some people say actors are people who have never grown up, but what better way to use those vital drama school mime skills than pretending you are a tree, a bunny rabbit, or trapped in a box, on national television? Many presenters became household names, either just from Play School or from things that followed – such as Johnny Ball, Fred Harris, Floella Benjamin (now in the House of Lords), Julie Stevens, Toni Arthur, Carol Chell, Eric Thompson (later the narrator of The Magic Roundabout) – and of course the great Brian Cant, who cemented his reputation with voice-overs on Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley, and by fronting the Play School spin-off Play Away.

Toys – Humpty, Jemima, Big and Little Ted and Hamble – like the line-up of a manufactured pop group, there was something for everyone in this unforgettable combo. Even if Hamble was seriously scary. The Play School toys were not aspirational, they were proper toys that anyone could own a version of. Humpty and Jemima particularly had a home-made look about them, while the Teds were so ubiquitous that there would be few children who needed to feel envious.

Pets – Never work with animals and children, they say – but as with Blue Peter, both were occasional hazards on Play School. The most notable pet was Cocky the Cockatoo, who would cheerily take a lump out of presenters’ fingers. He was usually kept in a cage to minimise the digital damage.

A Play School reunion for the show's 15th anniversary in 1979

Clock – Though an occasional cause of demarcation disputes over whose job it was to work it, the Play School clock, which had the dual function of teaching you how to tell the time (“The big hand is pointing to the 12…”) and introducing the day’s story with the rotating diorama of a related object or scene below it, was one of the most iconic segments of the show. The original complex design was replaced by a simplified clock in the 70s – and telling the time was never quite the same again. The programme also taught children about the date, using a wooden frame with the day, day number and month on rotating blocks, at the start of each show.

Colour – Although filmed series like Stingray, Thunderbirds and the Camberwick Green family of shows had been made in colour earlier, Play School was the first colour videotaped children's series in the UK – by dint of it being the only children's series on BBC Two for many years. When colour started on BBC Two in 1967 it took a while before studio programmes could be made on videotape, but by 1968 Play School was one of them. Admittedly, when BBC One introduced colour in late 1969, Play School went back to black and white for a while, as not enough colour studios were available, and popular adult programmes took priority (Blue Peter didn’t get to go into colour until autumn 1970).

Legacy – As well as being sold to various countries as a format package so they could make their own versions, Play School spawned one direct domestic spin-off, Play Away (its memorable theme tune beginning “Never mind the weather…”), giving Play School graduates a chance to work with a slightly older audience. The show, which lasted from 1971 to 1984, introduced new generations to some seriously old jokes, and featured Jeremy Irons and one or two other actors who would later think twice before romping around in primary-coloured dungarees.

Although it ended in 1988, Play School’s influence lives on. As well as the careers it launched, it was succeeded by the likes of Playdays, Teletubbies, Tweenies and Tikkabilla, the latter even featuring a set of windows to introduce location-based items. These shows, not to mention the presentation style of the CBeebies channel, all owe something to the pioneering work of the team behind Play School. And generations of children have thoroughly enjoyed them...