If I said my favourite toy was Little Ted but most of the girls preferred Jemima would you know what I was talking about? That is the question that will show how old you are. If you know what I am talking about then the chances are you were a child during the 1970s because those were the years when any kids favourite telly programme was Playschool. It was presented by Brian Cant, Fred Harris and Floella Benjamin – who also had many of the dad’s watching – and you could even guess which window you were going to look through each day amongst the many highlights on offer.
Although at its height of popularity in the 1970s it actually ran from 1964 until 1988 and went down in the record books as the first BBC programme to be broadcast in colour. In the early days it appeared on weekday mornings on BBC2 but later moved to 4pm on BBC1 which just happened to be the time kids got in from school.
There were several opening sequences for Play School during its run, the first being the most famous; “Here’s a house, here’s a door. Windows: 1 2 3 4, ready to knock? Turn the lock – It’s Play School.” Presenters included the first black host of a children’s show, Paul Danquah; Italian model Marla Landi; Brian Cant, who remained with the show for 21 years; husband and wife Eric Thompson and Phyllida Law; and Balamory producer Brian Jameson. I think Floella was our favourite though.
However, the real stars of the show were not the presenters but the supporting cast of cuddly toys and dolls. The five regulars were:
- Humpty, a dark green large egg-shaped soft toy with green trousers, to look like Humpty Dumpty from the nursery rhyme, appeared in the very first programme in April 1964. Several versions were made.
- Big Ted and Little Ted, teddy bears. (Originally there was only the one Teddy, however this was stolen in the mid-1970s and replaced by the two Teds.)
- Jemima, a ragdoll with long red and white striped legs.
- Hamble was a little doll and one of the original five toys but dropped from the show during the 1980s to be replaced by Poppy. According to Joy Whitby, creator of Play School, Hamble was chosen as representative of a more “downtrodden”, humble background as the “middle-class” associations that the teddy bears had. She was disliked by presenters as she could not be cuddled. According to the BBC website Chloe Ashcroft “did a terrible thing to Hamble. She just would not sit up… so one day I got a very big knitting needle, a big wooden one, and I stuck it right up her bum, as far as her head. So she was completely rigid, and she was much much better after that.”
- Poppy, a black doll who replaced Hamble in November 1986, in response to changing attitudes in society (the Hamble doll was also getting rather fragile at this point.)
A rocking horse named Dapple was first seen in May 1965 and made occasional appearances, when a particular song or item suggested it. The final line up of toys are on display as exhibits of the National Media Museum, Bradford. However Hamble went missing after being dropped from the program.
A section of each episode was a filmed excursion into the outside world taken through one of three windows: the young viewers were invited to guess whether the round, square, or arched window would be chosen that day. It was the highlight of my day if I guessed the correct window. Very often the film would be of a factory producing something such as chocolate biscuits, or of a domestic industry such as refuse collection, but a number of subject matters were covered, such as watching animals or fish, boats on a lake, children in a playground or at school, a family going tenpin bowling, people in a cafe and visiting a jumble sale, among other things.
Each episode would also include a short story read from a book, introduced by checking the time on a clock. Normally the clock would show either an hour or a half hour and the young viewers were asked, “Can you tell what time the clock says today? Well, the long hand is pointing straight up, so that means it’s something o’clock – and the short hand is pointing to the number… two (or whatever). So today, the clock says, two…o’…clock”. This was followed by, “Let’s see what’s under the clock today”, and viewers would then see a turntable under the clock featuring certain items such as toy animals or clocks, which were, in a clever twist, always a clue to the forthcoming story. This was all accompanied by a slightly eerie, yet undeniably catchy, clock-like tune. On one occasion I remember, the item under the clock turned out to be none other than Little Ted, so the presenter concerned said, “What a very odd place for a toy to be!” and the story very appropriately turned out to be about strange things.
From 1971 to 1984, Play School also had a sister programme called Play Away which was aimed at slightly older kids.
As with many old BBC series a large number of videotape master copies of Play School were wiped on the assumption that they were of no further use and that examples of some other episodes were sufficient.
Such a shame!