The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

100 Hellos and No Goodbyes

Play School was the first programme broadcast on BBC TWO on April 21st 1964.  50 years on, the CMF brought together a team of ex-production team members and supported them in organising an anniversary reunion, hosted in London’s Riverside Studios, where the programme was first made. Faces old and new came together to reminisce about one of the most influential programmes in the history of pre-school television.

Brian Jameson, presenter, producer and CMF Founder Patron, made up a tale about a spider for his Play School audition.  His latest production for CBeebies, Woolly and Tig, carries all that tradition with it.  This is his personal view of Play School’s 50th Anniversary celebrations.

Play School is a programme that should be celebrated every year; its legacy lives on in so much of what we all do in Children’s Television. It is like no other programme.

Luckily, for Play School’s fiftieth Birthday we have Paul Jackson, author of Here’s a House: a Celebration of Play School, and the CMF Committee to thank for drawing us all together to celebrate at the Riverside Studios.

As a programme maker I had been asked to take part towards the end of the celebration with an anecdotal reference to the legacy of Play School from the prospective of programmes I have made.

But as a one-time presenter the party was firstly a reunion and reunions are my dread. They are an unnerving limbo land where time has taken its toll. ‘Oh so’ familiar faces are changed and names are fluffed by memory quirks. Moustaches gone, beards grown, hair bottled or greyed beyond plausible. The cogs of recognition must work overtime as panicked eyes swivel back and echo the horror. ‘Who can this man be?’

‘I’m Brian, not the famous one but the one who had stripy tops and ended up torturing Dara O’Briain in Room 101 (and yes, that is on YouTube).’ 

Then again, this is Play School: there are no nightmares, they give you your name badge in big letters. There are no worries provided one can take one’s reading glasses out nonchalantly and pretend to look for the bar in the distance.

Instantly within the portals of the party the collective Play School spirit envelops us all. Like lost prodigals returned, we receive and give our welcomes everywhere.

A quarter of a century vanishes – then is now and we talk as if we were forever in this very special world we once shared. A flood of faces, a hundred hellos, a ton of hugs and kisses. One wants to grab onto them all and stop them from ever disappearing again.

The celebration begins and Chris Jarvis from Show me, Show me, charms us with a show of clips and memories. We meet in person heroes who took those initial bold steps for mankind.

Virginia Stride, the very first Play School presenter, and creator Joy Whitby. There they sit in front of us, nattering about those early iconic days. It is as if they were talking about some trip to the Westfield Centre last week.

We watch a black and white clip from that first broadcast. Gordon Rollings, formally dressed in suit and tie, kneels and pretends to be a farmyard pig.

We hear tales of Nancy Quayle creating a rabbit with two fingers up a duster and flicking it free, ‘There, it’s only a duster’.

Then on come the heavy weights. Brian Cant as wonderful and dapper as ever, Johnny Ball with a tornado of anecdotes and the genius of Derek Griffiths cutting through it all. And then Carole Chell calms proceedings, warmly, safely and chatting away in true Play School soft sofa style.

We’re reminded of legends so sadly missed, Cynthia Felgate, Wendy Duggan and Michael Cole. And we’re reminded of one legend who is still very much with us but who didn’t quite make it on the day, dear Jonathan Cohen.

The clips tumble on with the highlight of Fred Harris battering the toys for gross amateurism.

My time was near with my prepared anecdotes and I waited for a sign to join Alison Stewart and Iain Lauchlan on stage. Then a gallery moment, hushed whispers from the Producer. ‘We’re over running!’ Oh no, panic! Would I be asked to balance and entertain on a piece of string, unrehearsed, for an extra two minutes? A Play School reality and an actor’s nightmare! No Brian, over running not under running. My slot had been cut.

The show is rapidly and deftly brought to a close by adding insult to injury with the Room 101 extract. I cavort quaintly in flippers, to torture Dara O’Briain.  Weirdly the clip was recorded in 1984.

So no proper time for the legacies but maybe that will do for a full-length show on another day.

For me Balamory and Me Too have direct points of reference to Play School and Woolly and Tigwas derived from my Play School audition piece. And so the whole shebang began.

It goes very deep, far deeper than a house with windows, far deeper than an item on some new show. It is the child at the centre and for those who have had a direct contact, so much more is subliminal.

Listening to the anecdotes and the image of Nancy Quale shaking her rabbit free, ‘There, it’s only duster’, I am reminded of another pivotal but subliminally created moment in every episode of Woolly and Tig.  ‘It’s only a toy spider’ says Tig to some alarmed adult.  Very spooky, veryPlay School.

The birthday cake was cut, the cheers went on into the night and I slipped away to the present day.

Thank you Play School for it all.

And for fans of Play School there are some special messages form Australian Play School (still going strong) on the CMF website.

With thanks to David Jensen for both featured photos.

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