1 9 6 4 – 1 9 8 8 (UK)
Approx 4000 x 20 minute episodes
Here is a house, here is a door,
Windows – one, two, three four.
Ready to knock? Turn the lock. It’s Play School.
Impressed by the gentleness of Romper Room and its soothing presenter, Miss Nancy, the BBC children’s television programme-makers were convinced this was the right attitude to strike with their own under-fives.
Joy Whitby was brought in to set up the daily programme Play School in 1964. The first show was first aired on the second day of transmission on BBC2 – Tuesday 21 April 1964, at 11:00 am. Due to a power problem on the official night of the BBC2 launch, however, Play School actually became the first proper programme broadcast on the new channel.
A mixture of songs and stories which entertained and educated the under five’s for 24 years, it made household names of many of its presenters, including Johnny Ball, Floella Benjamin (who got her start on TV playing a 16-year-old call girl in Within These Walls with Googie Withers), Derek Griffiths and the unforgettable Brian Cant.
The presenters came from mixed backgrounds (teaching, acting), and inhibitions and embarrassment had to be left at the studio door, along with just about everything learnt at drama school.
After you’ve been pretending to be a frog in front of a camera crew, you definitely aren’t going to have any inhibitions.
“Hello! I’m painting by blowing. It’s so good because it doesn’t get your fingers dirty. Remember to blow down your straw, not suck. Otherwise, you get a mouthful of paint.”
But perhaps even more famous than the long list of presenters were the Play School toys, Big Ted and Little Ted, A misshapen floppy egg called Humpty, Jemima and ugly old Hambel.
Less frequently seen was creepy Olde English rocking horse Dapple, seemingly only ever called into service when the props men could actually be bothered shifting it.
Each day had a particular theme. Monday was Useful Box Day, Tuesday was Dressing Up Day, Wednesday was Pets Day, Thursday was Ideas Day, and Friday was Science Day.
And every afternoon, you’d get a camera shot of the clock and a pause before Brian Cant or whoever would tell you what the time was (so you could guess first), the camera would then draw back to reveal a turntable with a little model on it which would introduce the story.
The other staple segment was the visit through one of the windows to see a short film of men digging a road, a family of ducks in a village pond or a trip around a factory to show how footballs are made.
The round window certainly got more of a workout than the arched window or the square window but they were all accompanied by that pleasing big swoosh of harp music.
By the early 80s, Play School was transformed into a more modernist knockabout comedy affair in the style of Play Away.
Out went Hamble, traditional tales, and much of the educational drive; in came culturally diverse replacement doll Poppy, sock puppets Bingo and Cuckoo (who came perilously close to infringing the copyright of The Banana Splits), a Heath Robinson mechanical clock and recurring sketches – most notably puppet-driven Breakfast Time parody “TTV” (with a diseased-looking puppet cat called Scragtag).
Many of the older presenters were shown the door and replaced by young upstarts such as Ben Thomas, Wayne Jackman, Iain Lauchlan, Liz Watts and Sheelagh Gilby.
It didn’t catch on, and a couple of years later, a determined effort was made to return to the familiar core Play School values, and some of the earlier presenters and toys were even brought back on board – but it was too late, and the show ceased in 1988.
The original Big Ted was stolen, and none of the cast of Play School liked Hambel (and called her the “tart with a heart”).
In the Canadian Play School, which is called Polka Dot Door, there are two Humpty Dumpty’s (Humpty and Dumpty) and only ONE Teddy! It’s like an alternate universe – And they don’t have three windows, just one Polka dot door.
An Australian version of Play School has run continuously since 1966, making it the second-longest-running children’s programme in the world. Throughout its long run, the show has introduced many of the country’s most notable performers, including Lorraine Bayly, Ruth Cracknell, Noni Hazlehurst (pictured below), and John Waters.