This was part of a series of features I did under the banner ‘Christmas With Children’s BBC’, taking an in-depth if occasionally somewhat irreverent look at a handful of festive-tinged BBC children’s programmes from the seventies. Long-term readers of my work will be aware of just how fascinated I am with Play School, partly because from a production point of view its sheer decade-straddling workaday mundanity makes it one of the most interesting television programmes ever made – I was recently bleakly amused to see a certain tantrum-prone prominent Doctor Who fan snarl that the cast and crew of the Jodie Whittaker series ‘aren’t fit to produce Play School‘, when if you had any actual interest in television beyond the capacity to be the ‘best’ at ‘liking’ something (and knew it was two words and not one) you’d know full well what a demanding and thankless task it often was – partly because of the astonishing catalogue of post-psychedelic jazz-folk songs the show generated during the phase when they routinely hired failed and failing singer-songwriters as presenters (which you can find out more about here, and listen to the stellar Bang On A Drum and a load of other hidden BBC Records And Tapes highlights here), and partly because I will never not enjoy having my mind blown by pop-art toys in a textbook BBC Television Centre ‘White Void’ studio. As you can imagine, I was thrilled to be able to get to see the earliest extant Christmas edition of Play School and found this a thrill to write (and not just because of the foxy redhead in the Round Window film), and I hope it comes across in the finished piece.
You can find an expanded version of this feature, with more production details, a new introduction about my own slightly later memories of Play School at Christmas, and more importantly what Brian gave Julie for Christmas, alongside the features on Rentaghost, Watch, Bod and a load of ITV shows in my collection Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
In some ways, it’s something approaching a Christmas Miracle that the edition of Play School that was transmitted on 24th December 1970 actually still exists at all. It’s not only the only surviving edition from that week (and there was one on Christmas Day too), it’s one of just eighteen out of the two hundred and fifty five transmitted during 1970 that are still around. Doubtless this survived by accident rather than design, not least because it uses a fair amount of elements that were recycled in later festive editions, but basically, it’s ever so slightly nice that it does.
Staggeringly, given that the programme had been running since 1964, this is the first Christmas-themed edition of Play School that still exists; equally staggeringly, it was actually the third time that they’d ‘done’ Christmas in colour, having moved over to full chrominance in tandem with technologically leapfrogging parent channel BBC2 in 1968. That said, the Play School production team had done almost literally nothing to facilitate this beyond changing the type of cameras that they made the programme with, and while Hilary Hayton’s original house design may well have been given a subtly garish reddish-on-reddish tint, the rest of the programme is still very much still in the style of Play School as it had been in the Swinging Sixties, set design, theme music and all. And that’s pretty much where we join presenters Brian Cant and Julie Stevens, caught in a pivotal cultural void somewhere between the decline of The Waltham Green East Wapping Carpet Cleaning Rodent And Boggit Extermination Association and the rise of Slade.
Play School opened on 24th December 1970 with Julie bringing in a basket full of presents for Brian, which she then attempts to hide in strategic places around the tinsel-strewn set. Needless to say, Brian shows up mid-concealment and starts asking all manner of awkward questions, leading to some amusing hiding-things-behind-back physical comedy and conspiratorial whispering of present-stashing updates directly into the camera. Eventually Brian goes off to look for some red ribbon, giving Julie time to complete her parcel-stuffage and then set the day and date on the calendar, which comes accompanied by some faint bonging on bells.
It transpires that said bell-bonging is actually issuing from the other side of the studio, where Brian has been joined by an unnervingly Mulligan And O’Hare-like percussionist, who gives him a quick lesson in how to play the tubular bells, before sitting down to accompany him on piano while Julie appears to handle the vocals for a rather cumbersomely worded number entitled Why Do The Bells Of Christmas Ring?. Brian and Peter then swap back to their more suited regular roles, with the latter providing some somewhat more adept tubular bell-whackage whilst the former responds with some of his trademark loose-limbed sub-Music And Movement stances, encouraging the viewers at home to copy him as he flails around the set. We can only hope that they’d had time to move some of the furniture around first.
Back over at the main set, Julie tries to secretly show the post-flailing viewers the keyring that she’s bought for Brian, but when he calls her over to help with a song, she has to quickly conceal it and throws in a quick diversion by suggesting that they might want to have a look at the clock instead. Yet while it’s got the long-running creepy tick-tock clarinet’n’glockenspiel music and shabby battered-looking backdrop that will be familiar to latterday viewers, this is still the original sixties clock prop with the incredibly noisy ‘rotating petals’ mechanism, which might come as a surprise to anyone expecting the more familiar cog-festooned effort with the heavily stylised blue and white face. Anyway, it turns out that it’s nine o’clock, and as there are some presents piled up underneath the clock, there’ll be very few presents given out for correctly guessing what the ensuing song will be.
Yes, it’s time for a spirited two-handed rendition of The Twelve Days Of Christmas, with comedy reactions aplenty as Brian hands Julie hand-made representations of each of the gifts to place on a rapidly overloaded prop shelf, and plenty of free-form piano extemporisations to fill in whilst they lark about with said props. “Well, that lady did have some funny presents”, muses Brian in a clearly improvised outro, “I wonder where she kept them all?”. It’s easy to forget just how much intentional humour there was in shows like Play School, and just how talented the presenters were at delivering and even spontaneously creating it, though in fairness it’s possible that this was simply just overshadowed by the regular and recognisable features of the show. One of which we’ll be looking at through… the…
Yes, alright, it’s the Round Window, and today’s film involves a foxy redhead in a Children’s Film Foundation Villainess-esque rollneck/leather coat/gloves/miniskirt/thigh-length boots combo, who hares off in a Land Rover (readers who know the complicated equation that the production team used to allocate windows may have already been able to work out why the Round Window was called into serviced today) leaving her younger siblings to attend to the more mundane and less seasonal animal-feeding duties on the family farm. Unfortunately we do have to sit through a couple of sequences of them flinging hay at geese and what have you, but the lion’s share of the insert is given over to our titian chum as she browses in a pleasingly Bagpuss-esque old-fashioned gift shop and leaves with an armful of nattily-wrapped parcels, all of it to the accompaniment of the exact same extract from the exact same recording of Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony as was later used as the theme music for The Box Of Delights. Given how many people who started off working on Play School later went on to become senior figures in the BBC Children’s Department, this is most probably no coincidence.
Then, back in the studio, we finally get to see The Toys. This edition was recorded shortly after the mid-recording theft of the hapless original one-size-fits-all ‘Teddy’, and so Big Ted and Little Ted were still a relatively new novelty at that point, while the production team also appear to be using a particularly severely-coiffured temporary stand-in variant of Hamble that makes absolutely no attempt to hide her evil intent. Brian is gamely trying to wrap his present for Julie whilst his cloth cohorts enjoy their usual levels of success in staying upright next to him, which he hilariously attempts to pass off as them getting ‘excited’ (“no, that’s not for you Humpty!”) before launching into a jaunty number named It’s Half A Day To Christmas (which, given the timeslot this episode went out in, was almost technically accurate too). The toys then promptly make another bid for lying face down on the floor just as Julie shows up to exchange presents and help put their hyperactive floor-bound co-stars away in the cupboard. But, crucially, they don’t actually open their presents, and enticingly tell the audience that they’ll be doing so on tomorrow’s edition. Which no longer exists, so sadly we may never know what Brian had got for Julie. It’s not even in the production documentation. Yes, I was mad enough to check.
And that, basically, was how you kept Santa-obsessed overexcited youngsters quiet for twenty minutes back then. Speaking of which, there’s a lot of talk at the moment about ‘quiet’ television, with an emergent craze for long, sweeping narration-free ambient shots of handcrafts and panoramic vistas going on for hours like a Landscape Channel insert gone on the rampage. It’s definitely a good thing that people are thinking more about using their senses and indeed their heads in conjunction with their small-screen entertainment, but frustratingly little has been said about just how similar an effect can be obtained from old-style studio-bound multi-camera programmes, recorded in sequence and with a minimum of edits (in fact, the studio tape for this particular Play School still exists, and they only have to do one retake at the start of The Twelve Days Of Christmas). The space, silence and studio sights and sounds aren’t quite as ‘primitive’ or ’embarrassing’ as the average columnist would have us believe, and really do help to engage your mind with what you are watching and, well, maybe even cause you to appreciate it a bit more.
Anyway, you probably won’t find Julie Stevens symbiotically guiding you towards your Big Ted-derived headspace tomorrow morning, but blame that on whoever wiped the edition from 25th December 1970. Merry Christmas!
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You can find an extended version of Christmas With Children’s BBC: Play School, 24th December 1970, alongside features on festive editions of Bod, Watch, Rentaghost, Quincy’s Quest, The Ghosts Of Motley Hall, Magpie and Chorlton And The Wheelies, in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. You can get Can’t Help Thinking About Me in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Listen With Hamble is an album by album guide to the hidden folky and funky delights on the Play School and Play Away albums; you can find it here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.