Through The Two Hundredth Window

Radio Times promotion for Play School, 1965.

As you’ll know if you’ve read the feature on the two hundredth edition of Jackanory (which you can find here), back in the days when everything was in black and white and ‘as live’ the BBC didn’t tend to make a song and dance about that variety of numerical achievements. So when the long-running children’s programme Play School clocked up its two hundredth outing on BBC2 on 25th January 1965, it’s likely that nobody really much noticed at all.

Play School‘s first anniversary – which they did make a song and dance about, with a montage of clips of highlights from the previous twelve months, the presenters’ children present in the studio and a special guest appearance by a lamb (not to mention little-seen early toy ‘Tiger’) – was looming on 21st April 1965. The three hundredth edition, marked by an almost cursory mention of a three hundred year old painting of some children playing, would follow in June. This does at least indicate that the two hundredth edition was probably actually acknowledged on screen in some way; however, the fact that the first anniversary and three hundredth edition were intentionally retained by the BBC Archives and the two hundredth wasn’t would seem to suggest that it wasn’t exactly a mention worth writing home about. Even if it would have been delivered by Humpty with a postman hat that said ‘postman’ on it.

Radio Times listing for Play School's two hundredth edition, 1965.

So what did happen in it? Well, even aside from the fact that neither the show itself nor very much in the way of documentation relating to it still survives, there’s an additional complication in that hardly anyone will even have seen it on its lone broadcast. At that point, the newly-launched higher definition second BBC channel was only available in a couple of transmitter regions, and even then few viewers owned the expensive new sets required to receive it, and on top of that BBC1 had yet to start repeating the show in the afternoons. Surprisingly, though, what few details actually are still available really do give a better idea of what probably went on than you might expect.

One detail that we can be absolutely certain of is that, as this was a Tuesday, it will have been ‘Dressing Up Day’. For the first couple of production blocks, Play School used a rigidly structured daily themed format (the others being Useful Box Day on a Monday, Pets Day on Wednesdays, Ideas Day on Thursdays and – worryingly – Science Day on Fridays), complete with accompanying variations on there ‘Here is a house…’ rhyme, so this edition will have opened have opened with the presenters standing next to a prop coat rack and picking out whatever bits and pieces of costume they needed for that day’s stories and songs. The presenters in question were long-serving camera-blur-provoking high-speed hyperactive whirlwind Julie Stevens and short-stay four week wonder Paul Danquah – a noted ‘kitchen sink drama’ actor and patron of the arts who was one of surprisingly many ethnically diverse presenters used by Play School in the early years (and also openly gay, though few viewers would have been aware of that at the time). All things considered, it’s safe to say that whatever those songs and stories might have been, they’ll have been delivered in a reliably boisterous fashion.

On this occasion, Paul and Julie were joined by storyteller Enid Lorimer – an actor and novelist and also a regular on Jackanory around this time – presumably reading one of her self-penned children’s stories, and by a slightly different line-up of toys, with Humpty, Jemima and probably Hamble (the first two in their earlier and noticeably more ‘sixties’ designs) joined by original singular one-size-fits-all ‘Teddy’, whose tenure on the show later came to an abrupt end when he was stolen during a recording break… and, well, that’s about it as far as hard verifiable detail goes. Or even conjecture, really. If you’ve seen any Play School from around that time you could probably busk a reasonable approximation of what went on but that’s about as far as you’re likely to get. It was made to be shown once, and it’s likely that nobody thought anyone would have any interest in it beyond the end of that week, let alone decades upon decades later. This would normally be the point where most writers would wave their fist at the clouds and sigh something along the lines of “one shudders to think what was recorded over it”, but in all honesty, it was a fairly inconsequential and mundane programme and while it’s a shame it doesn’t exist, that was just the way things were and that’s just the way it is. Anyway, it might have had something significant recorded over it. Like The Forsyte Saga. Or Zokko!.

It’s precisely that mundanity and inconsequentiality, though, that makes this and all other editions of Play School – lost and extant – so fascinating. Nobody involved with the show was ever trying to make high art, but they were trying to get something down on tape that was both creative and engaging for a challenging audience and good enough to go out on BBC2 instead of a blank screen, and through the workaday details of its production from both behind and in front of the camera, you can get a much clearer and more valuable sense of the evolution of television as an artform – and of ‘The Sixties’ in general – than you generally can from grand and overambitious one-off ‘statements’. In fact, in that respect, it’s not entirely dissimilar to black and white Doctor Who, which is why it’s always amusing to see planet density-headed blowhards who still can’t come to terms with the fact that The Doctor is played by one of those pesky ‘women’ now snort that the production team “aren’t fit to produce Playschool”, in blissful ignorance of the fact that it was in its own way one of the most challenging and demanding programmes the BBC ever made, and that it’s two words. It’s almost as though they don’t actually care about television or something.

Julie Stevens and Humpty from Play School, 1965.

Buy A Book!

You can find a huge feature on Play School – and lots of other children’s shows besides – in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Further Reading

Christmas With Children’s BBC takes an epic-length look at the Christmas Eve 1970 edition of Play School here.

Listen With Hamble is a record-by-record guide to the Play School albums and their unexpected funky and folky highlights, which you can find here.

© Tim Worthington.
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