As the legendary children's programme Play School turns 60 on 21st April, a pang of nostalgia will touch the hearts of millions. The show ran for 24 years from 1964 and would have been an introduction to television for countless young viewers.


The weekday BBC2 series, which later earned itself a daily BBC1 repeat, offered simple preschool pleasures such as stories and songs, games with the famous toys (Big and Little Ted, Humpty, Jemima and Hamble) and indelible tunes such as the main theme and the rotating clock.

Via the square, round or arched window, it also opened up the world for tots by showing short films of biscuits being made in a factory, for example, or kite-flying in China. Creator Joy Whitby introduced her programme to Radio Times readers with the words: "Are you an exhausted parent of a child under the age of five?"

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Play School began on 21st April and was the first programme to be shown officially on BBC2 after a power failure caused by a fire postponed the channel's launch by a day.

Although the programme had a robust educational core, Derek Griffiths tells Radio Times that it was a "relaxed format". The actor and musician, now 77, adds, "I enjoyed entertaining kids and adults, so Play School was a family show for me."

Griffiths worked on the show for ten years from 1971. A pair of presenters would guide viewers through each day's activities – the hosts were constantly rotated and included many other future stars such as husband-and-wife Eric Thompson and Phyllida Law, Carmen Munroe, Brian Cant, Johnny Ball, Toni Arthur, Carol Chell and Floella Benjamin.

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So how did Griffiths get the gig? "A presenter, Miranda Connell, saw me in panto and told me I was right for Play School. Sadly I didn't know of it! The producers then saw my show and I was invited to audition."

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Derek Griffiths in his Play School presenting heyday, and pictured with Les Dennis, both sporting Red Noses, in a Casablanca spoof for Comic Relief in February 1989.

Griffiths brought an impressive range of skills to the show, from amazingly flexible physical acting to comedy and mime – his influences include Charlie Chaplin, Marcel Marceau, Jerry Lewis and Jacques Tati.

He also had great musical gifts – Griffiths is a singer, writer and multi-instrumentalist. Was he able to bring any of his ideas to the Play School table? "I wanted to bring jazzy pop songs in, to make kids dance around the room. And I heard that they did!"

Other shows to benefit from Griffiths's dexterity were the spin-off series Play Away, not to mention Cabbages and Kings, Ring-a-Ding!, Heads and Tails and Bod, whose theme tune remains one of the most fondly remembered from the 1970s, and where Griffiths composed all of the individual character themes. "I had bought a penny whistle, and wondered how I could introduce it as a lead instrument..."

Bearing all this in mind, his answer when asked what people would be surprised to learn about him is itself surprising: "Shyness."

But back to Play School, and his inanimate co-stars. Hamble was always his least favourite toy. "Because she reminded me of a BBC boss I did not get on with!"

Humpty, on the other hand, was one of the more popular toys, and made the front cover of Radio Times in 2018, along with two Clangers and Blue Peter presenter Valerie Singleton.

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In 2018, Play School was voted ninth, by a panel of industry experts, in a Radio Times countdown of the 50 greatest children's TV shows. Pictured right are Rick Jones and Valerie Pitts. Hamble is the first toy from the left.

Any bêtes noires among the Play School pets? "The cockatoo [who was called Katoo]! It was a thug and bit everyone, and caused ructions by screaming during recordings. I failed miserably in teaching it to swear."

Are there any funny moments, perhaps not recorded, that Griffiths remembers from his time on the series? "Dear Sarah Long and I were dressed up as tramps. Towards the end of the show, we said our goodbyes, and there was a pause. I said in desperation, 'Let's take all our clothes off'... another desperate pause, then stiffled guffaws from the crew."

So who were the most mischievous members of the cast? "Johnny Ball and I together were a riot! They soon separated us." Sarah Long and Johnny Ball are pictured with Griffiths in our first picture.

And being seen in such a niche role clearly caused him no difficulties in finding work later on. "I was an actor, doing plays, films, TV dramas, and was warned doing Play School would prevent me getting adult work. It didn't."

Indeed, aside from his film and theatre work, Griffiths went on to appear in Casualty, Holby City, Doctors, Coronation Street (as Freddie Smith), Midsomer Murders, Small Axe and Unforgotten. And retirement doesn't enter the equation: "I've just finished voice recordings of a comedy drama series with Toyah Willcox [The Space Race]."

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Getting serious: as DS Malcolm Guillam in a 2016 episode of Silent Witness and, right, as Reverend Nigel Brookthorpe in a 2019 Midsomer Murders. BBC/ITV

He also helped the wonderful Floella Benjamin get a job on Play School. Now a Baroness, she is to receive the Bafta Fellowship at the Television Awards in May. "Flo and I were in a West End musical, The Black Mikado. She sang, and had a captivating personality. I told her to apply. She did."

Griffiths enjoyed working with all his co-presenters. They were, he says, "a very talented and warm, supportive family of artistes".

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Play Schoolers assemble! Presenters pictured for the show's 15th anniversary in 1979, including Johnny Ball (in shirt and tie) and, either side of Humpty, Sarah Long and Floella Benjamin.

And why does he think memories of the show are conjured up with such affection? "Play School to this day is remembered with genuine warmth around the world. I’m always stopped and thanked, even on the edge of a desert in Namibia, where I was forced to sing a rendition of my song Rikki and His Aeroplane!"


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