Saturday, 24 January 2015
72 Play Away
First watched : Uncertain
Play Away is the programme I always associate with our getting a set that received BBC Two. Whether we got it in time to watch the first episode on 20 November 1971 or mithered Mum in the knowledge it was on , I can't quite remember but it was certainly the first programme I ever watched on the third channel.
Play Away was a spin-off from Play School , explicitly targeted at slightly older children and broadcast mid-afternoon on a Saturday while Grandstand ran on the other channel. It was filmed in the same studio as Play School and Brian Cant remained head boy but he wasn't the star. For his regular co-presenter he took Play School's most recent recruit , Toni Arthur , , a former folk singer who was a little too edgy for the infants' show. On Play Away she was a force of nature in her hippy outfits , posh, voluptuous , intelligent ,ferociously jolly and up for anything. Her style was a perfect fit for the ramshackle , anarchic mixture of music and comedy and even more than Brian she held it together. Though both were happily married at the time there was a definite frisson between them on screen.
Most of the regular Play School presenters came in for at least one show including the equally gorgeous Chloe Ashcroft and Floella Benjamin but the show also unearthed new talent of its own including Anita Dobson , Tony Robinson ( who must fear that one of his trenches will eventually unearth that tank top ) and most famously, Jeremy Irons whose Shakespearean delivery made even the corniest jokes hilarious..
Play Away worked because everyone - even the notoriously po-faced Irons - was clearly having the time of their lives dressing up and making a prat of themselves. The unfeigned fun was infectious; it was impossible to watch it without a smile on your face. It was also generous and inclusive; the house band with Brian's best buddy Jonathan Cohen on piano and the fearsomely sideburned drummer Alan Rushton were out front and trusted to deliver some of the gags themselves.
At the turn of the decade it started to wither. ITV's Tiswas ,which owed it a huge debt, had cut the ground from under its feet and when Toni was lured away in 1982 to have a crack at serious drama the writing was on the wall. Most of the footage on You Tube features her unfortunate replacement Janine Sharp and it's clear the magic has evaporated.* The show was pulled at the beginning of 1984 and Brian Cant's long stint on Play School ended not long afterwards.
Though appearing only irregularly on TV since, Brian's never been short of work and remains a passionately loved figure, the more so as other celebrities from his era go down in scandal. Despite suffering from Parkinson's Disease since 1999 he has kept working and his and Cohen's nostalgia-fest theatre production Still Playing Away in 2005 was a big success. He's also had a happy family life yet you always sense a great deal of sadness when he's interviewed , as if nothing really matched up to the days when he was every child's surrogate uncle.
Toni continued in TV for a while including a stint presenting on TV-am but disappeared from the screen in the mid-eighties. She moved into teaching presentation skills to business people , theatre production and founding her own drama school. In the nineties she and her former singing partner David Arthur divorced ( though they remain friends ) . She married a university tutor 20 years ago and moved to Suffolk. In 2003 she directed "A Very Naughty Boy" based on the life of Graham Chapman at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It won First Prize and she was lionised by the likes of Eddie Izzard and Phil Jupitus who told her how much they'd enjoyed Play Away as kids. Still a hippy in her seventies, she lives quietly in Suffolk helping out local schools with reading and story-telling.
* Sadly most of the series from the Toni Arthur era has been wiped, no doubt to Irons's relief.