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.

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