Keeping children entertained no piece of cake. 21 April 2006 Sydney Morning Herald
By Alexa Moses Entertainment Writer
AMONG sherbet-coloured balloons the actor John Waters brandished a Humpty Dumpty toy, while Noni Hazlehurst held a woolly dog.
But John Hamblin, deep in conversation, had allowed the stuffed donkey he was clutching to slip between his legs.
"Get the donkey out of your crotch," someone called (it sounded like Hazlehurst).
"I didn't see what he was up to," Hamblin said gravely, sending 12 past and present Play School presenters into spasms of laughter. They were gathered at the ABC television studios in Ultimo yesterday to film the show's 40th anniversary episode.
The show for preschool children began in 1966, with Lorraine Bayly among the presenters. More than 1700 episodes later, today's crop includes Jay Laga'aia, Simon Burke and Leah Vandenberg.
The toys that feature in the anniversary program have been lovingly repaired or recreated by their original makers. Play School is using its second Little Ted and its third Big Ted, while the Jemima doll is more than a decade old.
Hazlehurst, who joined the program in 1978, said her funniest moment on screen involved an inflatable dinghy in which she and Hamblin pretended to take a trip.
"We couldn't rehearse with the dinghy because we couldn't afford it," Hazlehurst said. "We were told it would inflate in 10 seconds and it would make a lot of noise. When we inflated it on camera it made this terrific farting noise, like 9000 balloons losing air.
"We just fell about laughing, and this poor woman who probably just turned the show on accused us of being drunk."
Waters, a presenter between 1972 and 1984, said it took particular skills to be a successful Play School presenter.
"There are some really good actors who flunked Play School auditions," he said. "I remember seeing the list of rejections; actors you'd make a tidy sum out of if you made a movie with them today."
He and Hazlehurst agreed that the magic of Play School was in the personal interaction between presenter and child, with the presenter relating directly to the audience.
"This is the only show like this for preschool children," Hazlehurst said. "Adults say they loved Play School, and that's because there's no other program that achieves this one-on-one relationship between the child and the presenter."
Forty years of Play School by Sandra McLean April 19, 2006 The Courier mail
CHILDREN'S television icon Play School has received an early 40th birthday present – induction into the TV Week Logie Hall of Fame.
The honour was announced yesterday, two days before a special celebration at the ABC studios in Sydney tomorrow with guests including previous presenters Noni Hazlehurst, Lorraine Bayly and John Waters and current presenters Jay Laga'aia and Simon Burke.
Play School favourites Big Ted, Little Ted and Jemima and Humpty will also attend, but there's no word yet on who will cut the cake.
Play School, which officially turns 40 on July 18, is only the third TV show following Four Corners in 1992 and Neighbours in 2005 to receive a TV Week Hall of Fame Gold Logie since the award was established in 1984.
Burke, who helped the show celebrate its 25th birthday back in 1991, said the award was fantastic news.
"It's an absolute appropriate honour," he said.
"It never ceases to amaze me how much a part of so many Australians' lives the show is.
"Millions of Australians have literally grown up with the show and it's quite awe inspiring when you think of it in those terms."
The Hall of Fame Logie will be presented to Play School at the Logie Awards on May 7.
Play School was introduced to Australian television on the ABC in 1966 after a similar show was screened in the UK.
The British version has stopped production, however the Australian product with a bear in there and those famous arched windows has continued to both delight children and remain a model of non-commercialism.
For its 40th birthday the broadcaster has decided to party by stepping out of the studio to meet fans in regional areas.
Presenters Laga'aia and Justine Clarke are doing a 40-concert tour which played in Queensland earlier this month.
Play School celebrates 40 years on air Thursday Apr 20 18:34 AEST Nine MSN
The bear was there, games were played and plenty of stories were told when Play School's cast past and present gathered to celebrate the show's 40th birthday.
The children's show that made the likes of Big Ted and Little Ted, Bananas in Pyjamas, Humpty and Jemima household names turns 40 in July.
But with the show to be inducted into the TV Week Hall of Fame at the Logie Awards in May, staff at the ABC threw a small birthday bash to celebrate the show's success.
Based on a similar show in the UK, the Australian Play School was first screened on the ABC in 1966.
And while presenters have come and gone during the years, the largely unchanged format captivates kids to this day.
During the get together, past presenters including Don Spencer, John Waters, Noni Hazlehurst and Lorraine Bayley mingled with the current crop of Simon Burke and Jay Laga'aia, swapping tales of 40 years of high jinks and mishaps in the ABC studios.
Spencer, the father of singer Danielle Spencer, who is married to Russell Crowe, began working on the show in 1968.
He said the program's success was based on its integrity with both parents and children.
"Too many kids programs these days are about how much you can sell," said Spencer, who simultaneously hosted the Australian and English versions of the show for 17 years.
"Playschool comes from an era where that didn't exist, and it's maintained that integrity."
Current presenter Burke, who has worked on the program for 18 years, said the show was and continued to be irreverent while remaining educational.
"It's silly, it's educative, and it's funny," Burke said.
"It has a daggy quality to it, but that makes it cool."
Burke, one of the first presenters to have been a childhood fan of the program, said he wouldn't be surprised to see the show last another 40 years.
"It is almost an unstoppable thing," he said.
"There have been two or three times when the show has had its head on the chopping block, and I think it would be as close as the country ever got to a revolution if they tried to axe it."
Play School is only the third television program to be inducted into the TV Week Hall of Fame since it was established in 1984.
Four Corners was inducted in 1992, and Neighbours last year.
Stories to tell 14 july 06 The Australian
Forty years old this week, Play School has always been much more than a show for children, writes Graeme Blundell
GARRY McDonald still remembers failing his Play School audition. "All right, boys and girls, let's all sing Alexander's Rag Time Band," he had to say, and then sing. Maybe it was the way he emphasised "boys and girls", allowing just a hint of Norman Gunston to escape. "They told me later it looked like I was going to jump though the screen and throttle the children."
He's not the only actor to fail. I didn't make it either, booted out for seeming too cynical andedgy.
"I had to pass on Toni Collette too," says former producer Henrietta Clark.
Even without such firepower, Play School celebrates its 40th birthday on Tuesday with episode number 1781.
Big Ted, Little Ted, Jemima, Humpty and their friends are now stars of the second-longest-running children's television show in the English-speaking world, after Britain's Blue Peter, which started in 1958.
Play School is watched by more than one million children every week. The only sadness the program's team has felt was when the original Little Ted disappeared in 1973, last seen with a staging assistant who left for Hong Kong shortly afterwards.
Originally a British format, Play School took a while to catch on here. In the Melbourne suburb of Carlton, where I lived in the 1970s, many households supervised by strong feminists banned TV.
There was a kind of collective understanding that, if left to their own devices, children would choose to watch material that was not only morally damaging but lacking in cultural value.
Some of our crowd were determined to not let our youngsters become the view-as-you-like generation, though it was reasonably obvious they enjoyed watching shows that were not specifically made for them. Our children were not going to grow up too fast. We were good at implicit assumptions then: we knew what was good for our toddlers, irrespective of what they might appear to want. But Play School sneaked into our lives when Sesame Street legitimised children's TV, making them familiar with the look and sound of letters and numbers.
Play School showed two warm, caring people taking time to be with one child. They addressed the child directly and personally. Into this relationship were woven the stories, songs and activities that form the fabric of Australian children's culture. Our lives were nothing like that but the children obviously hoped they would be, and so did some of the adults.
The actors were all from Sydney, spoke nicely and seemed unaffected by the cultural upheavals affecting Melbourne's theatre and emerging film industry in the early '70s. But gradually it became obvious that children liked watching the show and singing the songs.
Clark says that in the early days it was hard for actors to work out just what the show was about. "They thought, 'A TV program for children', so they did silly voices. But it was about them finding a self that translated through the screen to children," she says. She remembers Noni Hazlehurst, one of the most famous Play School presenters, saying when she entered the studio each time, "I have to find my Play School person today."
John Waters never had trouble. He joined when he was becoming a bearded matinee idol playing Sergeant McKellar in the successful ABC period drama Rush.
There's a clip in the 40th birthday dazzle reel sent to journalists that is vintage Waters. He sits playing a garbage bin lid with two wooden spoons, a steel colander rakishly on his head, his hands moving with great authority, his eyes staring as if they've seen too many motel rooms.
Memories of his appearances still bring a blush to the plumpish cheeks of many mothers of three, their children now grown up.
It's easy to imagine every 35-year-old woman in Australia turning on Play School during the years Waters grooved on it. "One episode I put him on a beach with no shirt," Clark says. "I knew those women would like it." He once told me that, like so many actors, he was grateful to the show: "It was a recession buster."
Clark says there was a time when she was dismayed by the phone calls that came from actors. "'Any chance of work?' was their catchcry," she says.
Apart from celebrating Waters's torso, Play School has sometimes appeared a bit morally stern, earnestly pushing a belief that children are symbolically at the cutting edge of cultural innovation. Occasionally it has seemed a little sanctimonious, pulling back from the child's right to just have a laugh.
Maybe some presenters were just better at the subversive and carnivalesque element of adults behaving like youngsters and making fools ofthemselves.
When children laugh at silly, incompetent grown-ups humiliating themselves, it's partly because they speak to the sense of their own powerlessness. Adults can choose to be children, but children cannot choose to be adults.
Occasionally there has been too much irony for little children, a touch of "we get the joke but you won't". The best presenters have been those able to celebrate childish things that self-consciously challenge or mock adult norms of respectability, restraint and good taste in silly noises and games, in anarchy and absurdity.
But in the '80s, the growing appeal, and promotion, of Hazlehurst pointed to a kind of commodification of childishness as a form of style accessory. It wasn't Hazlehurst's fault. She was a brilliant communicator but her time with the show seemed to coincide with the emergence of the grasping ABC Enterprises and its competitive shops, tours and promotions. Childhood just wasn't for children any more. Everyone wanted some. Even dads.
Producer Ted Robinson remembers that when fathers found themselves at home with their young children in the afternoons, they started to hum Bouncing, Bouncing, Bouncing. Then they switched on Play School, whether the little ones were home or not, knowing the highlight of their day was about to be screened: watching Hazlehurst or Benita Collings or Monica Trapaga jumping up and down.
"What they were doing became known in the punk era as the pogo," Robinson says. "But they had obviously never heard of the sports bra. And the ABC never knew of the vast audience of 35-year-old men who watched whenever they got the chance."
Through the windows The Age July 13, 2006
As Play School turns 40, two of its stars share the laughs and poignance of Australia's favourite children's program. By Noni Hazlehurst, Rhys Muldoon.
PLAY SCHOOL has been the most joyous and rewarding experience of my professional life - on many levels. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started, but as a result, everything else I've done - theatre, film, directing, radio, public speaking, other television, in fact, my life in general - has been enriched and improved by what I've learnt as a presenter and writer of the program.
It gave me the rare chance to hone skills you would expect the child of three generations of variety artists to have accumulated - singing, pantomime, comedy timing, funny accents, character voices, dancing, sharing the stage, scriptwriting, piano playing, etc. My mother suggested I audition for Play School, to showcase these very skills. "Producers might watch," she reasoned. "You never know."
The job requires talking to the camera as though it's a single child - difficult for actors, who usually have to pretend the camera doesn't exist - engaging the attention of an easily distracted toddler, and evoking a consistent, active response. It's not easy, but it can be done.
Don't ever believe anyone who claims television is a passive medium. Its potential for influence, good and bad, is immense. Play School taught me to understand the medium, its power, and the importance of using it responsibly, especially where children are concerned.
When I started, small children weren't perceived by marketers as "attractive consumers" (this was pre-Wiggles) and most actors regarded entertaining kids as the work you did when you couldn't get a real job. Although I didn't appreciate it then, I was incredibly lucky, because Play School was different.
The producers knew what they were doing and cared about why they were doing it. They respected their audience immensely, an increasing rarity in many professions. They taught me the number one rule of successful communication - you are only interesting or believable if you treat your audience like fellow human beings, not idiots. Or at least, no more of an idiot than you.
Initially I wanted to be perfect, and my early, rabbit-in-the-headlight performances probably veered towards the Joyce Grenfell, Miss Prim end of the spectrum. One co-presenter, John Hamblin, was a source of some distress, never seeming to have entirely mastered the script, often singing off-key and just as likely to say goodbye as hello. "Quite unprofessional", I thought.
But everyone loved him, because Funny John, as he was known, wasn't acting. He was just being. That was the key. He knew the script more or less, the format perfectly, and happily went along with whatever happened to see where it led. Just like the child watching, John was "in the moment". Being apparently authentic, spontaneous and unpredictable made him irresistibly watchable. And he had fun while including the audience, which is crucial. Other TV presenters sometimes seem to be at a party you the viewer haven't been invited to.
You can't fool pre-schoolers like you can adults, so pretending enjoyment wasn't good enough. The secret was to actually enjoy yourself, to show the child watching that it's OK to make mistakes. Once I had mastered the 32-page script, got over feeling self-conscious in front of the crew and absorbed all the technical details, I could just play. A metaphor for life, really.
It was an enormous relief to realise I was acceptable just as I was, and it changed my life when I understood how rarely that message comes through for children.
In a small child's imaginative world, anything and everything is possible. In the real world, where everyone's busy and preoccupied, children don't have enough opportunities to exercise their imaginations. Because of Play School, I work with many under-privileged children. For some, Play School presenters are the kindest adults they know.
Small children are very pure and literal in their responses. They need people in their lives who speak a language they understand. No matter what your circumstances, the complexities of life can be overwhelming without a focused adult providing security and a context for what's going on. In the plethora of media that bombards us, not much is actually meaningful or appropriate for a pre-school child.
Play School is a haven because it is simple, familiar, reliable, consistent and honest. It acknowledges that we are all different, interesting and worthy of respect. It shines because for half an hour, twice a day, five days a week, it provides the viewer with the non-judgemental acceptance and unconditional love of two gentle, happy adults. Even though it is vicarious, it's as good an experience of a "significant other" as many Australians can hope for. That's why it has a special place in people's hearts.
I've had a ballroom of besuited men and bejewelled women on their feet singing I'm a Little Teapot, with actions, at a charity function. I've had an entire high school, even the big scary boys and the goth girls, singing the Ning Nang Nong song. I've had the photo processing guy at the local chemist sing There's a Bear In There as he handed me the graphic photos of my son's homebirth.
I've had mothers cry with me, knowing that I understand how hard it is to be a good parent; grieving divorced fathers asking for my autograph for the precious children they rarely see; and I've had little ones whisper secrets in my ear. And millions of cuddles.
Nothing else I've done has touched so many people. I have a connection with the people whose homes I've visited, much deeper than the normal "I've seen you on TV" kind. Adults trust me with their children, and kids feel that I've been part of their childhood, so we have a relationship. As a Play School presenter I am almost one of the family.
Small children can stop us in our tracks with their perceptions and honesty. In recognising and celebrating these wondrous beings, Play School demonstrates that TV can have a positive, unifying influence. It allows the child the luxury of being itself, without judgement or conditions. Isn't that what we all crave? No wonder it's a hit.
- NONI HAZLEHURST
PLAY SCHOOL viewing does not sit in the conscious mind - it is a subconscious behemoth, always there in the deepest parts of us. My only clue that I ever watched Play School at all was that once I started working on the show, I didn't have to learn any of the songs; I just knew them. I didn't have to learn how to make a caterpillar named Brian out of pipe-cleaners and toilet rolls; I just knew. If only the rest of life were like this. (I didn't have to learn how to write the Great Australian Novel; I just knew.)
There was one other clue, actually. I remember seeing Benita (Collings) in my mid-20s and having a variety of feelings, many of which would keep a Freudian very busy indeed. I wasn't sure why I knew her, and with these various thoughts running through my head, when I realised why I knew her, well, yes, I blushed.
Play School has a purity and innocence to it that makes adult thought seem clumsy and complicated. If you want to make a hat, just put a cereal box on your head and call it a hat. Don't go to the stylist for a consultation and then the milliner for a fitting. If you want a new car, just put your hands on an imaginary wheel and make brrrm noises. A bigger car? Hands slightly further apart. Easy. No repayments required. Want to change the colour? Every 10 seconds? Like it to have a speed-boat feature, and to seat 10,000 friends? Sure.
So how did I become a part of this magical world? How did I join the Australian television icon known as Play School? ("How do I get a job on Play School?" is the question I am asked more than nearly any other. It's right up there with "Have you met Tom Cruise?" and "What famous chicks have you slept with?")
Well, like most jobs, it started with an interview. Or rather, an audition. It turns out, just to get an audition is a big deal. I'm not sure why they asked me (I was known as a bit of a scallywag at the time) but was very glad they did.
Strange as it may seem, Play School is very highly regarded by actors, and a certain amount of kudos is attached to this most prized of gigs. I think it's because it is impossible to bullshit to kids: they either love you or will eat you alive.
Anyway, I received a few pages of script from my agent, which I took as merely a rough guide to what was required. "Surely it's all improvised," I thought to myself. "Sing a few songs, make up a few funny stories, make an animal out of household items. Easy."
And that's exactly what I did. I regaled those poor producers and directors with the most ridiculous flights of fancy; balloons that could talk, circus animals who ran a bed-and-breakfast in Shepparton, a camel who pined to swim the English Channel, etc. And for some reason they went with me, and I got the job. I think I just showed a lower embarrassment threshold than anyone else. That and a dubious repertoire of animal impersonations (you wouldn't want to intimidate the kids with good impressions).
On my first day at work, I was sat down by four very well-spoken, elegantly dressed, attractive, older women, who proceeded to explain to me that although my audition was very good and a lot of fun, Play School was definitely not improvised. I was informed that every word, every phrase, every action was thoroughly checked by childhood specialists, and that certain ways of speaking were preferable to others.
"What, so we can't say 'mother*#*&^%' then?" I asked with my usual bonhomie. I have never seen such fear on the faces of employers before or since. With a fixed smile and a "What have we employed?" look in their eyes, they replied "No Rhys, we are very careful with our level of vocabulary." I felt like a man caught streaking at Queen Victoria's funeral.
I think that may have been the last time I swore while at Play School. Normally, profanities fall from my lips as easily and often as autumn leaves along St Kilda Road, but there is something about Play School that makes swearing seem, well, childish. So I don't. I didn't even swear when I had to record two episodes the day after writing off my motorcycle; an accident in which I took off the petrol tank with my testicles. Seriously. That day, waddling like a duck hurt. A lot. But even pain can be hard to take seriously while singing Yucky Mucky Nappy. And for that I am grateful.
The silliness and joy of working on Play School is very dear to me, and yes I do feel privileged to be contributing to the childhoods of so many Australians. Funny little kooks that they are. The three reactions I get on the street from kids are A) I am THE most famous rock star EVER; B) whispering to mum and hiding behind the leg and half pointing; and C) completely freaked out - I am giant Rhys who has stepped out of the TV and have invaded their world. It is this third reaction that is easiest to overcome: I just lift them up, eye to eye. Suddenly we are where we should be - equal. And that's where I want to be.
- RHYS MULDOON
Play School celebrates 40 years on televisision on July 18.