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Griffiths, Derek (1946-)

Actor, Presenter, Musician

Main image of Griffiths, Derek (1946-)

Born on 15 July 1946 in Soho and raised in Tufnell Park, North London, Derek Griffiths worked as a teacher in the 1960s but later moved into professional acting with a stint at the Greenwich Theatre.

Television breaks came in the early 1970s with the two series that he is still probably best known for - Play School (BBC, 1964-88) and Play Away (BBC, 1971-84). He featured in Play Away's first edition, singing its famous theme tune and showcasing his musical talents in addition to his lanky, comic physicality. Another Play School spin-off was comic history series Cabbages and Kings (BBC, 1972-74).

Though famous for children's television, Griffiths was first and foremost a comedy actor. There was a Comedy Playhouse: 'Mind Your own Business' (BBC, tx. 8/7/70) about two cockney window-cleaners, with Tony Selby as his white brother; building site com On The House (ITV, 1970-71; second series); and Don't Drink the Water (ITV 1974-75), a lowest comic denominator spin-off from On the Buses, as dozy Spanish waiter Carlos. Sometimes Griffiths' skin colour was the source of the jokes, notably in Marty Back Together Again (BBC, 1974), which counted Johnny Speight among its writers (Griffiths had a brief cameo as a "Cockney spade" flogging dodgy watches in an episode of Till Death Us Do Part, BBC, tx. 26/12/72).

He played Ko-Ko in the West End production The Black Mikado in 1975, alongside an almost entirely black cast (including future Play School colleague Floella Benjamin). At the time, he reckoned colour had not affected his career and questioned any attempts at positive discrimination: "I've seen a director not criticise a black actor when he should have done - that's bad all round, for the actor and the business."

His musical talents were widely used in children's television. He composed and sung themes and educational 'jingles' for schools programme Look and Read between 1974 and 1989, added humorous voices and ditties to animal films in Heads and Tails (BBC, 1977-79) and provided the famous whistling theme of Bod (BBC, 1975-76). A BBC 'face', he nonetheless fronted ITV film clips show Film Fun (1982-83; aka Film Fun - The Movie) in a variety of comic guises. He also lent his voice talents to animations including the title role in Superted (BBC/S4C, 1983-86) and Christopher Crocodile (BBC, 1992).

More recent television roles have included Desmond's spin-off Porkpie (as regular, Benji; Channel 4, 1995-96) and occasional guest parts in the likes of Holby City but his career of late has focused on theatre, including Twelfth Night (as Feste, 1994), an award-winning role in Coward's Nude With Violin at the Royal Exchange, Manchester and West End productions Disney's Beauty and the Beast and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Now minus his trademark 1970s moustache, the face may not be instantly recognisable but the voice remains so and it can be heard on animation Tractor Tom (ITV, 2003-05), pre-school nature series Animal Antics and Aussie Antics (Five, 2001: 2004) and numerous retro-styled television adverts.

Alistair McGown

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Play Away (1971-84)Play Away (1971-84)

Children's songs, jokes and sketches, presented by Brian Cant

Thumbnail image of Play School (1964-88)Play School (1964-88)

Long-running BBC programme for pre-school children

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