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Play School (1964-88)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Play School (1964-88)
BBC, 21/04/1964 - 11/03/1988
over 5000 editions (colour test transmissions from Spring 1968)
Devised byJoy Whitby
Series/Executive ProducersCynthia Felgate
 Anne Gobey
 Judy Whitfield
 Barbara Roddam
 Christine Hewitt

Presenters included: Brian Cant; Miranda Connell; Julie Stevens; Johnny Ball; Chloe Ashcroft; Toni Arthur; Floella Benjamin; Sheelagh Gilbey; Lesley Woods; Janet Palmer; Robin Kingsland

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Stories, songs and activities designed to stimulate young minds through play.

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When a power cut blacked out BBC2's opening night, Play School inadvertently became the channel's first broadcast programme the next day, 21 April 1964 at 11am. The experimental series was a response to a perceived lack of nursery education in the world at large. Creator Joy Whitby devised a television 'teacher' helping its audience learn through play.

Until 1971 the series followed a fixed pattern: Monday was 'The Useful Box Day' (making things), Tuesday 'Dressing Up Day', Wednesday 'Pets Day', Thursday 'Ideas Day', Friday 'Science Day'. Toys Humpty, Jemima and Teddy lived in the toy cupboard (Little Ted and Hamble appeared within a couple of years), there were shelves full of storybooks, a pets' corner , a table for scientific experiments (usually nothing more complex than bubble blowing); seven coat hooks carried a selection of dressing-up clothes, while a large hamper overflowed with useful oddments.

A constant feature was the square, round and arched windows. If, as academic Stuart Hall claimed, Play School was "a home, [with] the security of a nursery or playroom," then these windows, opening onto location films of outdoor events, "moved out from the secure world of home and family to [help the viewer] experience vicariously the big, wide world outside". Presenters were usually trained actors, who could confidently match a child's unselfconscious mannerisms.

BBC1 viewers were given a six-week taste of the series in Summer 1965. Once-weekly colour broadcasts started in Spring 1968, and by Autumn 1970 every episode was in colour. From 1969, Tuesday to Friday episodes were repeated on BBC1 at 4pm, with Monday following suit in 1972. The format quickly sold abroad - an Australian version begun in 1966 still runs today and variants aired from Ireland to Israel.

1986 saw declining fortunes - the 4pm showing was dropped, repeats increased and a general revamp saw a politically correct black doll, Poppy, replacing Hamble. The last episode quietly aired on 11 March 1988, though repeats continued for a further seven months before being replaced by Felgate Productions' more flexible Playbus. Retitled Playdays in December 1989, it ran until 1997.

Alistair McGown

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Video Clips
Complete programme (19:21)
Extract (4:33)
Ball, Johnny (1938-)
Benjamin, Floella (1953- )
Griffiths, Derek (1946-)
BBC2 (1964-)
Children's TV in the 1960s
Pre-school Television