The two encounters may have been 30 years apart, but I count myself lucky to have met two presenters of ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’. Johnny Ball I stumbled upon whilst he was filming something on the street in the late 1980s and Julie Stevens I chatted to at one of the vintage TV events the Kaleidoscope organisation used to stage in a Stourbridge hotel. The pair often presented the BBC’s pre-school mainstay together and regularly formed part of the gang on the show’s slightly more grownup – albeit considerably sillier – sibling. As with the classic ‘Blue Peter’ line-up, the surrogate aunts and uncles who appeared on ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’ still radiate nostalgic hues whenever they’re recalled by anyone whose formative years were spent being babysat by them. Their association with a unique, womb-like security that life rarely returns to once we graduate from the nursery means they will always claim a special shelf in the memory bank. The likes of Brian Cant and Derek Griffiths are in possession of legendary status for those of a certain age, and the exotic folk singer Toni Arthur even managed to stir something in the little boys watching that none of them were prepared for at such a tender age. As an adult, meeting anyone who played their part in weaving these dreams is a real privilege, one of those rare opportunities to simply say ‘thank you’.
Like many of the other presenters whose big break came via ‘Play School’, Johnny Ball spread his wings into other areas of children’s television, most memorably with an inventive programme that managed the difficult achievement of making maths fun, ‘Think of a Number’. Although his days hosting kid’s shows were more or less over when I encountered him in person, Ball was still a familiar face on the box at the time and instantly recognisable. I remember me and the friend I was with being somewhat star-struck when we spotted him, and we dashed off to the nearest WH Smiths to purchase a pen and notebook for that pre-selfie must-have, the autograph. We made it back to the corner where he was filming, relieved he hadn’t gone, and waited for a break in the recording to approach him. Mercifully, no infant illusions were shattered and he proved to be a genuinely pleasant person, more than happy to sign his name and engage in a brief chat.
Weirdly, I’d only recently picked-up a 70s LP called ‘Bang on a Drum’ that featured the ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’ performers singing the sort of songs routinely heard on the shows, as well as a few oddities characteristic of the time. I recall one song sung by presenter (and former member of 60s Merseybeat-type band The Four Pennies) Lionel Morton called ‘Come to the Shops’, which, with a slightly more psychedelic arrangement, could have passed for a whimsical slice of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Mention of this album prompted a few reminiscences by Ball of the LP’s recording. Amongst those involved in the process was Rick Jones, a Canadian whose time on ‘Play School’ predates my memory but who would shortly be immortalised for my generation on another iconic show. Ball confessed the hirsute, hippyish Jones had been off his tits on a few unnamed substances during the making of the album, and somehow that didn’t come as a surprise.
Rick Jones had surpassed his fame as a ‘Play School’ presenter when he progressed to a series in the ‘Watch with Mother’ lunchtime strand as of 1972, ‘Fingerbobs’. Like most of the programmes that were screened in that post-‘Pebble Mill at One’ slot, ‘Fingerbobs’ ran for just one series of 13 episodes, yet repeat screenings for the best part of a decade created the impression in the memory that hundreds were produced. How to describe it? Well, Jones – always dressed as though he had just been hitchhiking to Kathmandu with The Incredible String Band – sat behind a desk like a stoned newsreader and addressed the viewer with the assistance of Fingermouse.
Fingermouse was basically a glove with a paper mouse head stuck on the knuckles; the host made no attempt to hide the fact Fingermouse was essentially just his hand, yet he would dispatch the creature to collect various bits and pieces to bring back and inspire a story. As a child, I admit I did wonder how Jones and his rodent hand went their separate ways, for we were led to believe the presenter remained at his desk whilst we followed a seemingly severed Fingermouse out and about with other glove animals including a tortoise, a dove and even a scampi. But disbelief was successfully suspended and a gloriously eccentric imagination took over.
Also being a gifted musician, Rick Jones infused ‘Fingerbobs’ with a soundtrack that is as much inseparable from the imagery as Ry Cooder’s slide guitar is with ‘Paris, Texas’ or the zither of Anton Karas is with ‘The Third Man’. You can’t think of the programme without hearing the Fingermouse song or the incidental music threaded through almost every scene. The programme was one of the few BBC series of the period not produced in-house but by an independent company called Q3 of London – also responsible for other fondly-remembered series such as ‘Teddy Edward’ and ‘Crystal Tipps and Alistair’; although as heavily associated with the early 70s as both those two – Jones’s sartorial style is very much rooted in time and place – ‘Fingerbobs’ nevertheless ran regularly on the BBC until 1984, claimed by more than one generation of children as its own. It was also aided in its on-screen longevity via the advantage of being shot on film, therefore giving it a good reason for avoiding the widespread wiping of videotaped programmes in the BBC at the time.
Rick Jones appears to have been part of that great creative migration to London that took place in the Swinging decade, though he fittingly emanated from a city in Ontario named after the UK capital. Many of the ‘Play School’ presenters were either actors or musicians, and Jones was one of those who often whipped out his guitar on the show; through the archive editions that survive from his era, it’s possible to hear the warm tones of Jones’s soft, soothing voice receiving a prominent airing during his stint on the series, though he had a wider canvas to work with when it came to ‘Fingerbobs’. Outside of his TV work, Jones made further use of his musical talents as a member of a country rock group called Meal Ticket, who played on London’s celebrated pub rock circuit in the mid-70s. I’d love to picture them sharing a bill with Toni Arthur delivering one of her spooky folk numbers or Derek Griffiths indulging in a funky workout of ‘The Wibbly Wobbly Walk’, but I’ll have to leave that one for the parallel universe.
Rick Jones’s death from cancer at the age of 84 was announced a couple of days ago; it somehow feels right that he passed away in San Francisco, for it’s hard to think of a more spiritual home for an artist of his generation. Yet it was on these shores that his potential as a storyteller was fulfilled, a time when even children’s television was shaking off the shackles of the 1950s and embracing the spirit of the age. Whether John Noakes breaking the class barrier and showing RP the door or fantastically out-there, imaginative shows such as ‘Vision On’, this period remains the gold standard for kid’s TV, gifting younger viewers an abundance of riches that even the relentless rolling by of decades since hasn’t erased the impact of. And Rick Jones, allegedly passing round a spliff as he, Lionel Morton and Johnny Ball were shot in silhouette as the three kings during a ‘Play School’ telling of the Nativity, stands out as one of the pivotal figures of this genuine Golden Age, exuding humour, charm and a knowing cool that only a musician of the era could bring to the table. Legend.
© The Editor