Through the windows
‘Play School’ celebrates 50 years of preschool education and entertainment
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Allan Kendall, an Australian Open quarterfinalist, university dramatist and qualified teacher, returned to Sydney from the European tennis circuit in the mid 1960s and was given the task of bringing Play School, a BBC show for preschoolers, to the ABC. He’d seen Play School in production at the BBC in London and thought it had potential. “I missed the point of Play School altogether when I first saw it,” he told a biographer three decades later. “I saw these presenters talking straight to camera and I thought, I don’t think that’s very convincing. Let’s have a little bit more drama between them.”
Play School was a BBC experiment begun largely by Joy Whitby, an Oxford history graduate, in response to a perceived need for educational preschool television. She conducted her own research, visited infant schools, spoke to teachers and appointed expert advisers. Chief among them was Nancy Quayle, an experienced primary and nursery teacher who became known at the BBC as “Q”, after the Bond character, for the central role she played in early operations. It was from Q that Play School – both the BBC and ABC versions – took its insistence that everything on screen be made as “real” as possible for its preschool audience. It was imagination, not fantasy, that was to be encouraged in the child.
Kendall pulled together a small team, which began production in May 1966 at the ABC’s old studios in Gore Hill. On 18 July, young actors Diane Dorgan, who was also a trained kindergarten teacher, and Alister Smart introduced the Australian Play School in plum accents on black-and-white TV screens. Neither presenter was a household name. At the time, it was an unremarkable event.
This month, more than four and a half thousand episodes later, ABC’s Play School celebrates its 50th anniversary. The program’s enduring strength is the single-minded consideration of its four-year-old viewers.
Every trained early-childhood worker knows about the research of developmental psychologists Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson, and from them, if indirectly, Play School took the idea that four-year-olds are developmentally different from both younger and older children – so a TV show aimed at them should be aimed only at them (unlike Sesame Street, for example, which also tried to cater to the tastes of older children, and assumed that the TV was controlled by parents and older siblings). As Jennie Mackenzie, one of the show’s first expert advisers, explains, Play School also benefited from the experience of people who worked directly with preschoolers. The title reflects the pedagogy: young children learn through play.
It often doesn’t seem like it, but Play School is carefully scripted. Each “series” of five episodes is linked by a theme, such as “Adventure” or “In the Bush”. In 1979, when the ABC’s Early Childhood Unit provided its first public explanation of what went on off-camera, each theme was expressed in five different ways, through “Useful Box Monday” (with an emphasis on manual creativity), “Dressing Up Tuesday”, “Pets Wednesday”, “Imagination Thursday” and “Science Friday”. This formula has remained basically unchanged. A five-episode series takes about two months to develop. The script requires that presenters encourage participation by asking questions, pausing for responses and demonstrating actions. Children feel like they’re having personal relationships with regular, familiar presenters. The camera work avoids decontextualised close-ups and jerky movements. Props are all items likely to be found around the child’s home, and the paced presentation is kept largely free of technology, replicating storytime at home and preparing the child for the traditional classroom.
From very early on, Play School went to great lengths to ensure it connected with its audience. Jennie Mackenzie worked at the Peter Pan Kindergarten in Paddington, where she also supervised Dorgan. “The ABC would regularly deliver a large TV set, for the children who chose to watch,” she recalls. The production team and presenters would be present to assess how the kids responded to every new episode. Neither the BBC’s Play School nor Sesame Street appears to have monitored feedback as often: it’s likely this was the only children’s television production team anywhere in the world to do so.
It didn’t take long for the ABC version to develop a local flavour. In September 1966, presenters Peter Drake and Nehama Patkin sang ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in front of a wall of butcher paper adorned with texta drawings of a coolibah tree, a thoroughbred, a billabong and a boiling billy can.
Ironically, the most significant departure the ABC program made from its BBC parent came when Allan Kendall coaxed a young English actor, John Hamblin, on to the show in 1970. A ten-pound Pom, Hamblin had made the illogical decision to migrate from London to Sydney to chase acting jobs in the 1960s, when there was virtually no film industry here. He also didn’t really get the show at first. “I’d seen it in England and I didn’t like it,” he said in a 2004 interview. “I don’t know how anyone could really go along and say, ‘Hello, I’m John. Let’s look in the useful box and play with our balls.’” But he stayed with Play School for three decades, and arguably contributed more toward its institutionalisation here than anyone – paradoxically because he departed so often from the script. “Funny John” became something of a cult figure for his comedic timing and his double entendres, which adults and their children could enjoy for different reasons. Until Hamblin’s arrival, there was little humour in the show, according to Henrietta Clark, who was a producer and executive producer between 1968 and 1999. “We were fairly straight, caring, warm, but not funny. [John] taught us that humour was a tremendously valuable ingredient for communicating with young children.” (Humour was an ingredient the BBC Play School lacked, and it never became the institution it is here. By 1988 it was gone.)
Parents and kindergarten teachers also enjoyed watching the show’s fit young presenters bounce and wiggle their way around the set. Benita Collings famously appeared braless in a tight-fitting sweater in 1975, and in the same year Peter Sumner’s shirt opened widely enough to reveal a hairy chest down to his navel. “Several mothers were overheard commenting on [Jay] Laga’aia’s charm and good looks,” wrote the Canberra Times correspondent at one of the presenter’s publicity concerts in 2008. And, according to the Daily Telegraph, “throngs of mums [were] openly salivating at the inclusion of Eddie Perfect” when he joined the cast last year.
It’s one thing to enjoy a covert perve at a young John Waters, or to chuckle inwardly at Hamblin describing Collings’ posterior as a “lovely rear entrance” while she pretends to be a house. But even a hint of overt sexuality on Play School can cause considerable controversy, however tenuous the link. The ABC has received complaints when Play School presenters appear as film actors in sex scenes, and even when a documentary about sex abusers was shown on ABC2, which also broadcasts Play School, one evening last year. And in 2004 there was a vicious moral panic led by Howard government ministers, Latham Opposition frontbenchers, tabloid commentators and the Christian Right after eight-year-old Brenna Harding briefly introduced her two mums to the Play School audience during one of its “Through the Windows” segments.
The Herald Sun tried to manufacture further controversy in 2004 when Play School repeated a 2001 episode that featured Claire Masurel’s picture book Two Homes, about a small boy trying to come to terms with his parents’ separation. But for years now Play School has taken on the responsibility of representing the families and experiences of all Australian children, short of introducing traumatic social problems like family violence or alcoholism. Since 1983 the ABC charter has required the broadcaster to “reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community”.
Apart from Nehama Patkin, whose parents were born in Russia and Israel, Play School’s hosts in its first two decades were almost entirely Anglo. Clark can’t recall specific discussions about the new charter in the Play School team. “But we did consciously open ourselves to the zeitgeist,” she says. George Spartels, whose father was Greek, joined the cast in 1985. A range of non-Anglo presenters followed, including Anna Maria Monticelli, Trisha Goddard, Monica Trapaga, Ling-Hsueh Tang, Karen Pang, Jay Laga’aia and Michelle Lim Davidson. Multicultural dolls – Meeka, Kim and Lisa – joined the Play School family. When the show’s new viewers looked through the square, round and arched windows, they saw much more of Australia’s real-life diversity than other shows were willing to reflect.
During Play School’s formative decades, there wasn’t much content that reflected indigenous experiences. When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures were presented at all it was superficial, and through a white lens. Henrietta Clark had adapted some Dreamtime stories, including Tiddalik the Frog, and I remember seeing some traditional singing, dancing and Papunya dot painting through the windows when I watched religiously in the mid 1980s. But until Pauline McLeod became a regular storyteller in the early 1990s, indigenous voices were rarely heard.
There was one important exception. Bob Maza, the acclaimed director of Redfern’s Aboriginal Black Theatre Arts and Cultural Centre, made a single appearance on Play School in August 1976. Earlier, in Melbourne, he’d been president of the Aborigines Advancement League and associated with both the Black Power movement and the Tent Embassy. On Play School, Maza played guitar, turned a shoebox into a house, pretended to be a cat and helped Alister Smart tell a story about a magician. It is said that he didn’t really want to do more episodes.
Play School can’t adequately address Australia’s colonial history or its contemporary consequences for a four-year-old audience. Its response has been to celebrate indigenous cultures and to ensure there are indigenous faces on its screen and indigenous writers behind its scripts. Susan Moylan-Coombs joined the ABC under an indigenous training scheme during the early 1990s before returning later as a producer. “She was an excellent all-round producer,” says Clark, and she provided the Play School team with its first real avenue into an indigenous cultural world.
Deborah Mailman (who recorded episodes between 1998 and 2001), Christine Anu (early 2000s), Luke Carroll (2010–) and Miranda Tapsell (who joined this year) are now role models to cohorts of kids in the same way that Noni (Hazlehurst), Benita and Funny John were to their parents. Ten years ago, the program celebrated its official 40th anniversary with a visit to the islands of Ngurupai (Horn Island) and Waiben (Thursday Island) in the Torres Strait. It now regularly acknowledges NAIDOC Week and features significant indigenous content. “When I started acting, the only Aboriginal face [on TV] was Ernie Dingo’s, on The Great Outdoors,” says Carroll, an acclaimed former child actor. “And mine was the only child’s face. But the last decade or so has seen enormous advancement in terms of getting all age groups and genders not only in front of the camera but also behind it, as producers, writers, indigenous storytellers. There’s still a way to go, but Play School was one of the earliest equal opportunity employers on TV.”
Not everyone sees improvement in these evolutions. During a repeat airing of an episode in August 2006, Christine Anu (a Torres Strait Islander) and Jay Laga’aia (of Samoan descent) sang a familiar nursery rhyme with new lyrics, which is something Play School does often. “Baa baa woolly sheep, have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full. One for the jumpers and one for the socks, and one for the little girl with holes in her socks.” Writing for the Daily Telegraph, Piers Akerman saw this as part of “the nauseating politically-correct agenda that drives so much of the ABC’s news and current affairs programming”. For him, Play School “doesn’t have the nursery rhymes the children know and love, it has bowdlerised humbug that the ABC’s in-house ideologists know and love”. Akerman is as dependable for missing the point as Play School is for its capacity to engage preschoolers. Had he bothered to watch the episode in question, he would have seen Anu and Laga’aia go on to sing the traditional lyrics about 34 seconds later, black sheep and all. As Claire Henderson, then ABC’s head of children’s TV, wrote in a letter to the Tele, “when it comes to Piers’s next article, as we say on Play School, he may need a grown-up to help him”.
Akerman’s anxiety says something about Play School’s place in the national culture. It and Four Corners (which celebrated its own golden jubilee in 2011) are the untouchables: if government funding cuts or internal restructures pose even a potential threat to those two programs, defenders take to the streets. Changes that seem to point towards commercialisation have been a constant concern since an educational advisory committee conducted a “strenuous debate”, as Henrietta Clark recalls, over the propriety of putting out a Play School T-shirt. Each change to the Play School set design, its production or even its broadcast schedule elicits letters, emails and now social media posts from worried parents and commentators.
Play School has stayed largely the same “because it works”, as a litany of its megastars have observed in recent months, but also because of the large intergenerational base of supporters who are invested in its continuation. In 1999, a raft of changes led to the retirement not only of Clark and Benita Collings after three decades’ service but also the flower clock, the rocket clock and the original square, round and arched windows. (The props went to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra and are on display until 24 July.) The magnitude of the changes provoked intense public disquiet because of the risk they represented to Play School’s survival.
I threw tantrums if I ever missed Play School, according to my mum. I suspect it was specifically the prospect of missing Noni, on whom my four-year-old heart was well and truly set. Three decades later, the show isn’t identical. I see less spontaneity (perhaps because it is now filmed in segments, rather than one 30-minute take) and less humour (perhaps because John Hamblin retired to Tasmania). But it’s remarkably familiar. Ultimately, Play School is made for four-year-olds, who ensure it still regularly tops the ratings for its timeslot. It’s also important to generations of adults, for much more than its good-looking presenters, its double entendres and its capacity to hold a preschooler’s attention for a blissful half hour.
Hazlehurst is a highly accomplished actor, but it’s her association with Play School that makes her a national treasure, and which prompted her induction into the Logies’ Hall of Fame in May. (Coincidentally, the only other woman in the Hall of Fame, Mother and Son’s Ruth Cracknell, was a Play School presenter in the 1960s.) For weeks before the Logies ceremony, the media had been full of slurs, some overt but many veiled by comments about political correctness and reverse discrimination, regarding the legitimacy of Waleed Aly’s and Lee Lin Chin’s nominations for the Gold Logie. During her Hall of Fame acceptance speech, which went viral, Hazlehurst alluded to the controversy and also reflected on Play School’s preschool-age audience. “They haven’t yet been conditioned,” Hazlehurst said. “No child is born a bigot.” More than any other kids’ program, Play School is both loved by its target audience and trusted by parents, not least for its values: co-operation, curiosity, inclusiveness.
Play School screens four times each weekday on ABC KIDS (ABC2), and twice daily on weekends.
Russell Marks is a writer and lawyer. He is an honorary associate at La Trobe University, and the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc, 2015).