In some ways, it's something approaching a Christmas Miracle that the edition of Play School that was transmitted on 24th December 1970 actually still exists at all. It's not only the only surviving edition from that week (and there was one on Christmas Day too), it's one of just eighteen out of the two hundred and fifty five transmitted during 1970 that are still around. Doubtless this survived by accident rather than design, not least because it uses a fair amount of elements that were recycled in later festive editions, but basically, it's ever so slightly nice that it does.
Staggeringly, given that the programme had been running since 1964, this is the first Christmas-themed edition of Play School that still exists; equally staggeringly, it was actually the third time that they'd 'done' Christmas in colour, having moved over to full chrominance in tandem with technologically leapfrogging parent channel BBC2 in 1968. That said, the Play School production team had done almost literally nothing to facilitate this beyond changing the type of cameras that they made the programme with, and while Hilary Hayton's original house design may well have been given a subtly garish reddish-on-reddish tint, the rest of the programme is still very much still in the style of Play School as it had been in the Swinging Sixties, set design, theme music and all. And that's pretty much where we join presenters Brian Cant and Julie Stevens, caught in a pivotal cultural void somewhere between the decline of The Waltham Green East Wapping Carpet Cleaning Rodent And Boggit Extermination Association and the rise of Slade.
Play School opened on 24th December 1970 with Julie bringing in a basket full of presents for Brian, which she then attempts to hide in strategic places around the tinsel-strewn set. Needless to say, Brian shows up mid-concealment and starts asking all manner of awkward questions, leading to some amusing hiding-things-behind-back physical comedy and conspiratorial whispering of present-stashing updates directly into the camera. Eventually Brian goes off to look for some red ribbon, giving Julie time to complete her parcel-stuffage and then set the day and date on the calendar, which comes accompanied by some faint bonging on bells.
It transpires that said bell-bonging is actually issuing from the other side of the studio, where Brian has been joined by an unnervingly Mulligan And O'Hare-like Peter Gosling, who gives him a quick lesson in how to play the tubular bells, before sitting down to accompany him on piano while Julie appears to handle the vocals for a rather cumbersomely worded number entitled Why Do The Bells Of Christmas Ring?. Brian and Peter then swap back to their more suited regular roles, with the latter providing some somewhat more adept tubular bell-whackage whilst the former responds with some of his trademark loose-limbed sub-Music And Movement stances, encouraging the viewers at home to copy him as he flails around the set. We can only hope that they'd had time to move some of the furniture around first.
Back over at the main set, Julie tries to secretly show the post-flailing viewers the keyring that she's bought for Brian, but when he calls her over to help with a song, she has to quickly conceal it and throws in a quick diversion by suggesting that they might want to have a look at the clock instead. Yet while it's got the long-running creepy tick-tock clarinet'n'glockenspiel music and shabby battered-looking backdrop that will be familiar to latterday viewers, this is still the original sixties clock prop with the incredibly noisy 'rotating petals' mechanism, which might come as a surprise to anyone expecting the more familiar cog-festooned effort with the heavily stylised blue and white face. Anyway, turns out that it's nine o'clock, and as there are some presents piled up underneath the clock, there'll be very few presents given out for correctly guessing what the ensuing song will be.
Yes, it's time for a spirited two-handed rendition of The Twelve Days Of Christmas, with comedy reactions aplenty as Brian hands Julie hand-made representations of each of the gifts to place on a rapidly overloaded prop shelf, and plenty of free-form piano extemporisations to fill in whilst they lark about with said props. "Well, that lady did have some funny presents", muses Brian in a clearly improvised outro, "I wonder where she kept them all?". It's easy to forget just how much intentional humour there was in shows like Play School, and just how talented the presenters were at delivering and even spontaneously creating it, though in fairness it's possible that this was simply just overshadowed by the regular and recognisable features of the show. One of which we'll be looking at through... the...
Yes, alright, it's the Round Window, and today's film involves a foxy redhead in a Children's Film Foundation Villainess-esque rollneck/leather coat/gloves/miniskirt/thigh-length boots combo, who hares off in a Land Rover (readers who know the complicated equation that the production team used to allocate windows may have already been able to work out why the Round Window was called into serviced today) leaving her younger siblings to attend to the more mundane and less seasonal animal-feeding duties on the family farm. Unfortunately we do have to sit through a couple of sequences of them flinging hay at geese and what have you, but the lion's share of the insert is given over to our titian chum as she browses in a pleasingly Bagpuss-esque old-fashioned gift shop and leaves with an armful of nattily-wrapped parcels, all of it to the accompaniment of the exact same extract from the exact same recording of Victor Hely-Hutchinson's Carol Symphony as was later used as the theme music for The Box Of Delights. Given how many people who started off working on Play School later went on to become senior figures in the BBC Children's Department, this is most probably no coincidence.
Then, back in the studio, we finally get to see The Toys. This edition was recorded shortly after the mid-recording theft of the hapless original one-size-fits-all 'Teddy', and so Big Ted and Little Ted were still a relatively new novelty at that point, while the production team also appear to be using a particularly severely-coiffured temporary stand-in variant of Hamble that makes absolutely no attempt to hide her evil intent. Brian is gamely trying to wrap his present for Julie whilst his cloth cohorts enjoy their usual levels of success in staying upright next to him, which he hilariously attempts to pass off as them getting 'excited' ("no, that's not for you Humpty!") before launching into a jaunty number named It's Half A Day To Christmas (which, given the timeslot this episode went out in, was almost technically accurate too). The toys then promptly make another bid for lying face down on the floor just as Julie shows up to exchange presents and help put their hyperactive floor-bound co-stars away in the cupboard. But, crucially, they don't actually open their presents, and enticingly tell the audience that they'll be doing so on tomorrow's edition. Which no longer exists, so sadly we may never know what Brian had got for Julie. It's not even in the production documentation. Yes, I was mad enough to check.
And that, basically, was how you kept Santa-obsessed overexcited youngsters quiet for twenty minutes back then. Speaking of which, there's a lot of talk at the moment about 'quiet' television, with an emergent craze for long, sweeping narration-free ambient shots of handcrafts and panoramic vistas going on for hours like a Landscape Channel insert gone on the rampage. It's definitely a good thing that people are thinking more about using their senses and indeed their heads in conjunction with their small-screen entertainment, but frustratingly little has been said about just how similar an effect can be obtained from old-style studio-bound multi-camera programmes, recorded in sequence and with a minimum of edits (in fact, the studio tape for this particular Play School still exists, and they only have to do one retake at the start of The Twelve Days Of Christmas). The space, silence and studio sights and sounds aren't quite as 'primitive' or 'embarrassing' as the average columnist would have us believe, and really do help to engage your mind with what you are watching and, well, maybe even cause you to appreciate it a bit more. Which is pretty much exactly what we said about Bod yesterday, but hey ho.
Anyway, you probably won't find Julie Stevens symbiotically guiding you towards your Big Ted-derived headspace tomorrow morning, but blame that on whoever wiped the edition from 25th December 1970. Merry Christmas!
For Christmas in the company of Play School alumnus Bod, head here.
Meanwhile, you can find a huge feature on Play School in my book Not On Your Telly.
Bod's Present, the twelfth episode of much-inaccurately recalled Watch With Mother show Bod, probably hasn't been on anyone's Christmas List for a long time. Until recently, it was one of only five of the original thirteen episodes still to exist in its expanded Alberto Frog-equipped fifteen minute format - if you want to know how and why the others came to be missing in the first place, you'll be wanting to have a read of this piece about wiped BBC Children's TV - so nobody really had any particular reason to be looking out for it. On top of that, its seasonal nature means that it's not really as well remembered as the other episodes. And it's for precisely that reason that we're wrapping it up and 'regifting' it to you now.
In a sense, Bod's Present was actually a bit of a regifting in itself. Although the actual episode was first seen on BBC1 in December 1975, the basic storyline of the main animated section dated back to 1965 and the original series of Bod storybooks; indeed by that point it had already been read on Play School on a couple of suitably festive occasions. This is probably not too surprising when you consider that Bod's creators Michael and Joanne Cole were involved with Play School on the production side for many years, and that by the early seventies they had started to produce their own children's programmes for the BBC, amongst them Fingerbobs, Ring A Ding, Ragtime and, through a somewhat more roundabout route, Bod.
Like many other animated children's shows of the time, the thirteen Bod stories narrated by John Le Mesurier had already been made by the appropriately named 'Bodfilms' when the Coles took them to the BBC, presumably with the five-minute slot just before the news in mind though it was suggested that they should expand them for the lunchtime Watch With Mother slot by adding an extra ten minutes of puzzles, games and new stories with other characters. Each extended edition still opened with one of the original Bodfilms Bod films, however, and in true zen fashion that's right where we come in...
Given that the mid-sixties were something of a boom time for exploring alternative religions, when everyone from The Beatles and Peter Sellers to The Small Faces and probably even Basil Brush briefly fell under the spell of tosspot conmen wrapped in orange curtains, it should probably come as no surprise to learn that the original Bod stories were very much influenced by the somewhat more established and worthwhile teachings of Taoism. All of Bod's Daozang-derived escapades are based around the concept of action-through-inaction, as he pursues a simple thought or task secure in the knowledge that the fundamental interconnectedness of all things will lead him directly to his spiritual destination (or, if raining, head first into a giant bowl of strawberries and cream). Bod's Present is no exception and it opens with a balaclava-sporting parcel-carrying Bod trudging through the snow towards Aunt Flo's house, joined en route by the similarly-tasked PC Copper, Frank The Postman and Farmer Barleymow. As they travel onwards, the snow keeps falling in true In The Bleak Midwinter fashion until they are entirely submerged by it.
It's at this point that a curious cross-belief system intersection occurs, as midnight chimes and a decidedly Bod-canon Father Christmas with, you can't help but notice, a bright red nose rides into view. Presumably having been flicking through the Tao Te Ching on his way from the North Pole, Santa spots the apparently discarded parcels in the snow and resolves to deliver them to Aunt Flo himself. As he lifts them, up come Bod, Copper, Frank and Barleymow, who offer to help him with his deliveries in exchange for a lift to Aunt Flo's house.
After a night spent squeezing down chimneys, they finally alight at Aunt Flo's joint, where it soon becomes apparent that everyone has bought her the same hat, only in slightly varying shades. "What a Hatty Christmas!", Aunt Flo declares, before revealing that she's bought them all handkerchieves, upon which an exercise in lazy unimaginative gift-buying finds its harmonic purpose as they have all caught colds as a result of their overnight exposure to the elements. "It was worth catching a cold", says Bod, "to meet Father Christmas and see Aunt Flo in all those hats". If you say so, Robert M. Pirsig.
There goes Bod. And here comes...?
Well, a switch from film to videotape, the Le Mesurier-usurping voice of Maggie Henderson, and the rest of the programme, basically. When it came to making Bod up to transmission length, they simply cued the existing films into a video recording and filled up the rest of the time with charmingly crude real-time in-studio 'animation' and sparse narration with the occasional hum and clunk of distant technical goings-on in the background, representing a textbook example of a long-lost style of programme making. And, unfortunately, it was the fact that these extended shows were made on videotape that allowed them to be erased when storage practicalities became an issue (again, see this post here for clarification), while the actual Bod insert films survived quite happily in Michael Cole's shed. No, really, his actual shed.
Anyway, the first post-Bod item was invariably a suitably crudely-animated guessing game, on this occasion with the neatly Christmassy slant of trying to guess what's inside parcels and crackers. In fairness, there is an actual element of suspense to whether that cracker has a whistle, a ring or a paper crown in it, but you do have to wonder about anyone who couldn't have worked out on first glance that the wrapped-up presents were a piggy bank and a toy car (nice to get a glimpse of what were presumably home-made Cole Family decorations, though), and as for that teddy bearing an unnerving resemblance to a mummified cat, the less said about that the better.
Then it's time for the usual tambourine-backed variation on Ten Green Bottles - featuring on this occasion Five White Snowmen Standing In The Snow, who take it in turns to 'melt away, just so' with a quick accompanying warble of flexitone - with the snowman-depleted backdrop leading into a procession of snow-covered landscapes and a brief and very much zen-inflected bridging poem about how "snow falls on one and snow falls on all, on one twig and all, on all twigs and one", which itself leads into the establishing image of the programme's second story. Those of you who are half-musing that this seems ever so slightly similar to Terry Gilliam's bits in Monty Python's Flying Circus would be more correct than you are probably assuming you are - the Coles were huge fans of The Pythons, and Terry Gilliam in particular, and often cited his direct influence on some of their other shows. Anyway, you'll be wanting to know exactly where we've linked to. Well, there's the snow-festooned outside of a familiar building, a bit of tuning up based on God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, and...
Yes, it's Alberto Frog and his Amazing Animal Band, the travelling orchestal ensemble who enjoyed a series of barely animated in-Bod-Universe escapades without ever actually meeting him or any of his friends. That said, Alberto certainly does seem to share a belief structure with his less anthropomorphic counterparts, with his adventures generally involving a more proactive use of the aligning forces of the universe to resolve a trivial issue, his only real reward for his efforts being a Quinlankian choice of a milkshake from a guessing game-friendly selection of flavours.
On this occasion, Alberto has noticed that, with a busy schedule of carol concerts in the offing, his tuba-toting Hippo pal is missing his usual swing. Hippo confesses that he's having difficulty deciding what to get for his wife, 'Mrs. Potamus', for Christmas, and having decided against chocolates or a hat he's now all out of ideas. Apparently caught in the middle of an appearance on a chintzy reboot of Mastermind, Alberto sets to work...
Following some worryingly Hogarthianally-rendered evening engagements, the Amazing Animal Band set about mysteriously rehearsing in remote locations where nobody can hear them - presumably inspired by the likes of Traffic 'getting it together in the country' - and on Christmas Morning, Mrs. Potamus opens her bedroom door to find them all lined up on the stairs and belting out crescendos like nobody's business. Everybody's happy, but there's something missing - at no point does Alberto ask for his traditional milkshake, Starbucks Yuletide Cranberry And Praline Flavour or otherwise. Come to think of it, none of the characters in the Bod section came accompanied by their usual Derek Griffiths-yodelled walk-on tunes either. Is this barely perceptible deviation from the formula some arcane Chapter 24-esque Taoist lesson that we've not picked up on?
Well, if it is, we've missed it, because as per usual here come said characters, zooming towards the front of the screen with their intro tunes blaring out loud and clear, as a lead-in to the weekly game of snap. Surprisingly, there are no seasonal additions to their usual natty playing card poses, and we just get the familiar round of Maggie suggesting "no that's not snap" a couple of times before noticing that it 'is' snap, upon which the assembled cast stride away into a green void behind the end credits. And, well, that's Bod's Present.
Unlike the other shows we've been looking at in this short series of Yuletide-themed features, Bod's Present can't really be considered an example of end-of-term letting down of hair at Children's BBC, as it was made as part of a series and indeed was occasionally shown at decidedly non-Christmassy times of year. Yet it's this more than any other that defines just how differently television was made then to how it is now, with the long silences, make-do-and-mend production techniques, stream-of-consciousness yet rigidly structured patchwork format, and odd juxtaposition of hi-tech equipment and lo-tech production values making it feel virtually - yet charmingly - prehistoric. In some ways, that's actually a better reflection of the intended philosophies and values than anything that was worked into the show itself. What's more peculiar still is that, despite the heavy slant in its contents, it doesn't actually feel particularly Christmassy. But you can't really say that about a certain other closely related programme...
If you want to know what Bod's friends at Play School were up to over Christmas, go here. Or for some Festive mayhem with the Rentaghost gang, here.