Brian was a much-loved actor and iconic children’s TV presenter. He enthralled generations of children with his contributions to many classic series including Play School (1964 – 1987) and Play Away (1971 – 1984). He narrated Gordon Murray’s trilogy: Camberwick Green (1966); Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969).
Television acting credits include: The Long Way Home (1960); Crane (1963 and 1964); Doctor Who (1965 and 1968); Dixon of Dock Green (1966 and 1968); Weavers Green (1966); Girl in a Black Bikini (1967); Z Cars (1967 and 1970); The Expert (1969); Ever Decreasing Circles (1989); Doctors (2000, 2009 and 2011); The Gentleman Thief (2001, uncredited); The Bill; Casualty (2005).
Brian was working on a BBC Schools history programme when he heard about a new programme being set up for the new BBC Two channel and contacted the team for an audition. His first audition took place in an office at BBC Kensington House where he was asked by founding producer Joy Whitby to get into a cardboard box (this was famously re-enacted 15 years later on the Twenty Five Minutes Peace anniversary programme in April 1979). You may wonder why? Joy explained: “I asked him to do this because it would show how well he could use his imagination. He talked about rowing out to sea in a boat and fishing and picking up a boot full of custard. Most children viewing at home would be able to get hold of a cardboard box and have an imaginative adventure, inspired by Brian’s amazing ability to communicate a sense of fun.”
Brian was asked to go away and write an audition piece (which he kept in his archives) and during the lunchtime break from recording an episode of No Hiding Place, he dashed over to the Lime Grove Studios to do his camera test. He remembered Rick Jones watching (Rick had already been chosen to join the presenting team) from the wings. Brian first appeared in the third week, making his debut appearance on 4th May 1964 (a recording survives in the BBC archives) and stayed until 1985 – one of only four presenters to appear in all three decades – in 620 editions.
Interviews and Reminiscences
Paul R. Jackson met Brian in 1990 during an appearance at the Marlow Theatre, Canterbury and he recalled memories of those early days and explained why the house logo was changed: “Nancy Quayle (Play School nursery advisor) thought there was a lack of security on the part of the child when the windows were joined to the Play School house in the original black and white titles, so they were changed to show them drawn on separately.”
He remembered Pets Day: “When I told the Royal Mice story, the mice were drugged to keep them still and one of them actually died. When we had piglets in an item, they escaped from the studio. There were always things going wrong, if you worked with animals. I liked the way the script would allow me to adlib and was later told that my great forté was being able to adlib in any situation. If the script called for me to pretend to be a bird, I chose which variety. I watched the ‘Windows’ film to get an idea of what was included and then would adlib my comments during the recording. I thought Gardening Day was a big con, pretending that plants would flower by the following week, when they were planted.”
When I checked this memory with Joy she couldn’t remember pretending anything like that in her day: “Being honest was one of the underlying disciplines when scripting. But standards can change or slip imperceptibly in long-running series.” As a production point, Brian remembered that presenters weren’t allowed to use autocue: “The producers wanted the presenter’s performance to look natural to children watching. I enjoyed working with producer and director Michael Cole as he was so inventive. I did an item once with playing cards – making a card house. When one of the cards fell I just carried on, which ‘Q’ liked, as children loved to see mistakes. Many years later under a different team, I did the same item and was told to redo the scene as it looked far too aggressive, which was a change in the attitude of the production team.”
Paul R. Jackson met up again with Brian at his home in January 2009, when researching for his books on the history of Play School (Here’s a House – A Celebration of Play School – volumes one and two published by Kaleidoscope in 2010), and I asked which presenters he had particularly liked working with: “Julie Stevens was easy to work with and could adlib like me. Carol Chell was another who was very good. I enjoyed the challenge of writing for the programme and always liked the storytelling and rhymes.”
Brian’s last studio appearance was on Friday 19th July 1985 with another veteran presenter, Sarah Long. The week’s theme was ‘Everyday Animals’ and the story was A Duck Called Donald by John Lane. Brian and I watched together the last ever Play School that he contributed to as guest storyteller on Tuesday 7th April 1987. It was a repeat from Play Away, series 2 (1972 – 1973) on film of the Bold Bad Bus – a rhyming story by Scottish author Wilma Horsburgh about Pimpernel Petroleum, in which he played all the characters: Percy Poddle (driver), Miss Fanny Freda Frisk (conductress), a rival bus driver, an old lady and a schoolboy. This had also been previously shown on 6th February 1984 in an edition presented by Sheelagh Gilbey with Stuart Bradley. This was simply Brian at his best and it was sad to see that his final appearance was on film and not in the studio. To me and countless other viewers who grew up watching and enjoying Brian’s performances he remains to this day Mr Play School. I would like to add my personal thanks to Brian for all the enjoyment he gave me growing up, whether watching his wonderful comic timing or hearing his voice on the Gordon Murray Trumptonshire trilogy of programmes.
Brian recalled that after his final Play School and Play Away appearances, he received a letter from the BBC informing him that he was too old to continue presenting the programmes. He strongly resented this and it came as a devastating blow to be dropped in this way. He told Paul that in the late-1980s, he was asked to speak at a Cambridge Union debate on The Sun Has Got His Hat On and spent time researching about Greek gods, when his wife Cherry said the students wouldn’t want to hear that, but instead about his time on Play School. He didn’t have long to speak, so he looked at his watch and said: “Well the long hand is straight down, so I better get on…” which went down well, and as he commented, showed how much interest there still was for the programme.
Brian recalled filming Dappledown Farm at Granada TV Studios in Manchester and he saw the Coronation Street actors including Barbara Knox (whose first appearance as Rita was in 1964 and who became a regular cast member in 1972). She thanked him for keeping her children quiet and occupied which he thought was a lovely compliment.
In 1995, he contributed to BBC Radio 4’s Trumpton Riots about children’s television and in 2010 he was a contributor, alongside Joy Whitby, Toni Arthur, Floella Benjamin and Jonathan Cohen in BBC Radio 4’s The Reunion, presented by Sue McGregor; Paul R. Jackson also contributed to the programme in a pre-recorded piece. On 15th May 2004, Brian attended the National Film Theatre-hosted Play School reunion and screening to mark the 40th anniversary of BBC Two. Stuart McGugan hosted the event alongside fellow ex-presenters Chlöe Ashcroft, Carol Chell, Fred Harris, Iain Lauchlan, Julie Stevens and Ben Thomas. In June 2009, he attended a reunion at Joy Whitby’s house with former presenters Lady Valerie Solti, Marian Diamond, Terry Frisby, Phyllida Law and graphic designers Hilary Hayton and Graham McCallum.
In 2007, Brian was voted Best-Loved Children’s Voice in an online survey for the newly launched BBC Underground Ernie magazine, connected to the series of the same name. It was about a tube train system voiced by former England footballer and presenter Gary Lineker. In October 2010, Brian attended the official launch for Paul R. Jackson’s first volume of Here’s a House – A Celebration of Play School (chronicling the 1960s and 1970s). Held at BAFTA in London, it was effectively a reunion. In attendance: 34 former presenters (Don Spencer flew in from Sydney and Vibeke Sæther from Oslo) and ex-production staff. Brian gave me this lovely quote for the closing pages of the book: “It was a joy to be in at the beginning of Play School and nice to learn a discipline of talking direct into the camera lens to the child at home. Paul, you have managed to bring back so many memories of the wonderful people I was privileged to work with in a very special programme. Well done and thank you.”
In November 2010, Brian received a special award at the BAFTA Children’s awards. A week before the awards ceremony, the news of the special award was announced and Brian appeared in a pre-recorded interview at his home with Bill Turnbull for Breakfast (BBC One) which was shown on 24th November 2010. During this he confirmed that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1999 and even made a joke about it when he told a friend that he had Parkinson’s and they thought he meant he had a spot on the Michael Parkinson chat show. Typical of the great man that he could make a joke out of this debilitating illness. His wife Cherry and their three children – Rose and twins Christabel and Peter – attended, to see him receive the accolade and recognition of his long career entertaining generations of children over three decades.
The invited audience then gave Brian a well-deserved standing ovation for several minutes before he delivered a very emotional and funny speech thanking those he had worked with and as well as his lovely wife and family. Paul R. Jackson was asked to research clips and supply photos for the brochure and was invited to attend the event. He took along Play School’s Humpty for press photos with Brian and the award and it was interesting to see many BAFTA staff and press wanting a photo with such an iconic children’s TV toy. Although Brian was unwell, the organisers were extremely delighted that in May 2014, Brian attended with his family to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first edition of Play School from Riverside Studios, its original home. He joined nearly 175 guests, including many former presenters and production members, reminiscing and watching a wonderful clips montage and helped cut the anniversary cake with Carol Chell. Sadly this was the last time that Brian was able to be with many of those he had worked with over three decades. Brian had five children, two from his first marriage (Richard is also an actor) and three from his marriage in 1984 to Cherry Britton who worked on Play Away as a production assistant and writer (1975 – 1976). Brian was a long-time Ipswich Town football supporter.
Video Clips on the Internet
Here we present a selection of video clips featuring Brian which we found on social media sites or have made available from our own archive. The clips are presented here for additional reference. Inclusion of a video does not constitute an endorsement of the hosting site/channel/user. If you find any broken links below or are aware of an additional clip(s) which you believe may be a useful addition to this profile, please get in touch with us via our Contact page.
Brian Cant and Karen Platt in an edition of Play School from 1976.
PICTURED: Brian Cant (reenacting his Play School audition - 15th anniversary, April 1979). SUPPLIED BY: Paul R. Jackson. COPYRIGHT: BBC.