Carol was born in 1941. An actress, she studied drama at The Royal Academy of Music and was a qualified teacher who presented many schools series for Granada TV and Central TV including: The Messengers and Enough to Eat. Carol was the 23rd presenter on Play School making her first appearance on 28th February 1966, which was the start of a 22-year association with the programme, giving her the distinction of being the longest-serving presenter and also the presenter with the most appearances – 763 editions – and one of only four presenters to appear in all three decades.
During a tour of Pink String and Sealing Wax she was asked to audition, as she recalled in an interview with Paul R. Jackson when they met up again at her London home in January 2009: “I got in on Play School by chance. I heard about the audition through a friend who was working at the African Service for BBC World Service and was then going out with producer Michael Grafton-Robinson. She suggested to him that I would be suitable and I went along in place of another girl who was sick; my name wasn’t even on the list.
“I had to go to watch a television set in the local shop, as I had never seen the programme before and wanted to see what it was like. I saw Ted Moult doing a story with a lawnmower cutting grass you get from a greengrocer’s shop to display fruit and vegetables on. I wondered what I was letting myself in for, but I was pleased to be chosen. For the audition I used my grandmother’s water lily napkins and folded them, and then turned them upside down to be a hat for Jemima. My friend later told me that ‘You taught me how to be with a child by watching you on TV’. Michael Grafton-Robinson, who had discovered me at my audition at the BBC’s Portland Place offices, directed my first week. At first it was just another job to me, but later it became part of my life. My first week was with Eric [Thompson] and I had learnt my script beforehand. I recall Eric came into the rehearsal room and took his script out of a brown paper bag and said: ‘What are we doing today?’ – a totally different way of preparation than I was used to.”
Carol’s debut programme survives in the BBC archives. Paul watched the programme. It opened with Eric looking through the ‘Useful Box’.
Eric: Hello. My name is Eric. Did you know that?
Carol: Hello. I’m Carol and it’s the first time I’ve been in Play School.
Eric: I’m just showing Carol our Useful Box. You see we always look in the Useful Box on the first Play School day of the week. But first of all we look at our calendar to see what day it is.
Eric read out the date on the calendar. Carol was shown by the bookshelves and read a poem about the wind. She then took some chalk, a feather and a pencil from the Useful Box to draw pictures of a cat, a fish and some trees in a wood. Eric pretended to be a tree standing still in a wood. Carol introduced the story about a farm. It was read by Julian D’Albie. The clock showed half-past-one. Afterwards, Eric introduced a film through the square window. It showed material being cut, clothes being packaged and then someone buying them in a department store. Afterwards, Carol made Little Teddy a jacket and then made one out of paper for Big Teddy (Humpty and Jemima were in the background). Eric entered.
Eric: It’s time for us to go now Carol. So goodbye till tomorrow.
Eric: Hey don’t they look nice. Look at Little Ted and Big. Do you think you could make me one of those jackets?
Carol: Oh, well you are a bit bigger than Big Teddy aren’t you?
Eric: Not much.
Carol: Well I’ll see if you have a big piece of newspaper.
Eric: Yes, you will probably need two or three. [The end caption followed].
Carol recalled some filming at her house: “In the late-1960s, when we moved into our current home in SE London, producer Peter Ridsdale-Scott thought it would be good to make a film for the windows showing children about moving house. We had a wonderful old removal man called Mr Quinn and every time he would do a look to camera, similar to the one that Eric Morecambe used to do to great effect. Peter would say ‘That’s very good, but try not to look at the camera when you are moving’ – and he would nod and then just as he got to the door, he would turn and look right down the lens again. The filming took a long time to finish that day.”
In 1968, Carol memorably performed The Grand Old Duke of York whilst eight months pregnant with her daughter Emily, who was born the following week! She had held Humpty in front of her bump and had marched up and down the boxes and recalled Val Doonican saying “I should put my feet up!”
Paul asked Carol which of the male presenters she particularly enjoyed working with: “Johnny Ball, Derek Griffiths, Ben Thomas (I was at his audition), Lionel Morton (I always had a soft spot for him, although you never knew what he would do next), Colin Jeavons (so special) and Don Spencer (brilliant). The presenters were never allowed to be a personality but were themselves. I recall hearing that Marla Landi, who had worked on some films before doing Play School and was used to a big wardrobe and make-up department, bought a large make-up case with her. We however, were used to a few items before going on the set. Behind-the-scenes, Michael Cole, David Turnbull and Paul Reade were hugely important figures in the programme’s history and three of the loveliest people who put so much into children’s programmes.”
“Michael was an intellectual man and was extremely precise and worked out amazing programmes; David was absolutely brilliant as a director and we later worked together on the Children’s Channel; and Paul contributed so much on the musical side. He later did two successful ballets at Covent Garden – Far from the Madding Crowd and Hobson’s Choice. When you got your five scripts in different colours for each day, the first thing you would do would be to look and see who was directing and secondly who the musical director/pianist was. I remember sitting up in bed with my husband Roger who was looking at highly complex financial reports and there was me reading my scripts and then all of a sudden acting out some kind of animal! If there was a huge amount of music and it was either Paul or Jonathan [Cohen] you knew it would be extremely lyrical as they were both great accompanists. Paul composed the lovely Zoom Zoom song. It was also important what the theme was for the week. Martin Fisher one Christmas got ballet dancers from Cinderella who had performed at Covent Garden. The story to camera had to be learnt, as we had no autocue and they became more complicated later on. I felt the ones we acted out were better for the audience, who liked them more. The whole point of the programme was that there were very few pre-school groups and some women were returning to work but many were still in the home. I always kept in mind one child in an urban situation and that the child would learn about the outside world. It was always done with so much love and thought.”
Carol is still remembered by people now – a fact that she finds amazing. Paul R. Jackson was honoured when Carol agreed to write the foreword to his book Here’s a House – A Celebration of Play School (volume one): “To borrow a famous catchphrase from the late entertainer and Strictly Come Dancing host, Sir Bruce Forsyth – ‘You are my favourite!'”. After the programme ended, Carol continued her association with pre-school programming and for nine years produced and presented Jack in the Box on The Children’s Channel. She later became head of pre-school programmes at the cable channel (which was on air 1984 – 1998) until December 1993.
Carol attended the Here’s a House – A Celebration of Play School book launches at BAFTA in 2010 (for volume one) and in Stourbridge in 2011 (for the second volume). She was also present at the 50th anniversary (of Play School’s first broadcast) reunion at Riverside Studios in May 2014.
Television credits include: Dr Finlay’s Casebook (1965); Play Away (1971 – 1980); Star Turn (1976); The Adventure Game (1981); Hokey Cokey (1983); Starting Out (1986); The Bike (1988); Coppers and Co (1988).
Video Clips on the Internet
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PICTURED: Carol Chell. SUPPLIED BY: Paul R. Jackson. COPYRIGHT: Unknown.