Derek is fondly remembered by a certain generation as a children’s TV presenter during the 1970s on Play School and Play Away. He was a presenter on CITV, providing the continuity links (1st March 1983 – 31st March 1983 and 16th January 1984 – 31st January 1984). He also presented: Ring-a-Ding (BBC One, 1973); Don’t Ask Me (Yorkshire TV, 1974); Hi Summer (1977); Who’s There? (BBC One, 1977); Insight (1980 – 1981); Mickey, Donald and Friends (1981); Film Fun (Granada TV, 1982); That’s the Limit (1985); Two by Two (1988). He narrated and sang on: Opposites Attract (1991); Animal Antics (2002); Animal World (BBC One, 1992); FAQ (2003 – 2004).
In May 2009, Derek finished work on a new Hollywood western film, Gallowalker, starring Wesley Snipes.
Television acting credits include: On the House; Up Pompeii; Please Sir! (1971); Till Death Us Do Part (1972); Crown Court; Marty Back Together Again; A Speight of Marty (1973); Marty Back Together Again; Don’t Drink the Water (1975); Are You Being Served?; Rising Damp (1980); Benji in Porkpie (1995 – 1996); Holby City (2004); Freddie Smith in Coronation Street (2016 – 2017). Derek played a season at the Royal Shakespeare, performing in Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure.
Other TV credits: Play Away (1971 – 1973 and 1975); Cabbages and Kings (1972 and 1974); All Star Record Breakers (1975); panellist on Star Turn (1977); The Morecambe and Wise Show; It’s Today (1978); Over the Moon (1978); Excuse Me! (1979); Give Us a Clue (1979); The Pyramid Game (1982); Child’s Play (1984); You Bet! (1988); voice of Noel on Animal Album (1989). He also voiced and composed theme tunes for: Bod (1975 – 1976); Heads and Tails (1977 and 1979). He provided the voices on: Superted (1982 – 1984); Little Red Tractor (2004 – 2007). He provided music for the schools programme Look and Read (1974 – 1989).
Theatre credits include: Two Gentlemen of Verona (1973); The Mikado (mid-1970s in London’s West End); Miss Saigon (nine months in London’s West End); Noises Off (2002); Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and The Miser (Manchester Royal Exchange 2009).
Paul R. Jackson spoke to Derek in May 2009 as part of research for his books on the history of Play School. He began by asking Derek how he got involved with Play School: “Miranda Connell had seen me appearing in a pantomime at Greenwich and said that I should do Play School as I was so good with the audience dealing with all ages. I had never seen the programme so watched it and couldn’t believe how gentle it was but nonetheless went for an audition. I had received a basic script and started to elaborate and bring in some comedy that entertained the watching crew. Jonathan Cohen screamed with laughter and because I was mucking around he looked at me in horror, so I picked my guitar up thinking the worst and headed for the door. Director Michael Cole called me back and said they definitely wanted to use me. It was the first time I had been stopped on the way out to be given a job, rather than waiting a few days to find out!”
Producer John Lane recalled his audition: “He leapt out of the screen and the production team decided he was perfect and used him straight away.” Production member Anne Denehy remembered: “Derek sang a Burl Ives song and played guitar and as he left, he was chased by Cynthia to be offered a place on the team.” Carol Chell recalled being there and Derek singing the Ladybug Ball song. Derek, sporting a moustache, was the 45th presenter, making his debut on 3rd May 1971, alongside Carol Chell. This was the start of what would be a 10-year association with the programme. The earliest surviving footage within the BBC archives of Derek on Play School is Thursday 6th May 1971 (1,764th edition broadcast). Derek told Paul that he wouldn’t have taken the job if it had been on a long-term contract and that he liked the fact that he could continue with other work, especially in the theatre – which is why he didn’t feature in as many editions of Play School as many of the other presenters.
Paul asked Derek if he was aware that he was only the third black presenter to be used on the programme – and also about his musical contributions: “It genuinely never crossed my mind and I am sure I was given the job as the producers liked my acting and musical talents. There was always a fight against the upper middle class way of entertaining and Cynthia understood me but there was always a feeling that it had to be toned down from above. The music side was a good example as sometimes the songs were very downbeat, so I suggested to Jonathan Cohen that we jazz up a number with a bit more blues. The production team received letters afterwards saying they wanted more pop jazz from me in future. I am most grateful to Play School as I learnt to write two or three songs a night and later did some of my best writing for children’s programmes featuring animals produced by Anne Denehy.”
Derek recalled his favourite co-presenters: “Carol Chell had a lovely personality; Chloe Ashcroft was great and Sarah Long, sadly no longer with us, was great and a giggler too.” Regarding the pets, Katoo was his favourite. Paul asked Derek if he had a favourite toy: “I wasn’t very enamoured with the toys – Big Ted and Jemima always seemed to fall over. Someone drew pubic hairs on Hamble whilst everyone was at lunch and the recording had to stop when the cameramen laughed when they saw what had happened. It was through working with Michael Cole that I was offered Heads and Tails and Bod – the public still affectionately remembers both series. I had been a pilot for 20 years and we did a one-off show called Whose There? I wanted to take up a child in the passenger seat but wasn’t allowed due to the all the paperwork that would have to be filled in.”
In May 1976, Derek sang Calico Pie about the pets and had Katoo screeching all the way through as he valiantly carried on singing with his guitar. Derek, as well as being a talented musician and songwriter, was a great mime artist. Paul still recalls his wonderful typewriter sketch (March 1979) and that he also used his elasticised body to great effect when performing the Wibbly Wobbly song (April 1974). He later helped Floella Benjamin get a role in Play School; she had appeared with him in the stage musical The Black Mikado.
Paul viewed Derek’s last appearance on Play School: Friday 10th April 1981. The programme began with Chloe Ashcroft looking at a Russian doll and then Derek blew up a balloon with a picture on it, which resembled Humpty. Chloe did some balloon painting and Derek in the cyclorama set pretended to be different characters – Mr Linn who was very thin, Mr Pratt who was very fat, Mr Court who was very short, Mr Hall who was very tall, Mr Dent who was very bent and Mr Waite who was very straight. Chloe opened a cupboard and took out the toys and repeated the rhyme – guess which toy was which. Jemima was Mrs Linn, Humpty was Mr Pratt, Little Ted was Mr Court, Big Ted was Mr Hall and Hamble was Mrs Dent. Did you guess correctly? Chloe looked at the clock, which was showing five o’clock and on the base were some animals outside of a house.
Derek, with his guitar, sang the story about a little woman who lived in a house full of animals. Chloe, sitting alongside a wooden house, played a guessing game about which space each toy would go into. Derek performed the finger rhyme Anthony Hairs. He then introduced a film – ‘through the square window’ – of people climbing different sets of stairs. Back in the studio, Chloe played a game, with Little Ted sliding down a cardboard slide. Derek entered and said they would play a game that used different shaped boxes and proceeded to see how many they could get inside one large shoe box. The theme music began whilst Derek cleared away all the boxes. He said “Cheerio”, winking and waving to camera; and Chloe said “Goodbye. Till next time” and showed the Russian doll again. This edition was written and directed by Christine Hewitt and the producer was Judy Whitfield.
Many years later, Derek had dinner with Terry Frisby, who he knew through The Stage Golf Society and he put on the BBC Play School Replay video. Derek hadn’t known Terry was an ex-presenter and they both laughed as they watched their performances.
Paul asked Derek why he left Play School and whether he enjoyed being reminded of his association with the programme: “I felt that completing 10 years was enough and that it was time to move on. Now adults – some grey haired – still come up and remember me and quote back what I said and the songs that made a lasting impression on them, which blows me over and I feel humbled.”
In 2014, Derek joined former presenters and production members at the Play School 50th anniversary reunion at Riverside Studios, London.
Video Clips on the Internet
Here we present a selection of video clips featuring Derek 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.
Derek Griffiths in an edition of Play School from 1979.
PICTURED: Derek Griffiths. SUPPLIED BY: Derek Griffiths. COPYRIGHT: Unknown.