Johnny made major contributions to children’s TV over 25 years including Play School (545 editions, 1967 – 1984, and occasional appearances until 1987) and Play Away (1972 to 1980), during which time he was the principle comedy writer for the show.
But Johnny is best known for popularising maths and science in writing and presenting several groundbreaking children’s TV series, with his producer/director Albert Barber: Think of a Number (six series, 1977 – 1984; the first series won a BAFTA in 1978); Think Again (five series, 1981 – 1985). Think Again won the Prix Jeunesse, Munich, the Asian Broadcasting Union Prize for Chairs (1982) and a New York International Emmy nomination for Doors (1983) (it was beaten by a Canadian show with 20 times the budget). Johnny also wrote/presented: Think! Backwards (1981); Think This Way (1983); Think It…Do It (two series, 1986 –1987). He then joined Central TV for five series of Johnny Ball Reveals All (Central TV, 1989 –1994), directed by Clive Doig.
Johnny was born in Bristol but moved to Bolton aged 11. He left school with just two O levels but gained 100% in maths. He got three more on his own, worked in the aircraft industry and then spent three years in the RAF (1957 – 1959) (his university). He was a Butlin’s Redcoat (1960 – 1962) at Pwllheli, North Wales and The Metropole Hotel, Blackpool and played drums in Liverpool (1960). He became a stand-up comedian based in Liverpool and turned professional in January 1964, working most major UK clubs and having no more than 10 nights off a year. He joined BBC Radio Manchester from 1965 with producer Geoff Lawrence who also discovered Les Dawson, Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies and Mike Yarwood among others. Johnny was one of four promising newcomers in the annual Stage Yearbook (1966 – 1967) and in 1967 featured in the Val Doonican Show and compéred the 90-minute ITV Christmas Night Spectacular.
Paul R. Jackson interviewed Johnny in 1990 and again in 2008 and recalled those early days on Play School: “My radio producer told me that the BBC was looking for non-London accents for a children’s programme. We presumed it was for Crackerjack which would have suited me perfectly. When Peter Ridsdale-Scott said at the interview that it was for Play School, I started to walk out. I hadn’t seen Play School as I did not have BBC Two and had no desire to work for under-5s. Peter persuaded me to attend an audition in London.
“The audition took place at Riverside Studios and Julie Stevens was assisting. Many actors took part and were all being very theatrical. The auditions overran, so I did a very quick piece about the Tree Song saying it was all about ‘a nest on a twig and the twig on a branch, and a branch on a tree’ and ended by saying that there was no point in telling them that, as it was all in the song. I heard the gallery laughing, which to a comedian was great. I was the only one who got the job, and it was a job I didn’t actually want. I was to stay with Play School for 20 years and children’s TV for 25.”
Johnny was the 31st presenter of Play School, making his debut appearance on the 16th October 1967. He was one of only four presenters to appear in all three decades. His partner was Miranda Connell. They both sang the classic Wibbly Wobbly Walk and Johnny sang Dashing Away with The Smoothing Iron, accompanied by Jonathan Cohen. This edition was directed by Peter Ridsdale-Scott, but sadly doesn’t survive in the BBC archives. The earliest surviving footage of Johnny within the BBC archives is Tuesday 4th June 1968, from his fifth week, alongside former model and actress Marla Landi, filmed at Marsh Lock, Henley. This was one of the earliest Play School outside broadcast programmes to be shown in colour.
Author/poet and Children’s Laureate (2007 – 2009), Michael Rosen, recalled briefly directing Play School (1970 – 1971). Johnny told Rosen’s story of The Man Who Liked Beans, in which Johnny actually sawed bits off the legs of a wobbly chair to make them level, and kept getting it wrong, but continued until the legs were even – but only about four inches long. Then Johnny sat on what he now called his Bean Eating Chair and shovelled the beans from the plate, straight into his mouth. It was of course done in one take.
Johnny gave a eulogy and moving tribute to Cynthia Felgate at the thanksgiving service for her life and work, at the Church of St Paul’s, Covent Garden, on 25th February 1992. He pointedly stressed that Cynthia was quite simply the most uniquely talented producer under whose wing so many completely original TV shows saw the light of day, and radically improved BBC Children’s production. Cynthia should undoubtedly have occupied the role of controller of BBC Children’s TV, which was tragically denied her.
Johnny once explained to Paul why he did Play School: “I was already very successful doing cabaret up and down the country, but I wanted some practice in television, so I could handle a camera as well as I could handle an audience. Through Play School I learnt television from the inside. At first I was not good, as I could not come down to the under-5s’ level. But after a stern talking to, I buckled down and began to relax. It was the best decision I ever made. I ceased to be a stand-up comic four years later, as television, and especially TV writing, had so much more to offer me. I was privileged and pleased to partner seven out of ten new female presenters from 1972 to 1979. The producers felt it was helpful having me with them because of my generosity towards them, always sharing the limelight and putting new girls at their ease. Actors often seem to be trained towards a ‘me first’ attitude.
“There were lots of laughs in Play School. I remember with Carol Chell when my plastic trouser zip went completely while we were both trying to get on a tandem to tell a story. We managed to do the shot and I got on the tandem sideways. Anyone who worked in the gallery would remember Cynthia’s less than genteel laugh as she sat in the back and guffawed. Any presenter who ever gave a sign of looking like Hale and Pace (in their send-up delivery) didn’t survive long. What you see is what you got with Cynthia. If she wasn’t happy she would let you know, or if she was happy she would give you praise and support. At a party she once met Eric Morecambe and Ronnie Barker who asked: ‘Is that right you won’t allow autocue in your studio?’ Cynthia replied: ‘I think you are thinking of Biddy Baxter and Blue Peter, but, no, I don’t, because if a thing is worth doing on television, surely it is worth the effort of memorising it, so that when you say it, it comes from the heart, wouldn’t you agree?’ They took her point and backed away.
“In my 25 years in television, I am proud to say that I never used autocue. Play School always had its moods, whether it was Derek or Brian, Carol or Chloe or Floella – the mood was created, as there was nothing in the studio but a cyclorama that changed colour at the back of the studio. Some people took longer to get used to it: we had Val Doonican appear, who had done 20 years of live television, but took four retakes of the first verse of O’Rafferty’s Motor Car song.
“Cynthia loved the entertainment business. Once Cynthia and I had lunch in London and were walking afterwards across Leicester Square and she suddenly went weak at the knees. She had seen Paul Schofield, famous for his performance in A Man for All Seasons. I had taken Cynthia, Anne Reay and Peter Ridsdale-Scott to lunch to sell the idea of a programme on maths. Think of a Number was the career-defining result.
“In the Think years, I never wrote for a specific age group or indeed for children even. It was for everyone. The aim was to present information the audience was not used to and to explain it so it was completely understandable and in no way taxing or mind-boggling. My inspiration had been Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, which in 13 programmes presented every aspect of human endeavour through art and music, science, engineering and technology. Just like him, I saw the whole world as a huge quarry of ideas that could be dug up to fill my programmes with wonder and make the audience ‘Think’.
“But it had to be understandable, and in that regard, Albert Barber my producer, and Cynthia, were great sounding posts. Cynthia was the greatest note-giver ever. As I became more ambitious, they both came with me. I talked to Cynthia about doing Einstein’s Theory of Relativity for children. Eventually I did it three different ways and all to their approval. We did a sketch on painting the Sistine Chapel Ceiling which was made possible by the brilliant BBC studio crew. George Ageros was the children’s department finance manager and at his retirement party he said: ‘I’m almost glad I’m leaving, as the 70s and 80s were the golden age of the BBC, but definitely of BBC children’s television’ – and I agreed with him. We will never see the like again.”
Johnny was appointed rector of the University of Glasgow in 1993 and held the post until 1996. He holds seven honorary degrees or fellowships from Glasgow, Liverpool John Moores, Salford, Sheffield Hallam, Bishop Grossteste (Lincoln), Brighton and the Society of Teaching. He is an Honorary Actuary and is also President of the Lancastrians in London Society.
He has written nine books: Think of a Number (BBC, 1979); Johnny Ball’s Think Box, (Puffin, 1982); Plays for Laughs (1983, collection of Play Away and Star Turn sketches); Second Thinks (Puffin, 1987); Games from Around the World (accompanying a Games Exhibit produced by Johnny for the Royal Society, which toured from 1990 for several years); Think of a Number (Dorling Kindersley, 2005); Mathmagicians (Dorling Kindersley, 2012); Wonders Beyond Numbers, A Brief History of all things Mathematical (Bloomsbury, 2017). The DK Think of a Number won the Blue Ribbon in the USA and is in the Chicago Depository of Great Books. It sold in around 50 languages.
In July 2004, he was named in the Radio Times list of the top 40 most eccentric TV presenters of all time. He toured his Think of a Number roadshow for 13 years (1981 – 1993). In the corporate world, Johnny wrote and presented many award-winning videos and educational packages including eight half-hour films on state-of-the-art Materials Technology for the DTI. In 1986, he was voted ITVA Presenter of the Year and won the Sales Video of the Year award for a film selling a tractor. He received a Medal for the Promotion of Engineering to the General Public, from the RAE (2007). He worked for National Grid for six years, writing their public awareness brochures and an educational musical, The Michael Faraday All Electric Roadshow. He wrote four other educational stage musicals and performed them between 1993 and 2003, reaching over 160,000 students and teachers each year. His most celebrated show was Tales of Maths and Legends which launched Maths Year 2000, with Prime Minister Tony Blair on stage. Also in 2000 in the Millennium Dome, his Mind Zone Live Show, With Your Mind and Tomorrows Technology, Anything is Possible sold every available place for the entire year.
In July 2012, he presented a Horizon special on ageing (BBC Four) and appeared in and wrote television adverts in partnership with the Yorkshire-based firm Help-Link, improving their business five-fold.
In 2012, he featured in Strictly Come Dancing (the oldest celebrity dancer ever to appear on the programme, at 74). In May 2014, Johnny attended the 50th anniversary (of Play School’s first broadcast) reunion at Riverside Studios. In April that year, he was the voice in an educational animated video for the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a Cambridge-based UK charity, whose aim is to get children interested in taking up a career in computer programming. He was the 2017 Technology Personality of the Year for T3 magazine.
Johnny met his wife Di when they were appearing on separate piers in Blackpool. They married in 1975. Their three children are: Zoe (born 1970 by Johnny’s first marriage), who followed Johnny into children’s TV and now has a successful mainstream TV and radio career; son Nick (born 1976) is a screen writer, winning a world award for his first written and directed film, Tethered; youngest son Dan (born 1977) runs his building design company, Centre Space Design based in Henley. They have two children each, giving Johnny and Di six grandchildren: Woody and Nelly May; Ronnie and Juno; Albie and Louis (plus Holly, their dog).
Other television credits include: The Harry Secombe Show (1966); wrote and appeared in Cabbages and Kings (BBC One, 1972 and 1974); Star Turn (BBC One, 1976 – 1977); wrote The Adventures of Ivor Notion for Star Turn Challenge (BBC One, 1978); The Dawson Watch (1979); Johnny Ball Games (1980); presenter on The Great Egg Race (BBC Two, 1980); All Star Record Breakers (BBC One, 1980 – 1982); All Star Summer Show (BBC One, 1983); Crackerjack (1984); chairman on hobbies quiz Secrets Out!!! (1985); Blankety Blank (1985); Philomena (1986 – 1987); Saturday Superstore (1987); Knowhow (BBC One, 1988 – 1989); storyteller on Playdays (1990); Expo (1990); A Way with Numbers (1991); Swap Heads (2002); The Terry and Gabby Show (Channel 5, 2003); Countdown (Channel 4, 2007); A Celebrity Taste of Italy (2017). He periodically appears on The Daily Politics (2016 – 2018), Loose Women, Good Morning Britain and Sky News as a pundit on maths, children’s education and science.
Video Clips on the Internet
Here we present a selection of video clips featuring Johnny 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.
Johnny Ball presents an edition of Think of a Number in September 1979.
PICTURED: Johnny Ball. SUPPLIED BY: Johnny Ball. COPYRIGHT: Paul R. Jackson.