Ben was born in 1955. He is an actor who is perhaps best known as a Play School presenter. He made his debut appearance on the programme on 28th January 1980. Ben was popular with viewers. Who can forget his performance of the classic Wibbly Wobbly song with his elastic body? He later presented Play Away (1982 – 1984); BBC Manchester’s production Knock Knock (1982); All Star Record Breakers (1982); Stop Go! (1983); Up Our Street (1985).
In interviews with Paul R. Jackson in 1990 and December 2008, Ben recalled how he became involved with the programme: “I had previously worked in children’s theatre and heard from a friend that the programme was looking for new male presenters and that hardly any were applying. I auditioned alongside Carol Chell with Cynthia and Anne Gobey watching in the shadows. I sang a song and pretended with Carol to get into a boat and row out to sea. Judy Whitfield asked me to come in for a trial week and see how I did. Albert Barber directed my first week and gave me lots of advice and confidence that was greatly appreciated. A very eccentric man, Peter Wiltshire, who thought that if the toys were enjoying themselves it was a good programme and sod the presenters, directed my second week!
“I wore a pair of shiny Doc Martin boots and Peter took me aside and asked what I thought I was wearing as I looked like a bovver boy! We came to an agreement that I would only wear the boots in two of the five programmes. Afterwards, I went out and bought five different pairs of coloured t-shirts and a pair of plimsolls for my next appearances. I began to receive fan mail, especially about my boots and asking how I kept them so shiny. One came from a 23-year-old man living in Glasgow who said he had a pair of thigh length boots and invited me to see them. I didn’t reply and passed it on to the producer. I also received letters of marriage proposal, one by a mother on her daughter’s behalf, saying I would make a good father. After a sports item in which I wore shorts, I received a letter from a lady in Glasgow who demanded that I make further appearances in them soon.” (Author’s note: proof that many adults watched as well as the pre-school audience that the programme was aimed at).
“The first time I met Floella Benjamin, she was heavily pregnant and she punched me, but after that we always got on very well. I was terrible at the ‘makes’ and always became very clumsy as I found it difficult to talk to camera and make the item at the same time. Once I was pretending to saw a piece of wood and because I was concentrating so much, I continued sawing and went straight through the wood and fell over, which made the crew laugh.
“For Pets Day on Wednesday, I brought in my dog Jock, a miniature dachshund. At the end of the programme co-presenter Carol Chell had to hand a bone to the dog and in rehearsals they used a toy one but on the recording they used a real bone and when Carol went to take it away, Jock snarled and snapped at her and the whole studio went quiet. They did a retake and went back to using the toy bone. Presenters were always encouraged to be natural to camera and whilst it was hard work doing five programmes in two-and-a-half days, it was never a chore. I did a lot of personal appearances at fetes and enjoyed meeting viewers. Carol did a lot of them, as she was such a caring person and good at them. I learnt most from Carol due to her concern and care in her performance and Chloe for her spontaneity and naturalness. I was warned that you never aimed to win with fellow presenter Johnny Ball as he never liked to lose; he was very competitive.”
Ben recalled working with director Martin Fisher: “There was an occasion when we were covering the theme of ‘the seaside’ and the set was festooned with buckets, spades, beach balls, shells and crabs. Martin was trying for ages to line up a shot of me with all this stuff in the background when I heard through the floor manager’s headset: ‘It’s still looking too cluttered, would somebody please remove that spade from the shot’ – whereupon I promptly replied: ‘I can do it myself without any assistance thank you very much’ and stormed out of the studio to the hysterical delight of the crew. Just an example of the fun you could have making the programme, without worrying about cultural sensitivities. Not that this sort of incident was ever broadcast to the children, but it was an example of the relaxed intimacy that made the presenters of Play School so dear to their audience.”
Ben was a member of the board of directors for the Talawa Theatre Company and a board member at Greenwich Theatre. He attended the Here’s a House – A Celebration of Play School book launches at BAFTA in 2010 for volume one and in Stourbridge 2011 for the second volume. He also joined former colleagues for the 50th anniversary reunion of Play School’s first edition at Riverside Studios in May 2014.
Television acting credits include: The Professionals (1979); Bergerac (1983); The Gentle Touch (1984); Dempsey and Makepeace (1985); Pie in the Sky (1986); Happy Families (1989 – 1990); Mr Bolton in Phoenix Hall (1990); Surgical Spirit (1993); Mr Gruff in The Boot Street Gang (1993); Crown Prosecutor (1995); The Bill (1998); Doctors (2001); Casualty (2001); Victor Duke in EastEnders (2003).
Theatre credits include: Jesus Christ Superstar; Robinson Crusoe (directed by Peter Reeves); As You Like It; The Importance of Being Earnest; Anthony and Cleopatra; King Lear; Fuente Ovejuna, at the National Theatre.
Video Clips on the Internet
Here we present a selection of video clips featuring Ben 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.
Ben Thomas talks to BBC News 24 about his days as a presenter on Play School. The occasion: the 40th anniversary event.
PICTURED: Ben Thomas (2008). SUPPLIED BY: Paul R. Jackson. COPYRIGHT: Unknown.