Toni was born Antoinette Alice Priscilla, in Oxford. She won a music scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music at the age of nine and gave a concert at the Wigmore Hall in the same year. She trained as a nurse at University College Hospital. She was a folk music singer and was married to fellow musician Dave Arthur (1963 – 1977). They released several folk music albums (1964 – 1975).
Toni later developed her own stage show Toni Arthur’s Music Box, designed to help children appreciate music. It focussed on British folk music. This led to an audition on Play School at which Jonathan Cohen played the piano. Toni was the 49th Play School presenter, making her debut, with Rick Jones, on 29th November 1971. Sadly this doesn’t survive in the BBC archives.
From 1984 to 1990, Toni presented on various series including: Watch this Space (TVS); two series of a gardening programme (TVS); Lunchtime Live (TSW); and many other magazine programmes. She was a panellist on Punchlines (1984) and Babble (1985) and reported on Q.E.D. Alpha: How to Succeed Without Really Trying (BBC One, 15th April 1987). Since leaving the world of children’s TV, Toni has written plays with David Wood and Dave Arthur – three of which are published by Samuel French (Robin Hood, Jack the Lad and The Pied Piper). In 2003, she directed A Very Naughty Boy, which won the coveted Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival.
In 2002, she featured in an episode of ITV’s After They Were Famous series, narrated by Matthew Kelly. In 2010, she was a contributor alongside Floella Benjamin, Brian Cant, Jonathan Cohen and Joy Whitby, with a recorded quote from Paul R. Jackson, on BBC Radio 4’s The Reunion. Sadly Toni couldn’t attend either the Here’s a House – A Celebration of Play School book launch at BAFTA in 2010 or the 50th anniversary reunion of Play School’s first edition at Riverside Studios in May 2014. At Brian Cant’s memorial service, with Jonathan Cohen on the piano, she led the assembled family, friends and former showbusiness colleagues in a rousing rendition of the Play Away theme.
Television credits include:
- Seeing and Believing (BBC One, 1969);
- Monster Music Mash (BBC One, 1969);
- Play Away (1971 – 1978);
- What’s Inside? (BBC One, 1972);
- Watch! (BBC One, 1972);
- Seeing and Doing (1975 – 1979);
- Star Turn (BBC One, 1976, 1977 and 1980);
- The All Star Record Breakers (BBC One, 1976 and 1979 – 1980);
- Take a Ticket To… (BBC Two, 1976);
- The People’s Echo (BBC One, 1st May 1977);
- Let’s Make a Musical (BBC One, 31st May 1977);
- Thrice Welcome Christmas (BBC Two, 24th December 1977);
- Play of the Week: Stargazy on Zummerdown (BBC Two, 1978);
- What Do You Watch? (BBC One, 1979);
- Pebble Mill at One (1979);
- It’s a Great Life – If You Don’t Weaken (BBC One, 27th May 1979);
- It’s a Great Life: Mummy, Daddy and Dr Spock (BBC Two, 19th February 1980);
- The Great Grange Hill Debate (BBC One, 4th March 1980);
- Reporter on We’re Going Places (BBC One, 1980);
- Reporter on Get Set for Summer (BBC One, 1982);
- Presenter on Good Morning Britain (TV-am, 1983 – 1984);
- Monkey Business (BBC One, 1985);
- Toni Arthur and All That Jazz (BBC Two, 1989).
Radio credits: Toni wrote and presented many series for the BBC on all aspects of folk music. She was involved in two series of programmes on the Special Olympics and was a holiday replacement for Sue MacGregor on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour (1982). She was a reporter for a year on Tony Blackburn’s BBC Radio 1 show and presenter for a year on BBC Radio Brighton with The Toni Arthur Show. She was also a presenter with BBC Radio Norfolk (2003 – 2004).
Paul R. Jackson corresponded with Toni in December 2008. She recalled those early days: “Rick was brilliant and the nicest man – and a very talented musician too. The first week with him was very special. I had no experience of television at all and for some reason, there was little help from the producers. You were just thrown in. Rick just held my hand and made me laugh and just kept saying be natural. I’d never even seen a broadcast programme before, so had no idea of the way it should have been. I was a break in the mould of previous presenters as I wasn’t posh and was more anarchic.
“But, they were looking for someone a little more ‘hippy and free’ and so I think I fitted the bill, with my long hair, false eyelashes and very, very short skirts – more like belts really! Anyway – Rick helped me just be me – and I never looked back. A great guy.”
The earliest surviving footage within the BBC archives of Toni on Play School is Monday 3rd April 1972 – her third week. Rick had this to say about his former co-presenter: “Toni Arthur was a breath of fresh air – she still is. She represented that kind of musician who was changing the ways of established folk singers and blending styles, breaking down walls. And we loved those short skirts!”
Toni was quoted in an article in 2004: “I loved every single minute I was there – even pretending to be an elephant. It taught me never to be embarrassed and it was great getting to be a child again. I made a lifelong friend in Jemima. She never sat still or did what you told her – a very independent spirit.”
Tell us about your fellow folk singers
“I only knew Johnny Silvo vaguely – and did not know Stan Arnold other than on Play School. We were from different parts of the folk world and met rarely. I remember we got on well and that we could do a week with a lot of songs in it, as some of the other female presenters were not too keen on singing. I did do a few very large concerts with Johnny later.”
Toni’s last Play School appearance was with Jon Glover on 9th May 1975. Her final Play Away was 18th February 1978.
Was it your decision to leave?
“I didn’t decide to leave specifically, but I had been given this lead role in a BBC Play of the Week. David E. Rose, the producer, who was in some way related to Cynthia Felgate, had cast me. Cynthia said it was the first big step on the rung of a busy acting career for me and that she would let me go from Play School and Play Away to further my career. I hadn’t wanted to act, but did go on to be the lead in several West End Theatre productions and a few more TV shows, before deciding that I’d rather direct and write, although I did continue to present for years.”
Any presenters that you particularly enjoyed working with?
“Lionel Morton and Chloe Ashcroft were my favourites. I loved both of them. But there was no-one I didn’t like really. It was such a laugh. I also got on very well with Jonathan Cohen and even did a tour of Mexico with him called, I think, Songs Through the Ages. We had many laughs on that tour as well.”
What have you been doing in recent years?
“I took another degree at the University of East London in 1992 in ‘The Use and Misuse of Community Drama’ and directed comedians for their Edinburgh Festival shows [Toni won a Fringe First in 2004 for A Very Naughty Boy by Adrian Poynton] and I still direct comedy every year. And have been asked to direct a play in Rome for 2009. I joined my psychology and drama together and from 2004 to 2008, ran self-esteem and confidence classes for Surestart and I am also a speaker trainer. Literally I’m a workaholic – but nowadays, other than the directing work I’m normally to be found in art galleries all over Europe, as I’m an art enthusiast. I married Malcolm Hay, who is an academic writer (he wrote the definitive book on Edward Bond) and was until 2007 the comedy editor of Time Out magazine. Malcolm and I are just beginning our troisieme-age project – joint playwriting ventures. We have several on the go – two radios, one telly and one screenplay. If they get taken up, that’ll be fab!!”
Video Clips on the Internet
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PICTURED: Toni Arthur. SUPPLIED BY: Toni Arthur. COPYRIGHT: Toni Arthur.