Something rather peculiar happened earlier this week in Britain. Amid what seems to be an interminable national crisis of confidence with political and social turmoil at every corner, pundits and commentators briefly stopped to pay tribute to the late actor and children’s television presenter Brian Cant, who has died at the age of 83. There was a certain element of the WH Auden poem Stop All The Clocks – or perhaps in this case Stop All The Trumpton Clocks – about it.
An obvious conclusion that can be derived from this is that in a state of shell-shock we are looking back to what we perceive to be a kinder, simpler time in our nation’s history. Certainly the ritualistic frequency with which the trilogy of stop-motion animation series narrated by Brian Cant – Trumpton, Camberwick Green and Chigley – appeared on repeats on our televisions from the late 1960s through to the 1980s meant that he became synonymous with a certain kind of reassurance derived from public service broadcasting.
For a certain generation, Cant’s voice introducing us to the Trumpton clock still oddly, yet very tangibly, provides resonance and certitude to this day: a bit like a junior model of the much-loved BBC shipping forecast that has somehow not yet reached a best-before date. For the soothing punctuation of Radio 4 presenters telling us that all in Cromarty, Tyne, Dogger and North Utsire is good, substitute Brian Cant intoning that the Trumpton clock was telling the time steadily, sensibly, never too quickly, and never too slowly (adverbs which, appropriately, could be used to define Cant’s narration style itself).
Yet there is perhaps something more subtle than mere nostalgia here at play. If some of the best-known children’s programmes of recent years, and some of the best qualitatively – Balamory and Old Jack’s Boat – have relied on a certain unobtrusiveness and reliance on simple story-telling, then this surely makes the case for the actual merits of individual programmes, as opposed to the time period from which they come, being a telling factor in why someone like Brian Cant is held in such high regard. Perhaps the man himself hit the nail on the head when he said in this 1995 interview:
“You were always trying to make the child feel that you were doing the programme just for them; I think it paid off, and I think it’s why so many people remember it as being special to them, because they got to know each and every one of us as brothers, sisters, uncles or whatever. But no-one ever called me Uncle Brian; it was more as if I was just a grown-up mate who came over and messed around, chatted, read stories…”
it is indeed the warmth and simple intimacy with which Brian Cant approached his three most renowned series – the Trumpton trilogy, Play School and Play Away – which may mean that he can justly have the title of the David Attenborough of children’s television conferred upon him. It is worth remembering that these are three different programmes requiring three very different presenting and narrating styles: in Play Away he was necessarily the benevolent ringmaster or wisecracking centre of attention; in Trumpton he had to play supportive narrative amanuensis to the stop-motion figures who were the centre of attention; in Play School he had to appeal to the nursery school demographic just a notch below the demographic at which Play Away was centred.
In this respect, it is no surprise that Brian Cant was of that generation that learned a separate vocational trade (in his case, printing) before moving into repertory theatre (which by definition requires versatility) and then, finally, the world of children’s television via Play School in 1964, when he was in his early thirties: a far cry from the world of the 21st-century where there seems to be immense pressure on people with an interest in a media career to get straight on the television the moment the ink has dried on their degree certificate. Everything about Brian Cant that might seem an anachronism – treating acting as seriously as a craft as printing, being able to effortlessly move between adolescent television sub-genres, being measured and not desperately over-excitable in his attempt to win the audience’s attention – is actually what gives the television programmes synonymous with his name an air of timelessness.
The odd personal effect (for me) of having grown up with these different incarnations of Brian Cant was trying to reconcile all the Brian Cants. I remember one national newspaper in the early 2000s satirically taking a shot across the bows at British badminton player and subsequent mixed doubles world champion Gail Emms when she professed herself to be scary, with the said journalist saying that things more scary than Gail Emms included Brian Cant. Yet for one split second in my childhood, I was a little deterred by Brian Cant, perhaps because I was watching Play Away at the time and not quite in the relevant age bracket to deal with the fact he appeared to have a joke and an answer for everything.
Having an answer for everything
Maybe I just didn’t like someone else apart from myself having an answer for everything: about the same time, my mum and dad tried to get me to hold their hands when we were going for a walk, and I responded with the imperious: ‘No, I want to be the master’, and strode on ahead of them. I like to think I’m less imperious (and more grey-haired) than that nowadays, but back in adolescence, my Brian Cant Entente Cordiale really didn’t take that long. As an only child, I was often left to my own devices, and one of those occasions involved being on my own at the kitchen table with a bag of crisps. My exact memory is wishing that Brian Cant was there to enthusiastically share the crisps and make jokes about them and roll up at a surprise party just for me where he took to stage with the crisps. Subjectively, it now seems that the timespan between Wanting To Be The Master and The Great Crisp Reconciliation was, well, slightly less than the average timespan of an episode of Play Away (even if Brian Cant never actually did come round to share my crisps).
The other obvious component of Trying To Reconcile All The Brian Cants partly stems from the immense wave of nostalgia for a certain era of children’s television starting roughly at the time the BBC committed to showing certain programmes daily (Play School, with Brian Cant at the helm, on BBC2 in 1964) through to the advent of colour television (the Trumpton trilogy in the late 1960s, although Trumpton itself, from early 1967, slightly predates BBC2’s landmark colour coverage of Wimbledon later that year), an improved budget for (then) more ambitious studio-based children’s programmes (Play Away from 1971 onwards) and the onset of video games and multi-channel television meaning it was difficult to keep a child’s attention centred on one place (circa 1984, when Play Away ended and Brian Cant’s tenure on Play School had drawn to a close).
Unlike David Attenborough, who has spent more than sixty years as a basically permanent fixture of public service broadcasting, Brian Cant never really appeared much on the BBC once this particular golden era was over, arguably meaning that we a) are more prone to getting nostalgic about said era b) potentially have problems with our memory banks identifying what took place when in the BCE (Brian Cant Era) c) have to ask ourselves whether we actually remember what we think we remember at all. In this respect, the rather horrible confession on my part is that there is no foolproof Proustian trigger to be gained from someone saying: ‘Remember Brian Cant on Play School?’ because I barely remember Brian Cant on Play School, if at all. If very familiar libellous (and tedious) claims about another classic stop-motion programme, Captain Pugwash, seem to do the grapevine rounds at least once a year and apparently need to be unequivocally refuted once a year, I’m worried I’d spiritually libel myself and Brian Cant if I enthusiastically bluffed the above question and went ‘Ooh, yeah!’ with my eyes doing a classic left-to-right mendacious slide. I could afford to pretend Brian Cant was helping me to eat my crisps when I was five: an enthusiastic (but not bona fide) ‘Ooh yeah!’ when I am 43 is a different matter entirely.
Not a Proustian madeleine in this instance, but Scandifriend crisps
And yet. The Proustian trigger comes from the fragmented memories rather than the very whole and unimpeachable ones, and one thing I can definitely remember is Brian Cant reading the poem The Train To Glasgow. This may or may not have been Play School, but here in a sense the actual factual detail matters less than all the emotional connotations of Brian Cant in his element as a children’s television presenter: reading poems steadily, sensibly, not too quickly, not too slowly; reading them with such benign authority he made you feel he’d written or owned the poem himself (indeed he did write whole episodes of Play School); having a gift for interpreting words and language (this being the cornerstone of his one-man alliterative monologues in Bric-A-Brac towards the end of that golden era); and helping foster literacy in a generation which didn’t necessarily have access to that many books (again, perhaps a timeless consideration in itself; bookshops are a million times better than they used to be at catering for children and children themselves seem a million times more literate than when I was growing up, but I do worry about the connotations of living in cash-strapped 2017).
It might be that struggling to factually remember exact moments from the television schedule of yesteryear has something to do with: a collision of memory eventually failing us all; blanket transmission of certain programmes and the ubiquity of certain presenters, alongside regular repeats (especially in the case of Trumpton), resulting in one memory blurring into another; and the programming schedules in that particular era being messed around with (again, perhaps no change there). Here my memories, subjective or otherwise, are thankfully in tune with those of Brian Cant:
“The only problem was that because Play Away was lodged between two feature films it never seemed to have a regular time slot, and it often ended up clashing with the football results on BBC-1 – so we’d have sackloads of letters from irate children whose parents had insisted on watching the results programme!” (1995 interview)
Certainly there was a period of two decades when Brian Cant never seemed to be off the television (albeit subject to BBC1 and BBC2 whims more chaotic and less steady and sensible than the Trumpton clock). There are a few verbal and musical mnemonics which cast me back to the heyday of Play Away, including the inevitable rejoinder ‘Here’s a word! Here’s a word! What can this word be?’, its natural partner in the riddle stakes ‘We’re a pair! We’re a pair! What are we a pair of?’, and the chunky, slightly blues-based piano of the Play Away theme, but these make me think of Play Away regular Toni Arthur and the show’s pianist, Jonathan Cohen, as much as they do Brian Cant. Even so, I think the whole point here is that such shows were by definition collective endeavours with Brian Cant presented as the benevolent head of a de facto family (which might explain why Play Away appealed to adults such as my mother, who tried to get us tickets for the show, as much as it did to children). It was genuine family entertainment, and if there aren’t many defining catchphrases or tics we need in order to bring Brian Cant into our memory, well, he probably didn’t need them.
The benevolent Cant-Arthur-Cohen triumvirate (and friends)
The final words here really must take their inspiration from the words of the man himself. In an era when political correctness has been increasingly demonised, often with the charge that Britain is ‘not like it was in the old days’, Brian Cant appeared to explain in no uncertain terms in the in the cited 1995 interview that inclusivity and egalitarianism were values intrinsic to the success of Play School in that bygone era itself:
“The format was already there; they wanted a programme aimed at the single child at home, so you were working eyeball-to-eyeball. I think that was why it was so successful; whoever you were talking to, you had to make them feel that they were the only one, that you were doing it just for them, and so there were all sorts of guidelines we had to follow. We were never allowed to say “ask your mother/father” because they might not have a mum or dad, so you’d say “ask a grown-up” or “ask an adult”, and you couldn’t talk about going to play on the lawn, because there’d be lots of children in high-rise blocks who didn’t have gardens, so you’d talk about playing in the park.”
And what must surely go hand-in-hand with that naturally attuned sense of empathy is the modesty of Brian Cant himself. Asked in the same interview why people regarded the era we have looked at here as a ‘golden’ one for children’s television programmes, he simply replied:
“I don’t know really…. they just seem to have stayed in people’s memories.”
The below photo shows Brian Cant celebrating the 50th anniversary of Play School in 2014 with other notable presenters. I like to think that the warmth and affection this image exudes is self-explanatory.