It really doesn't matter if it's raining or it's fine...
Yes, that's an eight out of ten rating for a low-budget children's programme from the seventies and eighties which hasn't been repeated in over thirty years and huge chunks of which were wiped from the BBC's archives as recently as 1993. Am I wearing rose-tinted glasses, or (at the risk of mixing my optical metaphors) do I have a nostalgic blind spot as far as Play Away is concerned? Not a bit of it. Memories are nice, but facts are better. Several episodes of Play Away have made their way onto YouTube over the years courtesy of some lovely people who had the foresight to preserve them on home videotape at the time of their original broadcasts, and they've stood up extremely well. Everyone knows young children like nothing better than silly jokes and a bit of a sing-song, and Play Away - the slightly more grown-up sister programme to the most liberal learning establishment in England, the mighty Play School - offered this simple winning combination to the country's youngsters for a whopping thirteen years.
Play Away was apparently devised as a vehicle for the freewheeling talents of the likable Brian Cant, an engaging presence who, rather like his fellow Play School presenter Derek Griffiths, could create television gold almost at the drop of a hat. Give Griffiths a guitar and he'd give you a one man show; give Cant a cardboard tube and a paper hat and he was the happiest man alive. Cant was straight down the line, a trouper who gave you the laughs without speaking down to you. Along with Cant, several serious actors (including future Hollywood star Jeremy Irons), comedians (including Blackadder's Tony Robinson), musicians (Julie Covington of 'Don't Cry For Me Argentina' fame), soap stars in waiting (Eastenders' Anita Dobson) and meat-and-potatoes light entertainment performers (including Floella Benjamin, then a veteran of West End musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar, but now a Baroness with a seat in the House of Lords!) passed through Play Away's revolving door of cast members, the other mainstay being the pianist Jonathan Cohen, the leader of the versatile resident band who could play anything from nursery rhymes to pop songs and even instrumental jazz. At the time of writing, Cohen does an annual Christmas carol singalong concert at the Royal Albert Hall. I wonder if anyone has ever shouted out "Give us the Court of King Caractacus"?
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