Listen: Graeme Burrill chats with singer and former Play School host Colin Buchanan.
When ABC TV’s Play School celebrated its 50th birthday this year, singer-songwriter and friend of Hope 103.2 Colin Buchanan was one of the many former presenters at the party.
He chatted to Hope presenter Graeme Burrill about his eight years with the show, recalling both the highlights and the bloopers.
“No-one will be surprised to know that I loved my Play School years,” he said. “It was a very special season for me.”
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Getting Onto Play School Without a Proper Audition
Being both a trained primary school teacher and an accomplished musician, as well as having an affinity with children—Colin had an edge over others auditioning for a role.
“It was a simple matter of going into the Play School offices and singing [The Wiggles song] Okki Tokki Unga and pretending to build an imaginary igloo,” he said of his short audition at the ABC headquarters.
“I got what I thought was the politest knock-back letter I’d ever got from them after that. The letter said ‘if we need a presenter guitarist, we’ll let you know’. And I thought, ‘that’s polite, but it’s a no’. But I really wanted to do Play School, I thought ‘this is a great fit’.
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“And to my surprise, the phone rang two weeks later and they said, ‘we’re doing [a show at] the Botanic Gardens, would you like to do it?’
“At the time I was the only presenter who hadn’t done a full studio audition. And they used to say, ‘I don’t quite know how you found your way into this because we never really auditioned you properly’. But I became one of the crew, which is lovely.”
The Secret to ‘Making it’ on Kids’ TV
While seasoned Play School presenters may make their role look easy, Colin explained that it’s actually quite difficult, with scripts to learn, and a “very technical set of criteria”.
But a tip during a rehearsal from one of the show’s early childhood advisers, Helen Martin, helped him relax into the job.
“There’s this ethos that there’s a child at the other end of the camera…a great love and respect for those children”
“She sort of whispered in my year and said, ‘just remember Elliot at the other end of the camera’. My son [Elliot] was maybe 3 or 4 at the time. That was helpful advice and I think that’s why Play School has found its way into so many hearts and lives.
“There’s this ethos that there’s a child at the other end of the camera, and there’s a great love and respect for that dynamic and for those children.”
The Unpredictable Nature of One-Take Play School
In Colin’s day (1993 to 1999), Play School was still being recorded in one half-hour take, unlike today’s segmented recording. It was a simpler format that took more flexibility and makes some of today’s presenters look to the veterans in awe.
“Some of the younger presenters who I met for the first time at the recent celebrations, their eyes went wide when I said ‘we rehearsed two times, and then [turned on] the cameras, and we just did it in one go, half an hour,” Colin explained.
“When things went wrong you’d just have to make the best of it. And that’s what life’s like”
“That flow that you were able to get from that half hour just brought a real magic. It gave it a pace. You might be jumping around in your little red wagon for a while and then you’d sit and do some ‘where is Thumbkin’-style quiet things, and then you’d look through the windows, read a book, then there’d be a nice big heads-and-shoulders, and a bit of play acting.
“But of course things would go wrong.”
Some of Colin’s fondest memories are the bloopers.
“When things went wrong you’d just have to make the best of it,” he said. “And that’s what life’s like…when you’re playing with children and the block tower falls over, or the egg box doesn’t do what you hoped it would do.”
Memories of John Hamblin
Some of Colin’s favourite moments involved his very popular and comical co-presenter John Hamblin.
“One time John was reading a book, a very quiet, intimate moment, and a big blowfly flew round and circled him,” he recalled. “I just remember the way he responded to this fly, was just so in-the-moment.
“It wasn’t like, ‘can we cut, can someone get that fly out of the studio?’ He just eyeballed the fly and told it to go away. He said ‘flee, fly’. And it did! And then he went on with the book like nothing had happened.”
“Those moments are really the most precious moments of all.”