Life after Big Ted. We speak to Play School presenter Toni Arthur
12:02 17 February 2011
As a presenter of Play School and its anarchic spin-off Play Away in the 1970s, folk singer Toni Arthur was a favourite auntie to millions of todays 40-somethings. Nowadays she lives peacefully in a remote corner on the Suffolk/Norfolk border. Pat Parker caught up with her
Back in the 1970s, Toni Arthur was leading us through the Arched Window on Play School with Jemima and Big Ted, while on Saturdays, letting her hair down with Brian Cant on the zany, anarchic Play Away.
Nowadays, she leads a quieter existence in Norfolk as Toni Arthur-Hay, married to Malcolm Hay, an academic and former comedy editor of Time Out.
But, despite having just turned 70, she is as bubbly and full of life as ever. Ive always had thousands of things on the go at the same time, she enthuses, sipping her nettle tea. In recent years, she has directed plays on the Edinburgh Fringe, taught stagecraft to up-and-coming comedians, and run a range of personal development courses inspired by her eclectic philosophy a mix of Buddhism, Taoism, lateral-thinking and positive thinking.
She hasnt changed much from her Play School days. She still wears long, hippie-style skirts, her blonde hair loose around her shoulders. Her converted Breckland barn, on the edge of the forest between Thetford and Downham Market, is scented by joss sticks, and the decor is at once comfortable and quirky. In the plum-shaded dining room, Punch and Judy dolls adorn the walls, along with Venetian Commedia dellArte masks. The loo is embellished with Victorian Valentine cards.
Toni and Malcolm found their home by accident, when, as newly-weds in 1995, they were living in Cambridge. We were intending to move to Berkshire, to be closer to Pinewood Studios, where I was working, remembers Toni. But the estate agent sent us this house by mistake. It was in completely the wrong place, but we took one look at it and knew we wanted to live here.
The couple enjoy their rural life in East Anglia. This is big sky country, says Toni. The air is so fresh and clean, and I love the wide, open spaces. The people treat you with respect, honestly and loyalty. Ive never been so happy.
Antoinette Alice Priscilla Wilson (everyone called her Toni) was born in New Cross, London, in 1940, the daughter of a milkman and a school secretary. Money was tight, and bombing raids a constant hazard. As a toddler, she can remember playing schools with her dolls when the air-raid siren sounded, and her mother called her into the garden shelter. Minutes later, a Doodlebug landed on the house, and the shelter was buried in rubble. My mother was claustrophobic and started screaming. I was too busy comforting her to feel scared myself. When they were finally dug out, she can remember seeing their house, with two walls and the roof missing. My dollies were still lined up against my bedroom wall waiting for their lesson, but there was no way I could reach them!
Toni and her mother were then evacuated to Yorkshire, where they stayed with a strange man who once terrified her by bursting in on her, dressed as a pantomime dame. Tonis mother, suspecting their hosts of stealing their rations, one day discovered a chest in the loft full of the missing butter, eggs and sugar. She said, Youve got to have these, and stuffed my mouth with butter until I was violently sick! Ive had trouble eating butter ever since.
Back in New Cross after the war, Toni could read fluently before she started school. Her mother, who despite her intelligence had had to leave school at 14, was desperately keen to learn. So every day after school, she would ask me to teach her everything Id learnt, thus reaffirming the lesson for me.
At nine, she started piano lessons. After only one lesson, she was somehow able to play the hardest tune in her piano primer. She went on to win a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, and to the posh, affiliated Mary Datchelor Girls School, where she excelled academically, taking science A levels. I was going out with a doctor, and thought it would be nice to marry him and become a nurse.
However, while training to be a nurse at University College Hospital, she met folk-singer Dave Arthur through a group of poet friends. Her life was about to change dramatically.
We started singing together, fell in love and married. My love of music, people and folklore all fell into place.
This was 1963, and Dave and Toni Arthur were in the vanguard of the British folk revival, singing traditional, mostly unaccompanied ballads. They released three successful albums and toured the world.
Then in 1970, Toni was spotted in a folk club by a BBC producer. He asked me if Id like to audition for Play School. Id never heard of it. I didnt watch television.
Nevertheless, she passed the audition with flying colours, and suddenly found herself in the gentle, educative world of the Play School TV studio. She took to it like a duck to water. I always remembered the producer telling me to look into the camera and imagine youre talking to just one child sitting alone in a room, who wants you to be their playmate. So you had to be really honest and real. We were trying to be their best friends!
She loved her 11 years on the show. It was great fun a huge challenge, very scary, with very little time to rehearse.
Only a certain type of presenter could cope with the improvisation demanded by Play School. We were all very much the same kind of person quick-thinking, quick-witted if you werent, you didnt last. The producers played to our strengths. Theyd give me the musical bits, and knew not to give me anything to make, because my hands would shake, or anything too small, because I was so long-sighted!
I always remembered the producer telling me to look into the camera and imagine youre talking to just one child sitting alone in a room, who wants you to be their playmate. So you had to be really honest and real. We were trying to be their best friends!
Toni describes herself as Play Schools bit of rough.
I brought a touch of anarchy. I didnt really fit the mould, I wore too much make-up and hippie clothes, and brought grown-up nuances to the singing.
But this anarchic spirit made her ideal for Play Schools zanier Saturday spin-off, Play Away. Along with Brian Cant, Toni became a principal presenter of the programme, whose wackiness paved the way for the future anarchy of kids shows like Tiswas.
They knew I wouldnt be embarrassed to do silly things, tell jokes, climb mountains singing songs, or stand on my head if I had to. It was just total madness. We were always just on the edge of holding things together. You had to think on your feet and cover for guests who didnt quite get the madness. Jeremy Irons took 17 retakes on a song he wrote himself!
The show was a huge success. Toni remembers feeling physically sick when told it was attracting audiences of 15 million.
She is constantly surprised by how many of todays successful TV performers were influenced by Play Away. I remember meeting comedians like Eddie Izzard and Phill Jupitus at the Edinburgh Fringe, and being told how much they loved me! says Toni. At the time, we didnt know we were famous or influential because our fans were too young to tell us. Its only now theyve grown up weve realised we had any influence at all.
In the early 80s,Toni was offered a starring role in a BBC drama. Play Aways producer advised her to quit the show and pursue a serious acting career. She went on to perform in the West End, and later to present TV-am. When that came to an end, she taught presentational skills to business people and founded her own drama school in Tunbridge Wells.
Then, in the early 90s, Tonis marriage to Dave collapsed. The couple had two sons, and had been together 30 years, and Toni was devastated. But, inspired in part by the Buddhist philosophy she had followed since she was a teenager, she pulled herself together and enrolled on a university course in community drama.
Her tutor was Malcolm Hay. The two fell in love and married in 1995, and have been blissfully happy ever since. Hes my soul-mate, says Toni. Hes just as mad as me, and we share the same interests.
There are, however, some clouds on their horizon. Toni reveals that one of the reasons they chose their Norfolk home was because of its wide corridors and staircases. It was a house you could be blind in.
At the time, Toni thought she was in danger of losing her sight. A routine optician check had revealed the veins behind her eyes had become varicose and were in danger of occluding the pupil.
Thankfully, the danger was averted, but, ironically, Malcolm has now developed a progressive sight disorder which is limiting his vision. Those wide staircases and corridors have proved necessary after all.
Toni remains quietly active in the community, running courses, counselling, staging occasional musical shows, story-telling in schools and teaching children to read.
She and her ex-husband Dave are now good friends Malcolm edited his latest book. And, with her recent appearance on Radio 4s The Reunion, in which she was reunited with Play School colleagues, plus new books published on Play School, and the history of British folk, interest in Tonis former career has never been greater.
Her intellectual curiosity and love of life are as sharp as ever. She and Malcolm are currently studying Greek tragedy and sculpture, and opera. I havent enough years left to study everything I want to!
One thing she would love to do is give inspirational talks to young people, to help them remain positive in these recessional times. Id tell them not to sink into gloom, and to retain their self-belief, she says. Life is wonderful, and they can make their lives wonderful. Life is a journey, but what you make of the journey is up to you.
For more information on Toni Arthur, visit her website: