Monday, 3 November 2014

Play School

Here is a reverse to the norm - somewhere I travelled to made me reminisce about something I'd seen on television.

We were at Cartwright Hall in Lister Park in Bradford, at the "Sharing Stories With Julia Donaldson" exhibition. It was a glorious display for our fancy-dress loving daughter, with princess, ladybird, Gruffalo and witch costumes and a stage in the woods to perform on. There were lots of the original artwork for Donaldson's books by her collaborators Axel Scheffler, Lydia Monks, David Roberts and others. Julia Donaldson's notebooks of rough drafts were actually quite a relief to see, since the finished texts seem so effortlessly perfect that you feel she must rattle them off in five minutes, which isn't the case at all. On display were also several letter exchanges between author, artists and publishers requesting numerous changes to the drawings, which made you realise that each picture must have been worked over several dozen times before it was accepted. Just as well Axel Scheffler can't stop drawing - there were beautiful birthday cards and envelopes he had painted for Julia Donaldson, as well as a letter he had written in his native German to a friend saying how hopeless he thought his work was. Oh, the great tortured genius.

There was a giant Gruffalo hiding around a corner, which scared the bejeezuses out of our daughter.
Gruffalo selfie. My daughter has been known to claim that he looks a bit like me
Our daughter's favourite part of the exhibition was a replica of the Squash and a Squeeze house. Because we spent the majority of our time in this section, I was able to have a proper look at the displays roundabout. And I learned something. Even though the book wasn't published until 1993, the Squash And A Squeeze song was originally performed on Play School in 1978 by Derek Griffiths and Floella Benjamin. I always knew the book was originally a song, but I didn't realise the song was that old. Julia Donaldson received the princely sum of 18 pounds for it from the BBC. The song was even released on a Play School LP, which was on display in the exhibition. To my total surprise, it was a record that I owned as a child and listened to a lot. Humpty Dumpty, Jemima, Big Ted, Little Ted and Hamble were all on the cover. Yet I have never recognised the song in its modern-day guise, even though it has barely changed. In case you are curious, like everything, the Derek and Flo version is available on You Tube.
"Wise old man, won't you help me please?"

I grew up in a world without CBeebies, so for my generation, Play School was pretty much all we had when it came to a pre-schoolers' daily television slot. So it has a special place in our nostalgic hearts. Derek Griffiths and Floella Benjamin made an appearance in the "Christmas Past" scene of the CBeebies Christmas Carol last year, which was a lovely nod to us half-asleep grown-ups slumped on the sofa, even if our children didn't have a clue who they were or why they were there ("Make the old people go away, Mummy."). For what it's worth, they still look wonderful. Play School is a format which has survived well, however. You can see its influence on modern-day shows like Tikkabilla (which even has the same square, round and arched windows) and Show Me Show Me (which has a teddy bear and a ragdoll toy). But I genuinely had no idea until last week that the magnificent Julia Donaldson had played a small role in my childhood too. It's a strangely comforting thought. And now that Julia Donaldson has such a vast catalogue of books behind her, I hope my daughter will have a much longer-lasting memory of her wonderful work.

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