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Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Brian Cant and Play Away

                                It really doesn’t matter if it’s raining or it’s fine
                                Just as long as you’ve got time
                                To P-L-A-Y playaway-play, playaway,
                                Play-a-play, playaway. 

It was sad to hear yesterday of the death of Brian Cant, once polled the most-loved voice on UK children’s television. I used to love Play Away. I would never miss it unless I had to, despite being in my twenties at the time.

Brian Cant in Play Away
Brian Cant, Tony Robinson, Toni Arthur and Julie Stevens in Play Away (click to play)

Luckily, Play Away was on a Saturday afternoon when I wasn’t at work. It was full of silly jokes and sketches, some of them Pythonesque, and very musical. Its talented presenters had a vivacious energy that was simply uplifting. Children’s television is sometimes much too good for children.

And shining through it all was the childlike spirit of Brian Cant. He had a mischievous screen presence – a way every now and then of glancing into the camera as if to let you into the secret that this was every bit as daft as it looked. You never quite knew what he was going to do next. Just when he had drawn you in, he would give you a naughty nip like a playful Yorkshire terrier.

So I’ve spent a nostalgic couple of hours watching clips of Play Away on YouTube. The one above represents everything in it that was wonderful. Brian Cant hamming it up, the beautiful voice of Toni Arthur, crazy Julie Stevens, and an implausibly youthful Tony Robinson in the Court of King Caractacus.

If you want to eulogize about a man who sang a song about the fascinating witches who put the scintillating stitches in the britches of the boys who put the powder on the noses on the faces of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus …

... he’s just passed on by.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Little Ships

H.M.S. Hood edged slowly for’ard towards the lock at the far side of the attic floor.

“Engines full astern” bellowed the captain. “Ding ding, ding ding!” signalled the bridge to the engine room. “Boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom,” sounded the propeller, spit splashing from my dad’s lips like sea spray.

“Watch out!” he warned. “Don’t get caught in the propeller.” He pushed me to the floor. “Man overboard!” He trapped me in his arms and legs and started to spin me round and round. “That man’s got caught in the propeller. Boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom.”

“Stop engines. Ding ding, ding ding!” The ship blew five blasts, one long and four shorts: “Bvvvvvvvvvv, bvvv, bvvv, bvvv, bvvv,” to warn she was about to swing round. “Drop anchor. Diddle diddle diddle diddle diddle diddle, splshhhhhh!” I’m not sure whether the coughing that followed was supposed to be part of the sound effects or not. 

Meccano Dinky Toys Ships of the British Navy

We were playing ‘Little Ships’. Most of them were waterline models of battleships. We had H.M.S. Nelson and H.M.S. Rodney (identical sister-ships), H.M.S. Hood, a couple of submarines and three or four destroyers. Finding them again now, online, I am fairly sure they were from the pre-war Dinky Toys diecast metal set number 50: Ships of the British Navy. They were modelled to a scale of 1:1800 (150 feet to the inch), which meant they varied in size from five inches (12.75cm) down to two inches (5cm). They were of course my dad’s childhood toys and he still liked to play with them. He pushed them around the attic floor making appropriate engine and captain noises. He knew all about ships because his grandfather had been a master mariner. At first I just used to watch.

Like the ones pictured, most of the battleships had already lost their guns by the time I came along, but that did not matter because, living in a seafaring town, we pretended they were merchant ships. We had a toy dock made out of box wood, with glued-on strips to represent the quays. The lock gates were made out of strips of tin plate, and the rest of the surface was crayoned blue to represent water. It had a strange fusty smell. Ships sailed upriver from abroad, swung round on their anchors, manoeuvred through the lock and moored against the quays inside. The tiny destroyers were make-believe tugs to help the larger ships move around in tight spaces. My dad glued a wooden jetty to the attic floor so ships could tie up downriver to wait for the tide – just like at Blacktoft.

Dinky Toy scale model of the Italian liner Rex

We had just one merchant ship, the Italian liner Rex, also a pre-war Dinky model, which, together with half a destroyer, are all that now survive. Of the rest, H.M.S. Hood, emulating its real-life counterpart, was accidentally smashed to smithereens by someone’s foot. The others rattled around inside a Crawford Tartan Shortbread tin until they disintegrated and were thrown out: a pity because they are now much-in-demand collectors’ items. Even the biscuit tin is a collectors’ item. We found it with the ships in my dad’s sideboard.

Also gone are the wooden models we made ourselves. The tray-shaped softwood strips that used to hold propelling pencil leads made an ideal starting point. You pointed the bow and rounded the stern with sandpaper, glued on a matching fo’c’s’le and bridge, and cut a thin piece of dowel for the funnel. You painted the deck white, the sides black and the funnel whatever colour you wanted. It made a passable scale model merchant ship.

After seeing my dad make them I tried myself. The outcome was a poorly finished, vaguely ship-shaped blotchy white lump. I should have started with something better than a knotty strip of firewood. I proudly took my ship to show Jack who sat next to me at school. I didn’t notice the funnel had come off and fallen on the floor in front of Miss Walker’s desk.

“What’s this?” she asked the class, prodding it with the toe of her shoe, disgust in her voice. “Is it a sweet or something?” I had to go out to the front and pick it up. I would have been about seven.

Triang scale models: SS United States, RMS Aquitania, SS Varicella

Later, in the nineteen-sixties, we bought some new little ships for my brother, but at 1:1200 scale they were slightly too big. These were Triang models: M704 the S.S. United States, M705 the R.M.S. Aquitania, and M732 the Shell tanker S.S. Varicella. They had plastic masts, most now lost. These were also in the biscuit tin.

I looked up the real S.S. Varicella. She was built on Tyneside in 1959 and sailed under the Union Jack with a mainly British crew until sold in 1976 and scrapped in Taiwan in 1983. Its battered model survives it by many years. Yet it has to be said that any real ship in that condition would be towed off to the breakers yard, its place taken by a foreign-built ship, with a foreign crew, sailing under a foreign flag. Perhaps no one but oldies would want to play ‘Little Ships’ now.

“Bvvvvvvvvvv! Ding ding, ding ding! Half ahead.”

My mum gave us one of her withering looks. “How ridiculous! How could anyone have half a head?”