To anybody growing up in the 1960s, 70s or 80s Brian Cant WAS children’s television. He was ubiquitous; name any pre-school kids’ programme of merit during those decades and it was a pretty fair bet that Cant would be involved in some way.
Extraordinarily gifted at conveying concepts, moods and ideas in an infant friendly way, Cant actually started his professional life in grown-up theatre, before appearing in BBC programmes for their School Drama department, as well as taking bit parts in more serious TV productions such as Dixon of Dock Green and Doctor Who. He was working on programmes for schools when he heard about the auditions for a new BBC2 toddler series, Play School.
In a situation strongly reminiscent of many of Play School’s ‘use your imagination’ scenarios, Cant was asked to audition by using a cardboard box to pretend to sail to sea, which he duly did; improvising catching a welly boot filled with custard with his fishing line. I am willing to bet that even now, as an octogenarian, Brian Cant could still make a convincing boat out of a cardboard box and still make me laugh when he reeled in that boot; such is the man’s skill to engage minds, young and old alike, with the bare minimum of props.
Once he’d landed the Play School gig he became, in the words of Joy Whitby - the series’ devisor and first producer - ‘Mr Play School’; indeed, there is nobody more associated with the show than Cant. His first appearance was in week three, in May 1964, and he remained on the show for the next 21 years (it finally closed its front door in March 1988).
He wasn’t just working on Play School however; running concurrently were the iconic children’s stop-motion animation shows Camberwick Green (one series of 13 episodes, broadcast in 1966), Trumpton (again, one series featuring 13 episodes, which went out in 1967) and Chigley (and once more, 13 episodes in one series, broadcast in 1969). Cant’s voice is synonymous with the three programmes’ gentle charm and whimsical characters, the most memorable being Windy Miller, Chippy Minton and obviously Trumpton’s fire brigade: Pugh, Pugh, Barney, McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb. He also provided a fine singing voice for the little songs that popped up here and there.
Surprisingly, Cant said once that he never actually saw any of the Trumptonshire puppets when he was recording the voiceovers, which was done from a cupboard in the house of Freddie Phillips, the composer of the series’ theme music. Cant also admitted that he hadn’t seen all of the episodes. So the voice of Windy Miller never actually watched the antics of Windy Miller on screen….
He also doesn’t profit from the ongoing popularity of the three programmes; he got paid a flat fee for his voice work at the time and so, no matter how many times each generation of children are introduced to the delights of Camberwick Green, Trumpton or Chigley, Brian doesn’t make a penny…awwww.
He also brought his warmth and humour to Play Away, another BBC show which was created to appeal to a slightly older audience than Play School. It was livelier; full of games, singing, gags and madcap presenters, including Toni Arthur (who also appeared on Play School), Floella Benjamin (another Play School presenter), Derek Griffiths (Heads and Tails, Super Ted and Bod amongst others). It also featured a youthful Jeremy Irons, resplendent in some marvellous outfits. Play Away ran from 1971 until 1984.
Cant also starred in the little-remembered programme from the early 1980s, Bric-a-Brac. Set in a (you guessed it) bric-a-brac shop, Cant played the shopkeeper and would spend the whole episode talking to the viewers directly down the camera. Focusing on the alphabet Cant would find items beginning with one particular letter and then talk about them, using word play: mainly tongue twisters and alliteration.
His instantly recognisable voice resurfaced in the 1990s in children’s puppet programme, Dappledown Farm. He appeared on screen as Brian the Farmer and also as the voice of Harry the Heron. Both appeared alongside various other farmyard animals, including a cow, horse, cockerel and a duck. Cant also provided the narration for the UK version of the US animation Jay Jay the Jet Plane.
Not just immersed in children’s television, from 1979 until 1986 Brian presented BBC programme The Great Egg Race (where contestants had to invent something to solve a particular problem) and also took part in Technicolor obstacle race It’s a Knockout as a guest presenter.
Not adverse to a bit of parody either, in 1998 Cant was featured in Lee and Herring’s Sunday comedy This Morning with Richard not Judy as a narrator to their sketch ‘The Organ Gang’. He also starred in a 2001 Orbital DVD, where he reprised his role of children’s presenter in a made up programme ‘Play Factory’ (the man was nearly seventy at the time…how cool is he?!).
He continued to do voice-over work and in 2007 he was named number one in a children’s magazine poll to find the best-loved UK kids’ television voice. Well-deserved, I’m sure you agree, in what is a pretty tough category, as shown by Oliver Postgate coming second. David Jason landed third place, for his work as the rodent cartoon hero, Dangermouse.
Much loved by children and grown-ups, Cant was rightly honoured in the 2010 Children’s BAFTAs. He received the Special Award for his outstanding contribution to children’s television – a prize which he stated was, shockingly for such a talented performer, his first official recognition. Now at 81 years young, there still doesn’t seem to be any sign of what would be a much-deserved knighthood, which I really CANT believe…(sorry, but you knew it was coming).