Friday 23 June 2017

Britain is a country which says "Goodbye" to Brian Cant where many remember him as a friend who entertained them on tv when they were young

Brian, the presenter of several long-running series in the Golden Age of children's television from the 1960s to 1980s, has died at the age 83. In a career in kid's tv which spanned a total of 40 years, Brian entertained successive  generations which must have totalled millions of children. He spoke to them directly in his simple, gentle manner and they trusted and loved him in return.

What the kids didn't know about Brian was that he was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, in the Summer of 1933 and grew up in Lancing
Avenue in a new semi-detached house, where the family was supported by his Father who worked as an engineer. Having passed his 11+ during the Second World War he took himself off to Northgate Grammar School for Boys towards during the Second World War in 1944. In the school photo taken after the War in 1948, taken when he was in the 4th year, his smiling face can be picked out in the centre of his serious-looking contemporaries.

For someone who later became the consummate theatrical professional, he later confessed that : "I never did drama at school. I was too shy." In fact there was no family connection "with showbiz except for my mother's father who was a roller-skater on the halls. He used to go round the music halls doing his skating act on a tiny little portable rink; the only thing I know about him is that there's a sepia photograph of him doing a pirouette and on the back there's a message to my grandmother saying something like "Hello dear, I'm playing Colchester next week and hope to send you some money!"

Brian left school at 16 and, no doubt at his Father's suggestion, was enrolled as an apprentice lithographer at a printing press in the town. He described his role rather grandly as : "A lithographic artist in a fine art shop in Ipswich."  Working, on what must have been the unexciting and unexacting process where metal plates were used create images for the print shop, Brian sought outlets in sport and the stage.

These were the years when he still had dreams of playing football for Ipswich Town, having trained for the club in their youth section while at the same time, as he recalled, he would "watch the Ipswich Theatre and started joining in a bit, helping and then I began doing amateur work around Ipswich" and "used to watch all the old music hall stars, Max Miller and all the rest, at the local Hippodrome and I went to all the summer shows at Felixstowe and Clacton and just got the feeling that I wanted to do this."

After returning home after his two years National Service in the Armed Forces in the early 1950s, his desire for the theatre was undiminished and at the age of 24, in 1957, having graduated from stage hand to actor he performed in an amateur production of the thriller, 'Safe Harbour' and was damned with faint praise in a review which said : 'Mr Cant does incredibly well within the terms of an almost embarrassingly inept caricature.' This was the year in which theatre called him away from Suffolk which he left for London, having "got a girlfriend who was in RADA."

To support himself he continued working as a printer by day and acting by night, mainly with the amateur Mount View Theatre Club, which met in Cecile House at Crouch End in North London. Formed by Peter Coxhead while he was in the Navy during the Second World War, it put on about 20 plays each year and, as Brian later said, it was "amateur, but there were also lots of pros keeping their hand in so-to-speak," After being spotted by an agent, he took the plunge the following year, jacked in his job as a printer, turned professional and spent the summer season in rep at Buxton, Pavilion Arts Centre in Derbyshire, where his income fell dramatically from £23 to £3 10 shillings per week. He recalled : "Luckily, when the season finished, we went to Peterborough and took over there. We were the Penguin Players and I spent two years there playing all sorts of parts. That's really where I learnt my trade." 

In 1960, at the age of 27, he made the transition from stage to television when a friend, Dennis “Slim” Ramsden, introduced him to a BBC TV director and after a successful audition he was cast as a P.O.W in one episode of a six part Second World War 'The Long Way Home.' He then, over the next four years, played by turn in tv series : a miner in 'The Secret Kingdom', a corporal in 'Sir Francis Drake,' a police constable in the comedy series 'Bootsie and Snudge', a Special Branch man in 'The Sentimental Agent', Det. Sgt. Barnes in 'No Hiding Place' and Det. Sgt. Bailey in 'Detective'.

Then in 1964, and now 31, Brian recalled : "I had been doing a lot of schools' programmes and in one of them I was being a Roman sitting on an urn." The production assistant, Cynthia Felgate, told him she was setting up a new show, 'Play School' to which Brian, the pro from hundreds of children's audiences from his days in rep said : "How do I audition ?"

Although, Brian continued to pepper his career from that point with roles in serious drama, it was his work in children's shows that earned him the love and affection of successive generations of children. The start of what would be his 21 year involvement in 'Play School', which led directly to his work providing the voices for the Gordon Murray puppet series, 'Camberwick Green' in 1966, 'Trumpton' in 1967 and 'Chigley' in 1969.

Between 1971-84 Brian co-hosted 'Play Away' while presenting the children's show 'Bric-A-Brac' from 1980-82 and at the age of 57 he began to play the part of Brian, the farmer in the tv puppet programme, 'Dappledown Farm' and completed that work at the age of 70 in 2003. It was in that year that he began work on the Channel 5 shows 'MechaNick' and 'The Softies.'

Play School 
Joy Whitby recalled in 2012 : 'When Brian Cant came to the audition, I asked him to sit in a cardboard box and imagine going on a journey. He sailed away with a broomstick and found, he said, a wellington boot full of custard. He was totally natural and he became Mr Play School.'

Brian recalled : "They wanted a programme aimed at the single child at home, so you were working eyeball-to-eyeball. I think that was why it was so successful; whoever you were talking to, you had to make them feel that they were the only one, that you were doing it just for them, and so there were all sorts of guidelines we had to follow. We were never allowed to say "ask your mother/father" because they might not have a mum or dad, so you'd say "ask a grown-up" or "ask an adult", and you couldn't talk about going to play on the lawn, because there'd be lots of children in high-rise blocks who didn't have gardens, so you'd talk about playing in the park."

"You were always trying to make the child feel that you were doing the programme just for them; I think it paid off, and I think it's why so many people remember it as being special to them, because they got to know each and every one of us as brothers, sisters, uncles or whatever. But no-one ever called me Uncle Brian; it was more as if I was just a grown-up mate who came over and messed around, chatted, read stories."

Brian and the clock :

Brian the bird :

The Trumpton Trilogy 
Set in the fictional county of Trumptonshire was the market towns and villages of 'Camberwick Green' in 1966, 'Trumpton' in 1967 and 'Chigley' in 1969, Brian narrated each part and sang every song in the 39 films of the series, which told the gentle stories of everyday events in the lives of the postman, doctor, farmer, milkman and others. What his audience didn't know was that Brian : "Never saw the puppets or the filming of any of the shows” and “used to go round to Freddie Phillips’s house and sit in his cupboard, which was also his recording studio. I would do roughly three shows a day in there. It was tiring work.”

It was Brian's voice that weekly introduced kids to the townsfolk of 'Camberwick Green' :

“Here is a box, a musical box, wound up and ready to play. But this box can hide a secret inside. Can you guess what is in it today ?"

Mrs Honeyman and her Baby 

Captain Snort

Peter the Postman

His opening words for 'Trumpton' and remain familiar to many who were the kids who watched the programme, were addressed to that town’s firemen :
“Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub” 
Brian's 'Play Away' was a live entertainment spin-off of 'Play School', for older children, incorporating comedy songs and jokes, it ran between 1974 and 1987 with him as a presenter throughout.

One feature of the programme was a sequence of short one line gags based around a theme, for example :
“I’m a bean, I’m a bean, what kind of bean am I?”
Jeremy Irons also presented the show with Brian during its early years.

Brian played the owner of a kind of junk shop, who went round finding things that began with different letters of the alphabet and in 1984 faces in a mirror :

                   Dappledown Farm 

He took the role of a farmer on a farm full of puppet animals which included Dapple the Horse, Mabel the Cow, Stubble and Straw, the two mice, Columbus the Cockerel, Lucky Ducky, Colin the Coot, Millie the Moor hen, Fiona the Frog and Harry the Heron.

In 2010 when he was 77, Brian was given a 'Special Award' at the Children’s Baftas and began his acceptance speech with :
"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. When I became a man I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child and they paid me for it." 

At the time Brian was asked by the BBC's Bill Turnbull : "what would he have liked his young viewers to take away from his programmes ?"
He replied, with perfect self-deprecation :
"Maybe, that I made them laugh and generally made them feel happy"

Mission Accomplished Brian

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