Sex, Drugs and Play School: Veteran BBC presenter lifts the lid on cannabis-fuelled hotbed of illicit sex at Television Centre
00:30 GMT, 12 May 2012
Rick Jones mainly remembers the sex, drugs and drinking — but then he saw a very different side of Play School to the rest of us.
Sitting in the sunshine by the pool at his California home, the former children’s TV presenter — an icon for millions of Britons who grew up watching Play School and Fingerbobs — waxes lyrical to me about life behind the scenes at the BBC in the Sixties and Seventies.
‘TV Centre was an amazing place,’ he says. ‘It’s a circular building and we used to say you caught “circularitis” when you went in. It wiped your memory . . . and your sense of morals.’
School for scandal: Rick Jones with Julie Stevens, Little Ted, Big Ted and Humpty. It was in the windowless dressing rooms in the middle of Television Centre that much of the bad behaviour took place
From his recollections, it would seem few people working there during those years would have chosen — to borrow Play School’s famous catchphrase — the ‘square’ window.
And in the forthcoming BBC4 documentary Tales of Television Centre, about what went on at the corporation’s HQ in London’s White City, another Play School presenter, Johnny Ball, reveals that Rick Jones and their colleague Lionel Morton went on air ‘stoned out of their minds’ after smoking cannabis.
Other former Beeb stalwarts suggest that in the supposedly golden era of British broadcasting, the HQ was a hotbed of illicit sex and alcohol excess.
They weren’t wrong, admits Jones — who still has his trademark beard (though now white), warm, sing-song voice and guitar.
Even at 75, he gets fan mail for Play School and Fingerbobs. But at the comfortable home near San Francisco that he shares with his second wife Valerie, he appears to have given up the cannabis that he used to smoke so freely.
Jones, originally from Canada, worked down an Ontario nickel mine to save up the money to come to drama school in London.
He was 24 and married with two children when he became one of Play School’s first presenters in 1964.
But the BBC was nothing like he expected.
‘We went in there thinking “it’s going to be very staid”,’ he says, ‘and soon found out that wasn’t the case at all.’
'Men liked her (Valerie Singleton) but I always sensed she was unhappy,' said Rick (also pictured: Peter Purves and John Noakes)
It was in the windowless dressing rooms in the middle of Television Centre that much of the bad behaviour took place.
Jones describes a typical scenario: ‘You need a light for your cigarette, you knock on a dressing-room door, and a woman opens it wearing only her bra and panties — what do you do’
Grinning, he admits he used the dressing rooms to bed women — and so did many, many others.
Even the supposedly squeaky-clean children’s TV star Sarah Greene admitted she got up to no good in one of them, although it was with her future husband, the Radio 1 DJ and BBC Breakfast Time presenter Mike Smith.
But did such shenanigans ever occur on the sets
Jones says: ‘Not that I know of — but I wouldn’t put it past some of them.’
This was a shining era of children’s TV, marked out by imagination, a charming simplicity and innocence. But where the presenters were concerned, innocence was the last thing on their minds.
Drink and the gender-dynamics of Play School help explain some of the lascivious behaviour of the stars, who were mainly in their 20s.
‘It was always a boy and a girl presenting it, along with a musician,’ says Jones.
‘And because you were in an enclosed space for 12 to 15 hours a day with one other human being — a girl — it was always tempting to go to the BBC bar and have a drink with them . . . or, in certain cases, drag them into a dressing room during a break.’
Rick on Fingerbobs, a programme that still makes it on to the lists of most popular children's shows ever
He describes the children’s TV gang as ‘little tearaways’, adding: ‘I liked the girls, I really, really liked the girls.
‘But Lionel Morton liked the girls even more. Lionel was just irresistible to women.’ Were there many Play School girls who escaped his fellow presenter Morton’s roving eye
‘Well, he was fairly picky but there were so many of them. I could stream off a list of names and they’d all hate me for life.’
Morton now lives with his family on a small farm in Cornwall, where he writes music.
Jones also recalls returning to Television Centre on one occasion in a trio of chauffeur-driven cars, after he and some other presenters had filmed the pilot for a children’s TV show that was never broadcast.
‘I tumbled out of my limo, obviously having been in flagrante delicto with whoever the girl presenter was. I looked back and another presenter was doing exactly the same from his car — this time with a guy. And the same was happening in the car behind that, too.’
The Play Schoolers didn’t keep their amorous pursuits ‘in-house’ either, he says. The series shared presenters with Blue Peter — and a lot else besides.
Blue Peter stalwart Peter Purves, who remains one of Jones’s best friends, loved the girls, too,
Rick says. ‘He was probably worse than me, probably worse even than Lionel.
'He was one of the worst until he fell madly in love with Kate (the woman who became his wife).’
What about John Noakes
‘Bland,’ replies Jones. ‘He didn’t like me very much.’
And Val Singleton — who a few years ago admitted being one of Purves’s conquests while they were on the road together
‘She is one of nature’s wonderful people,’ says Jones.
But did she behave herself
‘Val Singleton behave herself I don’t think so.’
He then smiles cryptically. ‘Men liked her but I always sensed she was unhappy.’
And Lesley Judd — the fourth of that famous Seventies Blue Peter line-up
‘Absolutely sweet, caring and she loved animals.’
A true Blue Peter-ite, then.
‘Absolutely. When my cat was dying, she actually took me to the vet and held my head while I wept.’
After the Beeb, Jones went on to work in Hollywood as a scriptwriter, but insists that Tinseltown had nothing on TV Centre when it came to sexual shenanigans.
‘The BBC was way worse than Hollywood,’ he insists. ‘In Hollywood it was in your contract that you had to behave badly. At the BBC, nobody needed any encouragement.’
Rick today: He lives in San Francisco with his second wife Valerie
Shockingly, Jones even admits that Play School presenters loved arranging the show’s famous toys in obscene poses before filming started.
Hamble, the plastic doll, was targeted in particular.
‘We hated her,’ Jones explains. ‘If you want to go through the archives, you’ll probably find Little Ted in a compromising position with Hamble in several episodes. Teddy was as bad as Humpty — they were both after her.
‘Sometimes you’d be half-an-hour into filming and you’d hear “Cut!” and the producer would shout “Bloody Hamble, she’s at it again!” — and you’d have to do the whole scene again.’
The copious consumption of alcohol at TV Centre hardly helped matters. Barry Norman has recalled needing to jog around the studio corridors drinking coffee until he’d sobered up sufficiently to present an edition of the Film programme.
Jones says: ‘That was the BBC Club on
the fourth floor. It was dangerous as any time you had a break, it was
up to the club. All roads met at the Club. You could be doing Songs Of
Praise and you’d still be up there, knocking it back. Everyone met there
— there were love affairs, book deals, assigna- tions of almost every
human kind.’ Then there were the drugs.
Jones claims he knows half-a-dozen Play School presenters who liked to smoke dope.
He believes the cannabis incident recalled by Johnny (the father of TV and radio star Zo Ball) was during a special nativity-play episode of Play School in the late Sixties, in which Jones, Ball and Morton played shepherds.
Morton — whom Rick was in a rock band with during the Play School years — was stoned on ‘untold’ episodes of the series, according to Jones.
He himself never normally touched cannabis while filming, he insists, as it made him forget his lines.
‘But I had nothing to do that day. I was wearing a hoodie, carrying a shepherd’s crook and people could only see our silhouettes anyway.
‘We were in a dressing room. Lionel lit up this enormous spliff and we had it. Johnny wouldn’t and he forgot his lines — and we didn’t.
‘We were laughing like fools but you can still sing a song when you’re stoned.’
David Attenborough, then the BBC2 controller, would complain that parts of TV Centre reeked of cannabis fumes in those days.
Jones recalls when he once smelt it from the studio next to the Play School set during filming.
‘Just then, the American star Little Richard walked out of that studio and asked me: “Were you the one singing The Big Ship Sails On the Ally-Ally-Oh in there”
‘He’d sneaked into the studio to watch us recording. “You can sing, boy,” he said — which was a bit embarrassing as I was singing that stupid kids’ song.’
Were drugs as rife in other parts of the BBC
‘I knew a couple of people in the features department who were always stoned but I can’t remember their names,’ he says.
The bosses turned a blind eye to it, he adds.
‘My guess is that was because they were doing it themselves. It was cultural.
‘There probably were some straight people around who wouldn’t dare do it but everyone I knew smoked or at least tried it.’
'The BBC was way worse than Hollywood. In Hollywood it was in your contract that you had to behave badly. At the BBC, nobody needed any encouragement,' said Rick
Despite the tolerant culture, drugs finally prompted Jones’s sacking from Play School in 1973, after an encounter with a dope-smoking groupie.
‘I answered a fan letter from a mother,’ he recalls.
‘It was so well-written and so seductive that I drove to Erith (South-East London) to meet this woman.
'I was rewarded by the most astoundingly beautiful person and an astoundingly beautiful daughter aged about four. We spent the whole afternoon sitting under a big tree in her garden smoking her weed.
‘Nothing else happened except that two weeks later a letter addressed to me and containing two huge spliffs turned up on the desk of the head of Play School, Cynthia Felgate.’
Unfortunately for Jones, the fan from Erith had made clear in her letter what she had got up to with him.
‘Cynthia summoned me in and told me: “Not at the BBC, Rick.” She was old-school.
‘I said to her, “OK, you have that one and I’ll have this one,” and I walked out because I knew it was all over. I was ready to go anyway.’
Did he have many groupies
‘Of course. I had mums after me, I had sweaters knitted for me regularly. I gave so many sweaters to charity, you wouldn’t believe it.’
He never returned to work at TV Centre, where he had also made Fingerbobs, a programme that still makes it on to the lists of most popular children’s shows ever.
The delightfully winsome series, in which Jones narrated sweet stories while manipulating animal hand puppets made from paper, was not free of the influence of drugs, either.
‘That’s where I was literally always stoned,’ says Jones.
‘We got to work at 8am and I spent hours lying under a table with my hands in the air holding the puppets.
‘It was very tiring and I couldn’t keep it up for eight hours every day without some “help”.’
During the weeks he wasn’t working on Fingerbobs, he kept himself busy doing voiceover work on foreign porn films.
‘They’d make a film in Europe and want English words on it, so I’d travel over to Paris,’ he admits. ‘I’d even have to do the grunts.
‘It was very embarrassing but it was 400 for a morning’s work in 1975. And nobody ever recognised my voice, as I made sure I disguised it.’
He then shows me his collection of Play School vinyl albums but the damage is done.
I leave Jones’s home knowing my childhood memories will never be the same again.
Tales of Television Centre will be on BBC4 at 9pm on Thursday.