Children's broadcaster who presented Play Away and Play School

Born: April 3, 1933;

Died: June 19, 2017

BRIAN Cant, who has died aged 83, was a giant in the field of British children’s television presenting, an area which has enjoyed no shortage of distinctive and much-loved characters. Yet Cant’s gentle, encouraging, fatherly presence and the air of inquisitive mischief he brought set him apart throughout the 21 years he spent on the iconic BBC children’s show Play School, during which he was a cross-generational pop culture icon. He also hosted Play Away - Play School’s sister programme aimed at older viewers - for 13 years and his soothing, expressive voice was the soundtrack of the fondly-remembered puppet animation shows Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley.

Although his association with television for pre- and primary school-age children was indelible, Cant was also a prolific actor for stage and screen. His first credited television appearance was as a prisoner of war in the television drama The Long Way Home in 1960, and he took roles in popular series including Z Cars, Dixon of Dock Green, Play for Today and ITV Play of the Week throughout the 1960s. He also made two appearances in the classic series of Doctor Who, as Space Security Agent Kert Gantry in The Daleks’ Master Plan (1965; he was exterminated by a Dalek) and Chairman Tensa in The Dominators (1968), and appeared in dozens of repertory theatre productions.

When he auditioned for Play School it was just another job, but creator and producer Joy Whitby was thrilled with his improvised story about sailing away in a cardboard box to find a welly boot full of custard. A power cut on the opening night of BBC2 meant that the first programme it showed was the first edition of Play School the following morning, and Cant’s popularity with the audience saw him contacted by Gordon Murray to narrate his Trumpton trilogy (the actor performed the whole show in composer Freddie Phillips’ home studio without seeing any of the puppetry or animation) and heading Play School spin-off Play Away, a cheerful Saturday afternoon affair based around songs and jokes, which earned itself a following of adults as well as children.

Brian Cant was born in Ipswich, Suffolk in 1933, his disposition towards performance coming not from his engineer father, but from his grandfather on his mother’s side, a travelling music hall skating performer who abandoned the family to move to Australia.

An avid fan of seaside shows in nearby Clacton, Cant started out as a helper at the Ipswich Theatre, although he never studied drama at school or college. He worked in printing as a lithographic artist, first in Ipswich and then in London, and joined the amateur Mountview Theatre Club after moving to the city. A successful audition saw him move into professional repertory theatre for some years, until he made his breakthrough with the BBC.

When Play Away was taken off air after a 13-year run in 1984, it seemed as though Cant was the victim of changing tastes moving away from the combination of gentleness and subtlety he had helped pioneer in children’s programming for the previous two decades. He later admitted to being nonplussed by the visceral style of presenting which followed. “Play School and Play Away used to … invite you to take part in what was happening, while a lot of television now drives you away and forces you to sit back from the screen,” he once said, adding, “I can’t see what’s funny about gunge.”

Yet it’s impossible to quantify the effect that Cant’s calm, reassuring style had on the generations who grew up with it. While he narrated the lesser-known children’s television animations Dappledown Farm and Jay Jay the Jet Plane during the 1990s and early 2000s, took a small role in the 1995 film A Feast at Midnight alongside Christopher Lee (and future politician Michael Gove) and appeared more than once in the daytime soap Doctors, his most memorable appearances during this time came as a result of grown-up creators’ nostalgia for his presence.

In 1992 the rave group Urban Hype sampled his famous “Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub” roll-call from Trumpton for the top ten UK hit A Trip to Trumpton, although he did not see any royalties; in 1998 he regularly appeared on Stewart Lee and Richard Herring’s comedy show This Morning with Richard Not Judy; and in 2001 he played an odd but strangely sentimental part in The Altogether, a film by the techno production duo Orbital, which affectionately riffed upon his Play Away persona.

In 2010 Cant received a Children’s BAFTA to acknowledge his work in television, while his legacy as a presenter for children endures in the memories of adults who grew up with him. Justin Fletcher – currently, under his own name and as CBeebies’ Mr Tumble, the most successful children’s entertainer in the country – found him hugely influential. “He was for me one of the governors of children’s television when I was a child,” Fletcher told the Independent in 2013, and his patient, involved style of presenting clearly owes a large debt to Cant.

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1999, Brian Cant died at Denville Hall, a retirement home on the northern edge of London often used by figures from the theatrical and entertainment industries. Previously he had lived in Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire with his wife Cherry Britton, the writer and producer, through whom he was brother-in-law to the television presenter Fern Britton (who Cant drove to her first interview for a job in television) and the stage actor Jasper Britton, and son-in-law of the actor Tony Britton.

He is survived by his wife and their children Rose, Christabel and Peter, and by his children from his first marriage to Mary Gibson, Nicholas and Richard, the latter also an actor.