TV

We Went Behind The Scenes On The ‘Play School’ Set And All We Got Were A Whole Lot Of Feelings

As of today, Eddie Perfect is a presenter on the show that raised you.

The Play School set is intensely quiet. A floor-to-ceiling sky backdrop with gentle clouds girds the area, taking up so much visual real estate it almost looks like the edges of Play School land have been encroached upon by TV equipment. That’s how powerful the iconography of the ABC’s most beloved children’s TV program is, even fifteen years after I last watched a whole episode: my mind wants to interpret the scene laid out in front of me as a documentary. Play School is an expansive natural habitat the crew has come to film like rainforest or grasslands, and if the high ceiling were lifted away it would reveal flat blue walls stretching out to infinity.

In the centre, rookie presenter Eddie Perfect stands in front of an upright, brown paper canvas slightly taller than he is. Fellow presenter Rachael Coopes is tracing the outline of his body with a chubby texta.

“Let’s see,” she says. “What are we missing? Oh! Eddie’s face!”

She’s almost finished drawing on a big red smile when the director tells everyone to start the scene again. I exhale and realise I’ve been holding my breath for at least thirty seconds, mesmerised by the live version of a show intended for children under primary school age.

“All that original artwork destroyed,” jokes one of the show’s camera operators as crew members tear off Perfect and Coopes’ outlines in preparation for a second take.

“I feel like I’m stepping into an institution,” says Perfect, whose first episode as presenter goes to air on May 18. “It’s the second-longest running children’s TV show in the world, the fiftieth anniversary is next year.”

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It’s a change from his previous projects, which include Channel Ten drama Offspring, Helpmann award-winning Shane Warne: The Musical plus satirical cabaret shows Drink Pepsi, Bitch in 2005 and Misanthropology in 2011.

“My own comedy is dark, it’s deliberately designed to lead people through discomfort to face whatever issue it is I’m interested in,” he says.

“[On Play School] we’ve got fantastic writers, supervisors and early childhood specialists who craft this stuff, and it’s just my job to bring it to life and communicate it to the kids. So in that respect it’s a lot of joy and a limited amount of responsibility.”

“But Play School uses exactly the same skill set as something like Misanthropology. It’s still musical theatre, but the material and the audience are different.”

And Play School really is musical theatre. One of the most surprising things I discovered on set was the piano man, who sits in a booth and provides the show’s distinctive soundtrack live, the same way it’s been recorded for decades.

“It’s really low tech!” says Perfect. “The stuff we make is held together with pegs and sticky tape, and it’s designed like that so kids don’t go ‘Oh if only I had a glue gun or a soldering iron or a robotics lab I’d be able to join in.’ It’s accessible on purpose.”

Play School has always had an ethos of inclusion, and not just by way of presenting simple activities that can be done with rudimentary craft supplies. Its current cast of presenters is more ethnically diverse than many other shows on local telly, and this commitment to reflecting modern Australia has been getting it in trouble with rightwing governments and commentators for years.

Back in 2004 the Bear in There copped it for a Through the Window segment showing a little girl at an amusement park with her two mums, which then Prime Minister John Howard described as “the ABC running an agenda in a children’s program.”

In 2006 conservative Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman had a go too, accusing Play School of exploiting and indoctrinating children in a blog post called Red Ted, Play School and hidden agendas.

“The show does patronise kids, it does exploit them, it does preach to them, it does talk down to them and it doesn’t have the nursery rhymes the children know and love, it has bowdlerised humbug,” wrote Akerman.

“[The] pap served up by the ABC’s Play School would suggest that there should be laws protecting them from adults who want to rape them intellectually.”

I’m interested to hear what Perfect, who has two young daughters, thinks of accusations that Play School is a demented ideological weapon the ABC uses to brainwash innocent tots.

“First, for the record, I don’t think the ABC is biased,” he says with a wry smile. “But if things like inclusion of people regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation could be considered left wing, then I guess Play School could be considered left wing.”

“I don’t think those things are necessarily left wing though. It’s about inclusion. It’s about imaginative play, learning through music, body awareness, doing craft, and not needing to have material wealth to do those things. It’s the most egalitarian prospect going on TV for kids at the moment, and I don’t think it fits into anything political unless you want to politicise it.”

Perfect says this inclusivity and creative atmosphere are what he likes about Play School. During filming I spot a table covered in kids’ craft supplies, and immediately have to suppress the urge to stick my hand into a giant jar of multicoloured pom poms.

“There’s this thing with creativity where I believe it becomes vocational too early,” he says. “Like you’ve either got this God-given talent to have a career in art or singing or acting, and if you aren’t blessed then you just should just not do it anymore.”

“Some people are better at this stuff than others, it’s like sport or maths. But everyone should sing in a choir, or play in a band, or if they’re interested in acting go and join an amateur dramatic society and be in a play. It teaches you to listen to other people, to be patient and cooperative.”

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This is certainly how I remember Play School. I can see why presenters, household names like John Waters, Deborah Mailman, Justine Clark, Georgie Parker and Rhys Muldoon, often appear on the show for years between their other commitments.

“If you’re doing a TV show and you’re out for two months then they’ll just use other people in the pool of presenters. It’s really flexible,” says Perfect, who is in the early stages of working on a new play as well as a television series he describes as black comedy.

“If you’re a mum or a dad spending 24 hours a day with your kids you lose your mind, and I think it would be similar with Play School. You need to do it in balance with other things.”

Lighting manager Bruce Liebau has a long-term perspective on the presenters, having worked on the show since the first episode was made in 1966.

“Performers are often at the top of their careers when they appear on Play School,” he says. “But it’s a serious gig, and they’re often still nervous the first few times they do it.”

“When the 45th reunion happened a few years ago they were all involved. It’s a pretty big deal.”

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Between takes I scan the studio for familiar props. Many have been updated since I was a kid, but their replacements have the classic Play School aesthetic: simple colours, familiar shapes. The Flower Clock is now the Hickory Dickory Clock, the rolling green hill props have been painted a less violently nineties shade of green.

But I can’t see the windows anywhere, neither round, square nor arched, and I’m perplexed until a producer tells me they don’t live on the set any more. The windows still appear in the show, he says, but because the shots are the same every time they splice one into every new episode in post-production.

I’m embarrassed at how relieved I am, knowing kids in 2015 still get to experience anticipation at seeing what will be through the window.

“We accept a three-year-old or a five-year-old dancing and singing and playing, and Play School is the start of that for a lot of kids,” says Perfect. “Then as they get older we close that creative window, and I think it’s a real shame. I think we should keep it open forever.”

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Eddie Perfect joins Play School from Monday, 18 May at 9:30am on ABC KIDS. All images courtesy of Play School/ABC.

Eleanor Robertson is a writer living in Sydney. Her work appears regularly in The Guardian, Daily Life and Frankie Magazine. Follow her at @marrowing for crap jokes and drunk tweets.