Rainbow's Geoffrey Hayes: the strong and silent type of children's TV presenter

Zippy and Geoffrey Hayes
Zippy and Geoffrey Hayes Photograph: FremantleMedia Ltd/REX/Shutterstock

It was part of the genius of Geoffrey Hayes, who has died aged 76, that he realised his historic role as presenter of Rainbow was to be the still centre around which the madness romped. In this respect, he was a little like Mike Reid, the TV host of contemporaneous kids show Runaround, who was tasked with shouting the show’s catchphrase “Runaround, now!” and then standing still while sugar-crazed brats raced around the studio to some inscrutable end.

Such was the lot of adult presenters of kids’ shows in the 70s. They were doomed to be sensible. They were – like adults at some misbegotten kids party – tasked with holding together a chaotic world. But the difference between Hayes and Reid was that, while the latter had the long-suffering, million-yard stare of a grownup who was praying for it all to end, the former was a blank canvas on to which one could, albeit dubiously, project whatever emotions one might imagine.

As a child, I took Geoffrey as an authority figure. As a parent, I want to thank him for expressing my suffering

Destined to be outshone from 1974 to 1992 by a pink hippo called George (whose long eyelashes, in retrospect, suggest attitudes to gender fluidity quite advanced for the otherwise benighted 1970s), a garrulous rugby-ball-shaped lower life form called Zippy and someone in a bear suit called Bungle, Hayes barely, so far as I recall (and I’ve watched most of Rainbow’s 1,000-plus episodes), cracked a smile.

Only occasionally was Geoffrey – as he was familiarly known to his millions of pre-pubescent viewers – allowed to pull shut the zip across Zippy’s mouth. Otherwise he could do little to hold the puppets in check. Geoffrey thus suffered symbolically for the rest of the adult world that had made thedecision to breed and later to organise birthday parties for their spawn, inviting their energetic and barely containable friends. As a child, I took Geoffrey as an authority figure. As a recovering parent, I look on him now and want to thank him for expressing my suffering.

Ash blond and tanned, Hayes was a dead ringer for Brian Connolly from 70s glam rock combo Sweet. In fact, as a pre-teen I suspected they may have been the same person. After all, they were never seen together. Connolly also never cracked a smile but looked as understandably glum as any man in his tragic scenario would be. Similarly, Hayes looked equally glum about being trapped in his existential lot. He was obliged to keep order when, you’d think, he would rather not.

The cast of Rainbow.
The cast of Rainbow. Photograph: FremantleMedia Ltd/REX/Shutterstock

Rainbow, the PR people claimed, was intended to help young children with their reading, writing and maths (that great lie of children’s TV past and present). Let me say, as one of Rainbow’s target demographic, I learned nothing from the show. Except, perhaps, that to wear a stripy jumper over a shirt with the collars peeping out, as Hayes sometimes did, was never going to get me into fashion editor Jess Cartner-Morley’s good books.

Kids’ TV presenters weren’t all as restrained as Hayes. Think of Johnny Ball – he couldn’t get through a maths conundrum on Think of a Number without drooling, a fact that doubtless accounts for my generation’s innumeracy. Or think of John Noakes – he couldn’t be other than excitable even when treading in elephant poo on the studio floor.

Hayes also eschewed the patrician snootiness of other kids’ presenters, such as Play Away’s Brian Cant or Vision On’s Tony Hart. His presenting soulmates, when you think about it, were long-suffering Harry Corbett, who had his hand up Sooty and Sweep’s derrieres for decades, and Johnny Morris, who in Animal Magic played a zookeeper looking on while chimps humped his legs or peed on his shoes.

After Rainbow was cancelled in 1992, Hayes struggled to find work. He stacked shelves in Sainsbury’s, drove a taxi and even did a TV ad about investing money, making fun of his fall from the top. The problem was, he told interviewers, that he was typecast as Geoffrey, which made him effectively unemployable. It could have been otherwise – in the late 1960s he had a recurring role in the BBC cop show Z Cars.

Ten years after the end of Rainbow, his attempt to relaunch his career with an Edinburgh fringe show called Over the Rainbow stalled when the costumes for Zippy, Bungle and George were stolen from his van en route to the show. That said, he did appear in the video I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing by Oasis tribute band No Way Sis and sing backing on Peter Kay’s Is This the Way to Amarillo.

But such is the fate of adults’ fondest childhood TV icons. “It came as a shock when the phone stopped ringing in 1994,” he said in 2002. “I got depressed for a while, but it didn’t last long. I took the attitude, ‘What will be will be’. They were fantastic years, and I don’t regret them. I’ve been really lucky.”

And so have those of us who spent our TV childhoods watching Geoffrey Hayes in his pomp.

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