Rick Jones, who has died aged 84, became a sort of surrogate uncle for millions of children who grew up watching the BBC pre-school series Play School and Fingerbobs in the 1960s and early 1970s.
But in later interviews and in the BBC Four documentary Lights! Camera! Action! Tales of Television Centre, broadcast in 2012, Jones, known for his shaggy beard, warm sing-song voice and guitar, depicted life behind the scenes as a hotbed of drugs, extramarital sex and adult humour.
Originally from Canada, he 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.
“We went in there thinking ‘it’s going to be very staid’, he recalled, “and soon found out that wasn’t the case at all.”
With its cuddly toys, introductory mantra “Here’s a house, here’s a door…” and preternaturally smiley presenters, the weekday morning (and later afternoon) show seemed the epitome of squeaky-clean innocent children’s entertainment.
According to Jones, however, presenters were often caught in flagrante in the dressing rooms of Television Centre, and they enjoyed arranging the show’s toy characters in Kama Sutra poses before filming began – Hamble, the plastic doll, being a particular target.
“We hated her,” Jones recalled. “If you want to go through the archives, you’ll probably find Little Ted in a compromising position with Hamble in several episodes… 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!’”
Meanwhile, a careful examination of the Play House’s round, square and arched windows might have revealed clouds of marijuana smoke.
His co-presenter Johnny Ball claimed that Jones and his colleague Lionel Morton were “stoned out of their minds” on “the biggest joint you’ve ever seen” when the trio appeared in silhouette as shepherds in a Nativity play, Morton holding his crook in such a way that the joint did not show. “Marijuana was like cornflakes,” Jones recalled. “We were laughing like fools but you can still sing a song when you’re stoned.”
Jones recalled returning to Television Centre on one occasion in a trio of chauffeur-driven cars, after he and some other presenters had filmed a pilot for another children’s show: “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.”
Jones spent nearly a decade with Play School and in 1972 was chosen to present Fingerbobs, a winsome 13-episode series in which, as Yoffo, Jones narrated sweet stories about Fingermouse and his friends, including Scampi the fish, Flash the tortoise and Gulliver the seagull, while manipulating animal hand puppets made from paper.
Fingerbobs regularly appears on lists of the best children’s series ever, but Jones found it such hard work “scooting around under tables with one’s fingers up little animals’ bums”, that he was “literally always stoned”. Moreover, he was so badly paid that, during the weeks he was not narrating the adventures of Flash the tortoise, he kept himself busy doing voiceover work on foreign pornographic films: “I’d even have to do the grunts. It was very embarrassing, but it was £400 for a morning’s work.”
At the end of the series Jones, deciding that enough was enough, ceremonially drowned Fingermouse in a cup of cold coffee.
Jones was eventually fired by the BBC in 1973 after a fan sent him two cannabis spliffs which landed on the desk of the head of Play School, Cynthia Felgate. “I knew the writing was on the wall,” said Jones, “so I gave her one and took the other.”
Frederick Joseph Jones was born on February 7 1937, in London, Ontario, to parents who had emigrated from Britain. At the age of 18 he enrolled at the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art in London and had some success on stage and in small roles on television before landing the job as one of the original co-presenters of Play School.
He subsequently had success fronting the British country rock band Meal Ticket, which enjoyed success on the London pub circuit and released three albums of songs, many written by Jones.
In 1981 he moved to the US when his co-written musical comedy Captain Crash vs the Zzorg Women Chapters 5 and 6 was staged at a theatre in Los Angeles.
In 1960 he married Marina Ayles. The marriage was dissolved and in 1986 he married, secondly, Valerie Neale. She survives him with two daughters from his first marriage.
Rick Jones, born February 7 1937, died October 7 2021