IT WAS a welcome reminder of a gentler age. The children’s television presenter Brian Cant died this week, aged 83. After a news diet of seemingly unrelenting horror — with one terrorist attack after another, and the terrifying towering inferno in west London — it has been a pleasure to be prompted to spend some time surfing through internet videos of his endearing performances in a whole succession of children’s classic TV programmes from the 1960s and ’70s.
Brian Cant — I never met him; so Brian sounds too familiar, yet Mr Cant too ridiculously formal — was the soundtrack to both my childhood and my early years of parenting. Clearly, I was not alone. Just a decade ago, he was voted the best-loved voice in the age of children’s television. It was not surprising, even years after he ceased to grace our screens, because he had presented BBC’s Play School for more than two decades from 1964, and Play Away for another decade. He was also the voice of three children’s classics: the Gordon Murray stop-go puppet series Trumpton, Camberwick Green, and Chigley.
On hearing the news of his passing, there was more to my sadness than nostalgia for a vanished childhood, although there was that, too. The opening lines of Trumpton, week in week out, originals and repeats, were unfailingly the same: “Here is the clock, the Trumpton clock. Telling the time, steadily, sensibly; never too quickly, never too slowly. Telling the time for Trumpton.” Those words spoke of a golden age, and of the golden voice — Brian Cant’s — which embodied it. Steady. Sensible. Never too quick. Never too slow. It embodied a kind of English reliability, decency, and geniality.
More than that, he personified a distinctively English sense of irony. His gentle, mellifluous voice was loved by millions of children and parents alike. He played to the camera as though he were talking to one child, as if his performance was for him or her alone. But adults could detect beneath the avuncular warmth a delicious sense of multi-layered irony.
His wit was sweet, lovely, and kind. It was knowing, but only just enough for an England populated by a Mayor, Mr Troop the town clerk, Chippy Minton the carpenter and his apprentice Nibbs, Mr Clamp the greengrocer, Mr Munnings the printer, Mr Platt the clockmaker, Mrs Cobbit the florist, and Miss Lovelace the milliner and her three Pekingese, Mitzi, Daphne, and Lulu. Not forgetting the members of the town fire brigade whose roll call went: “Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub.”
Brian Cant’s world was an innocent one in which children learn to swim lying across a stool. It was an imaginative one in which his Play School audition consisted of him being asked to climb into a cardboard box and row out to sea. (Not only did he do so, but, when he got there, he fished from the boat and hooked an imaginary Wellington boot full of custard.)
It was a world of charming reassurance in which he could sing songs, in his clear baritone, that used words such as “nosegay”. He created a safe space for us — one for which, as adults, we can only yearn in these troubled times.