While for 50 years—yes, Play School first screened on July 18, 1966—the ABC-TV show has entertained generations of kids with its mix of stories, songs, and make-and-dos, and still reaches 80 per cent of Australian preschoolers weekly, executive producer Jan Stradling tells WHO the "twinkle in the eye" of a presenter makes it just as entertaining for adults.
"A lot of the footage that appealed to me was when things go wrong!" says Stradling. "Like many people, I can't help but laugh at someone like John Hamblin, who was consistently badly behaved, but in a great way."
Presenters say the real stars of the show are the cast's 25 toys including Big Ted, Humpty, Jemima and Little Ted, and while it's like asking parents to name their favourite child, some confess they do have a preferred toy to work with.
"I kind of have a soft spot for Scrap," says actor Andrew McFarlane, 65, a presenter since 1998 (There are YouTube mashups of his best Play School dance moves.) "I think his name is fabulous because he's a patchwork dog. Even his ears are little socks, I think. He has buttons for eyes and there's some crochet parts for his underbelly. And he also's got a fabulous expression on his face."
While actor, singer and father-of-eight Jay Laga'aia, 52—a presenter since 2000—insists "I try and spread the love around as far as the toys are concerned," he does admit to one favourite: Big Ted. "He makes a statement purely by being there," says Laga'aia. "He's the quintessential Aussie. He spends most of his time without a stitch of clothes but he's cool with that."
Even though he started on Play School 21 years ago, actor Alex Papps, 47, still has a souvenir from his first craft segment on the show. "We were making fruit fridge magnets, just cutting out fruit shapes with different coloured sponges and things and they all had a little magnet on the back," he recalls. "I made like a little lemon—I've got it somewhere."
Actress and singer Justine Clarke, 44, started on Play School in 1999 and says all the presenters have "an emotional connection" to the show, "because we all grew up on it too, so everybody is excited to be there and they all bring their inner four-year-year old to work." And while she "adores" all of the co-hosts, one stands out: "Alex Papps and I are dear old friends from Home and Away days and it gives me great joy to see him in a funny wig and a frock prancing about next to me."
Underneath all the happiness and fun, however, McFarlane tells WHO—in an actual whisper—there's one cast member who has more diva power than all the rest. "At the top of the tree is, of course, Jemima. And I say her name quite respectfully and quietly because she has spies everywhere," he says. "And if she is not given her due accolades, watch out next time I'm working with her. She'll stand on my toe or it'll be some awful thing where I spill the glue pot all over myself."