Arch window > diamond window: We interviewed your favourite childhood television host

If you grew up in the ’90s in Australia, there’s a good chance Simon Burke was either your first crush or your fantasy best bff as a five-year-old. We spoke to Sydney-based Burke, who remains active in films, television and theatre (and most recently featured in Noises Off with Queensland Theatre), about his work on the iconic children’s TV show.
By Grace Jennings-Edquist

There’s a rumour that Play School presenters had some fun slipping in the odd on-air double entendre to liven up the experience for adult watchers. Is it true?

Absolutely. But I don’t think it happens so much these days.

When I first began and for the first 15 years or so, we would shoot it live, so unless you actually dropped a magic word, you would sort of laugh and go off script a bit and you would just keep going.

Now it’s shot more in segments, so it’s deliberately made to look a bit slicker. Part of the charm of it [in the early days] I think was, it looked a bit spontaneous and like anything could happen. That was when… people like Noni [Hazelhurst] and John Hamblin and me would then make a bit of a naughty joke. Because you’ve got to realise that more than half the audience are parents watching the shows. I can’t tell you how many parents have said, “it was fun watching the show because we knew that you guys could say something a bit cheeky.”

Play School has a special place in the heart of generations of children – but also parents. Did you ever receive fan letters from adoring mums who decided you were a bit of a sex symbol?

I’ve had some very interesting encounters with people on the street or in public who have told me about the joys of watching Play School for young mothers. Which is lovely, it’s very flattering. It’s cool to be appreciated. [But] I guess much more important is the literally thousands of people 18 to late 20s who came up and said, “you were an important part of my childhood.” There’s something very very special about that.

There are often funny stories. I was on a flight once, and this flight attendant came up to me and she said, “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, my daughter would kill me, she’s 16 now, but when she was three or five she had an imaginary friend and her imaginary friend was you. Everywhere she went we had to set a place at the table for Simon.”

I think I’m the first presenter of Play School who was someone who had watched it [as a kid myself.] It had just started when I was little [and when I started as a presenter] I was 24. And because there are so many repeats, sometimes in one day you could see my hair [change] throughout the ’90s, or Noni would be pregnant in the morning and skinny in the afternoon.

What did you have to do in the Play School audition?

I don’t remember my audition so much but I have, over many years, been contacted by many young performers who’ve said, “I’ve got an audition for Play School, can you please help me with it?” I think they don’t realise – well I certainly didn’t until I started it – how difficult it is.

It’s quite different to other kid’s shows. Because it’s a show aimed at a four-year-old person, basically the mistake a lot of people make is they can just kind of walk in… And what they don’t realise is there’s a very specific tone; it’s about talking to one four-year-old person rather than a group of kids, it’s about having an absolute connection, one-on-one with that person. It’s a wonderful challenge because over the 30 years I was involved with that show, you’re always honing that skill, and interestingly enough you learn so much about yourself as an actor, because you basically have to play yourself, which is why I think so many actors who have very big careers outside of Play School always return to it. Because it’s this great challenge, to be very truthful.

There has alway been a lot of debate about what the best Play School window shape is: Square, circle or arch. Can you confirm the arch is the best?

I think arch is absolutely the one, I’m with you.

And when they brought in the diamond window, that was time for me to go. That was like what the, W-T-F? Who cares about that, who wants a diamond?

Digital design: Grace Jennings-Edquist