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Homo Ludens. R.I.P. Brian Cant.

June 20, 2017


When my generation grieves for Brian Cant or John Noakes, what we’re sad about, in many ways, is the loss of people we can’t remember the world without – people who have been famous for as long as we’ve been aware that certain people are famous at all.  Such people have not only been famous for the duration of our lives, but famous in a way that the littlest of lives comprehended.

I cannot remember a time when I did not know the name or the face or the voice of Brian Cant.

His was the voice, of course, behind Gordon Murray’s imagined worlds of  Trumpton, Camberwick Green and Chigley.  Trumpton had its litany of firefighters (“Pugh, Pugh, Barney-McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub”), a litany which I will probably recite on my deathbed to bewildered onlookers.  When I think of Camberwick Green I think of the elegance of the music box and the way in which the segments of the lid opened and closed.  And Chigley was notable for the rather Owenite biscuit factory wherein a six o’ clock whistle inaugurated compulsory dancing for the entire workforce.

He also appeared in two Doctor Who adventures I was too young to see him in first time around.  He played a patrician representative of the peace-loving Dulcians and was thereby squeezed into one of the most ludicrous costumes in the history of the franchise.

But of course, it was in Play School and Play Away that we best remember him.  I have fonder memories of Play Away than Play School – perhaps because it didn’t have “school” in the title.  Play School always carried with it the notion of play as something instrumental – something with a hidden pedagogic agenda.  Play Away felt like pure play – it felt like holiday.  Play Away was Brian Cant’s purest domain.

Brian Cant was an actor and more than an actor.  He tapped the wellsprings of “play” itself.  He was himself, the living, walking, hopping, smiling semantic link between “play” – the thing with a script and a stage and lights etc. etc. – and the activity of “play” that all children engage in.  He was an ur-actor.

Play Away may have been the making of Jeremy Irons, but I do not think of Jeremy Irons as playful in quite the same way.  Ah, but Toni Arthur and Floella Benjamin though….

Brian Cant was the embodiment of “let’s be this” and “let’s be that”.  And everything he played, he played with complete conviction, because nothing is more truthful than joy.  Little sketches would be played out with rudimentary costumes for a few minutes at a time, and then everyone would change roles.  Central to this ludic consciousness was a random element.  Lets allow the first item pulled out of the hamper to suggest the remainder of the narrative.  Whether or not these shows were tightly scripted is not the point.  The idea of improvisation was preserved.  As I attempt to retrieve the youngest possible version of myself – I think of Brian Cant as one of us.

Back in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth-centuries – “actor” was not the most popular word to describe someone who strutted on a stage.   The most popular word was “player”.  Nobody played happier or more influentially than Brian Cant.



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