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Play School favourite falls to the dark side

AGELESS: Andrew McFarlane has been part of our TV lives since the 1970s, but his love of life and career show no signs of slowing.
AGELESS: Andrew McFarlane has been part of our TV lives since the 1970s, but his love of life and career show no signs of slowing.

WE'VE been inviting him into our living rooms for decades.

But these days we are just as likely to find Andrew McFarlane laughing it up with the Play School toys as exploring his darker side in series like The Devil's Playground and Clever Man.

And he's loving the juxtaposition.

There is absolutely no hint of age in talking to the 66-year-old, except perhaps that his experience is opening up new acting opportunities and challenges.

Even Andrew is surprised when the interview starts by referring to his 17 years on Play School - "Wow, that shocks me; that's a very long time."

He's not one of the stars, he clarifies quickly, the presenters are just "necessities", there to help the toys - the true stars, over 50 years - relate to their child audience.

A KID AT HEART: Andrew McFarlane still delights in playing with the real stars of Play School, like Big Ted, and having been part of children's development for 17 years.
A KID AT HEART: Andrew McFarlane still delights in playing with the real stars of Play School, like Big Ted, and having been part of children's development for 17 years. © Australian Broadcasting Corpo

Things have definitely changed over that time, he said, but the essence remains the same, a safe and secure place for children to learn and discover.

"It's a landmark in Australian TV, in Australian culture and young childhood," Andrew said.

"It has a nostalgia and people have great affection for it. It's everyone's show."

The sets, the clock, even those iconic windows have transformed to meet today's technological age.

"It has to change to keep the show vibrant and relevant - but it still maintains that excitement and discovery of childhood," Andrew said.

And he appreciates the "delightful irony" that today Jemima can at times "jump on the world wide web" and do things with the technology that the presenters have to catch up on.

"I've always said it's a privilege to be invited into this world of early childhood - everything about the world to them is new and exciting."

Quite frankly, it also allows him to be a big kid.

"I'm allowed to dance really badly and sing slightly off-key, to dress up and fly around like a butterfly and everyone thinks it's cute, because that's what's expected of me," Andrew laughed.

But there are also demands on the Play School set which the presenters - there have been about 100 over the 50 years, many of them Australia's best known actors - don't find in normal roles.

"You have to be completely unselfconscious and very honest," Andrew said.

"Actors are always trained not to look at the camera, but here we have to look directly into the camera and pretend we are just talking to one particular child, so each child feels we're relating to them directly and feels connected."

And then there's the stars - household names like Big Ted, Humpty, Jemima and Scrap - who, like all celebrities, have to be carefully handled.

In this case, that means not picking them up by the neck or the ear!

Because, of course, the toys are not toys to their viewers but very real "people".

Andrew was preparing to be special guest for the Dress-up Party as part of Play School's 50th birthday celebration exhibition at Toowoomba's Cobb+Co museum when we spoke, which raised the question of Play School's live shows.

"They are intense - exhausting," Andrew laughed. "It's hard work being young!"

"We have a few minutes of quiet when we sing Twinkle, Twinkle, but the rest of the time it's like trying to catch runaway baby chicks while riding a roller coaster.

"Their energy levels are so high and their concentration is continually changing."

But, he admits, it is perhaps being part of Play School - combined with yoga - which keeps him young, with a career which shows no signs of slowing.

Starting out as the boy next door character of eldest son John in 1970s The Sullivans, Andrew went on to other memorable "nice guy" roles as the trusted Tom Callaghan in The Flying Doctors, the dependable Lieutenant Keating on Patrol Boat and guest spots on just about every other big-name Australian series you can think of.

But recently, "our Andrew" has been discovering his darker side, from the quietly menacing Dr Milson in A Place to Call Home to more "twisted and corrupt" characters in The Devil's Playground, Clever Man and Netflix cult hit Glitch.

It was his personification of Father Andrassi in The Devil's Playground, for which he won Most Outstanding Performance, which Andrew said really opened the door for him to more demanding, nefarious characters.

"It's a really exciting time now for television," Andrew said.

Access to cable networks, and the growth of Netflix and its counterparts, had raised the bar, not just changing the way audiences enjoyed TV, letting them watch programs how and when they wanted, but changing the genre of programs, the way they are made, the way they are acted and resulting in "really innovative, great writing".

And he plans to be a part of it ... as well as Play School ... for a long time to come.

"The concept of age and maturity has changed.

"When we were young, roles for people my age now were very stereotypical - they'd go to bed early, garden, go to the pub - whereas now those people are instrumental in life.

"Sixty and 70-year-olds are leaders in industry, leading very active lives, still behaving outrageously.

"It's a different landscape and today's writing and drama has to reflect that."

Farewell Play School Party

The Play School 50th birthday exhibit at the Cobb+Co museum in Toowoomba has been extended due to popular demand - led by grandparents taking grandkids along!

But on October 15 it's time to say goodbye to Big Ted, Humpty and Jemima, the props (including the windows and rocket clock), costumes and archival clips.

And they are going out with a bang, with a farewell party from 10am-2pm, including games, craft activities, story time sessions and more! This is a free event with museum entry (itself free to local residents), so get along on the day or before.

To find out more call 46594900 or go to www.cobbandco.qm.qld.gov.au.

Topics:  general-senior-news playschool


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