‘I absolutely freaked’: Benita Collings on Play School, ageing and the oddities of fame

If you grew up with a TV in Australia, Benita Collings was very likely your on-screen mum.

Benita (we were on a first name basis) was my most reliable friend, confidant and role model, who would spend most mornings and afternoons with me, singing, dancing and making crafts. Bookending the day as one of Play School’s longest-serving cast members, her relationship with me – as with her stuffed-toy colleagues Big Ted, Little Ted, Jemima and Humpty Dumpty – felt very real.

She has loomed so large over my life, in fact, that the idea of speaking with her is nerve-wracking. Collings immediately, characteristically puts me at ease. “If it starts beeping, it’s going to die,” she explains, a bit flustered by her landline. If something goes wrong, no big deal! It reminds me of my real mum.

Based on the UK’s original, Play School was introduced to Australian audiences in 1966, when TV was still in its infancy. Changing from black and white to colour with our screens, it educated and entertained kids by speaking to us, respecting us. This was part of the magic of the show.

“You talk to the camera as though it was a child,” Collings explains. “Not children. A child. Then they got that one-on-one thing. When you spoke to the camera, that child at home … well, I was talking to you,” she says, to me, and I feel seen.

Speaking from her Sydney home, Collings is doing press for her upcoming tour of Senior Moments, a comedy revue about older people and the young people they have to deal with. Now in its second outing, the stage show’s cast includes other Australian legends such as John Wood, Max Gillies and Geoff Harvey. In a sing-song voice that can’t help but remind me of her Play School alter ego, Collings counts me through its lengthy run: “Let’s see: February, March, April, May. That’s four months – with a possible extension.”

Collings’ career in Australian theatre and television dates back to more “serious stuff” in the mid-60s, such as Division 4 and Homicide. But her convivial nature made her a perfect fit for Play School,a role she almost didn’t get. Her first audition was “awful”, she says; her fault for not learning her script ahead of time. (“Naughty.”) She was invited back for a second audition based on her storytelling skills alone. Better prepared this time, she got the part, which she played for 30 years.

I ask whether she still speaks to her old Play School castmate and regular on-screen companion, John Hamblin – known among parents for his double entendres. She confirms they’ve lost touch over time, but “he was delicious to work with – wicked and such fun”.

Fame didn’t come easy, Collings says. “I had to learn how to accept people being nice. That sounds silly, I know. But I’m shy and I’m an introvert, so to have somebody come up to me on the street and say, ‘Oh I loved Play Schooland blah-blah’, I’d freak. I absolutely freaked! One time I said, ‘Oh no, that’s my twin sister.’ When I got home my then-partner said, ‘Ben, you can’t do that. You have to learn how to accept compliments.’”

People still recognise her in the street, but these days she’s fine with it. “It’s happening more now with the mums and dads and the grandmothers and grandfathers who recognise me. Well of course,” she says. “I started in 1969 and I was still on air because of repeats in 2007, so you’ve got that spread of time where people are growing up and getting married and having children, and they’re growing up.”

Play School was on TV so often it seemed the cast could have little time for anything else – but in reality, the ABC only made 45 episodes a year. “So split that between, say, five couples [of presenters], you only worked 10 days a year on it – the rest were repeats. We were all off doing film, theatre and television [at the same time].”

Now 78, Benita didn’t have to audition for her role in Senior Moments;she was approached by writer, director and producer Angus FitzSimons, and said yes upon reading the script. The cast play “straight” on stage, but the revue revolves around poking fun across generational lines. One sketch, for instance, is called “Old School”, but staged on a set eerily similar to Play School.

“It’s got some wonderful nursery rhymes in it, like, ‘Star light, star bright, I hope I make it through the night’. And, ‘Jack not nimble, Jack not quick, Jack now needs a walking stick’.”

Collings is not coy about getting older. “Some people pretend they’re not their age or that they’d never admit it, but I think, well you know, that is my age. I am 78. And that’s it.”

Now over half a century itself, Play School has continued to adapt with the times. After a revamp in 2000 (the rocket clock and the windows retired, RIP), the show generated outrage after featuring a rainbow family in 2004, which it didn’t try again until 2016. Its diverse cast now includes Indigenous Australian actor Hunter Page-Lochard and Kiruna Stamell, who was born with a form of dwarfism.

Despite working in an industry where women are quickly aged-out, Collings continues to land roles as a theatre performer, voiceover actor and MC. “I don’t know if there’s anything that drives me [to keep working],” she says. “But if I’m approached and it sounds like fun, the answer is yes. That’s how I’ve always done my life.”

Published in the Guardian.

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