His first BBC gig was on Saturday Special, one of those 1950s children’s programmes which, by its cast list alone, gives the lie to the idea that everything pre-’60s was a thin gruel of patrician women trilling Onward Christian Soldiers at the piano to a forbidding menagerie of rough hewn, clanking puppet animals. A sort of semi-scripted melange of songs, sketches and recipes, it was presented by husband-and-wife team Janet Brown and the actor Peter Butterworth, and can therefore have been little short of fantastic. Hart provided illustrations to stories, some done on camera, although the programme’s graphic mainstay was the old-school Reginald ‘Billy Bean’s Funny Machine’ Jeffryes. You get the impression that Tony, though his trademark cravats were to come later, was very much the ‘next generation’ of talent in this mixture.
He spent the next decade as a jobbing ‘creative’ man-about-the-Beeb: Playbox (appearing alongside that other mainstay of children’s televised art, the Stones to his Beatles, Rolf Harris), Titch and Quackers (operating Quackers to Ray Allen’s Titch) and the enticingly named Ask Your Dad. Then came Vision On, starting a solid run of thirty years (via Take Hart and Hartbeat) with Tone at the front of a largely unchanging format – the gallery, interstitial Aardman animations, pastel cityscapes created before your very eyes, cartoon elephants dashed off with a line-marking machine in an abandoned car park, unwelcome intrusions from resident manic comedy relief (‘Now, where was I? Ah yes, glitter!’), Tony drawing a wild animal which disappears from the picture when his back’s turned and starts terrorising the studio, and that casual, almost cavalier, way he had of deciding a picture was finished, tossing a cardboard frame over the top with a few last strokes of the pastel (‘And I think… we’ll call that… a day!’)
That’s at least three generations who’ve grown up watching the master quietly, diligently at work to the strains of the easiest listening to be found in the Beeb’s record library (all in the prescribed viewing position for ’thoughtful’ kids’ telly – lying prone on the floor two feet in front of the set, chin resting on hand, gazing upward in rapt concentration). Three generations forlornly hoping their badly-traced dinosaur panorama would make it to the gallery, three generations cursing the fact it was usurped for some talent less six year old’s gimmicky construction with movable cotton wool flaps. (Of course, Tony was teaching us a valuable lesson there about ‘passing off’ and the nature of genuine creativity, but did we listen? No, we just fumed indignantly at the thought of those coloured pencils going to someone who’d probably end up eating most of them.)
It’s not just because he’s still sadly fresh in the memory that it’s tempting to compare his amazing pre-teen influence to Oliver Postgate, but the pair have always seemed somehow alike – quietly creative, self-contained, greatly magnanimous and bursting with more ideas in a day than a Nickelodeon boardroom could rustle up in eight collective lifetimes.
Now, where did I put that Indian ink?