By Hook, it’s panto for Derek
He is the all-singing, all-dancing children’s presenter who plays the dastardly pirate Captain Hook in Norwich’s top panto, Peter Pan. Sarah Hardy catches up with Derek Griffiths and talks about yoof’ telly, rock music and that funny little character called Bod.
Say Derek Griffiths to any 30 or 40-something and their faces light up. He was the cool, funky Play School presenter in our youth in the 1960s and '70s. The one who could play any and every instrument and strut his stuff big time.
He stood out by being black when there were not many black faces on telly (remember, it was the days when the Black and White Minstrel Show was still being shown), and also because he was so unrestrained!
While other favourites such as jolly Brian Cant and Johnny Ball were a bit off-beat, Derek was wonderfully reckless and all us youngsters wanted him as our wacky big brother.
Although no longer such a familiar face on television, Derek is just as passionate about the work he does these days and, boy, does he work! He tackles everything from composing music to advert voice-overs, radio jingles and plenty of stage work. Did you know that he wrote that incredibly catchy theme music to Bod, that funny little man who's recently come back on to the small screen?
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Most recently he's starred as Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast in the West End while other roles include the Engineer in Miss Saigon and the child-catcher in Chitty, Chitty Bang, Bang.
Not bad for someone who celebrates their 60th birthday next year - and looks very well on it, too! The trademark moustache has long gone but Derek remains as lean and supple as the days when he was called the rubber-limbed genius. And his voice is just as appealing, like listening to gooey treacle.
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“Listen, I love to work,” says Derek. “And to have some diversity is wonderful.”
He arrives in Norwich this week to appear in the Theatre Royal's top-rated family panto, Peter Pan. He's no stranger to the region, having holidayed in Mundesley as a child, and also having appeared at the theatre in the days of the legendary manager Dick Condon. And many theatre-goers still talk about him in the Fantastics back in 1970s.
He's used to life on the road, saying that he's done it for years. “You go where the work is, it's as simple as that. But I do go home as much as I can, even if it means a long day.”
Derek plans to make life as easy as possible while appearing in panto, especially because there can be up to three shows a day.
“I'm staying near the theatre so that I can walk to work. I don't want to touch my car for the time I'm here. I use it every day usually so it's going to be a great change.”
He also prefers to stay in his own accommodation rather than a hotel so he can cook. “A bed and a cooker - that's all I need. I like to cook, I always have. It's a way of keeping healthy. I just don't get on with fast-food.
“I'm also a bit different to other actors as I like to eat before a show - it's too late afterwards for me.”
Derek stars as Captain Hook in this year's panto, a role he has played several times.
“It's a good character for me. I see him as someone spoilt, someone a bit petulant, a bit devious and very childish. I do make him quite scary but then I'll make him do something daft like trip up!”
But he admits that his favourite role is Smee, Captain Hook's henchman.
“He's great, he really gets under the skin of Hook. I like to explore the relationship between them.”
Derek is also a big fan of pantos, saying: “I love to work with children - they are so honest. If they are not enjoying something you do or are getting bored, you hear them starting to talk or nipping to the loo.
“If there's too much noise though, we can put up the house lights. But then you usually find that it's the parents who are causing all the problems!”
Derek, who was born in Surrey and whose father was from Barbados, always wanted a career in music, saying: “I could play just about any instrument as a child so I knew I wanted to work in the music industry. I was in jazz bands from about the age of 14 and then, when I was in my 20s, I expanded my horizons and thought about going into the theatre.”
For a short while Derek was a teacher and then got his big break in the acting world by appearing at the Edinburgh Festival. This was quickly followed by work at the Greenwich Theatre, mainly as a children's entertainer and the rest, as they say, is history.
Over the years, he has worked with many showbusiness greats. When asked who has most enjoyed working with, Derek immediately says Bruce Forsyth, explaining: “He lights up the room the minute he walks in, he just takes over. I was lucky enough to work in the West End for four months with him. And I've worked with Margaret Rutherford - that was fascinating - and Victor Spinetti.”
Unlike many stars who are best remembered for something they did sometime ago, Derek is happy to talk about yesteryear.
“It doesn't seem that long ago to me and they were great days. Play School was really fun and it did so much for me. People still spot me in the street and ask me something or talk about the toys.”
He's very proud of the show and recalls how much input he was given.
“Bit by bit, we were allowed to do more and more and I kept telling them to hot it up a bit. Children were changing, they were staying up to 9pm and watching lots of adult TV so they wanted a bit of noise - they loved all my rock star bits!
“I guess you could say that we were ground-breaking and 14 million children watched us. But then along came Sesame Street and blew us away!”
As you might expect, he's not a great fan of today's children's programmes, simply finding them too anarchic, with the presenters preferring to further their own careers rather than concentrate on entertaining and educating their young viewers.
Away from work, Derek has a house in France where he chills out and enjoys French food. He's also a keen diver and photographer and also likes to relax by watching old movies on cable television. Keeping fit is also part of his everyday life - he likes to run two miles every day and complete several floor exercises.
He's no great plans to return to presenting, despite how much his fans might love to see him on telly, but rather he's got more studio work lined up for January.
“I've done my time and it doesn't have the same attraction as before. Rather I'm recording some music for jingles and working on new commercials.”
t Derek is joined in Peter Pan by several talented performers - many of them already well known to the region's panto-goers. Rikki Jay plays Captain Hook's sidekick, Smee, and Richard Gauntlett, who devised and directed the show along with Rikki, is Peter Pan. Annette McLaughlin, last seen as Velma Kelly in the West End's Chicago, is Tiger Lily while Jim McManus plays Delia the Cook and Ali James is Wendy. Six local boys share the roles of Michael and John and the panto babes, always a real hit, come from the Central School of Dancing in the city. Watch out for fantastic flying, too, although we don't want to give too much away. But keep looking up once you're in the theatre's auditorium.
t Peter Pan opens on Friday December 16 and runs until January 15. Tickets from £4. For details telephone 01603 630000 or visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk