ANYONE who was young in the 1970s will not have been able to escape Derek Griffiths and will instantly recognise his face. He was all over children’s television for a decade which makes this week’s news that he is going to star in a short film about Darlington’s very own Arthur Wharton so exciting.

Griffiths was plucked from a London theatre in 1971 to front Play School. In these days of on-demand streaming from a multitude of sources, it is hard to remember the times when there were just three channels which made BBC1’s Play School, broadcast twice daily with peeks through different shaped windows, so hugely influential.

Griffiths was a multi-instrumentalist as well as an actor, and he wrote pop songs for the show, dragging it into the 1970s. He also presented the spin-off Play Away, aimed at slightly older children, and Cabbages and Kings, a comedy history programme for children which ran from 1972 to 1974.

The Northern Echo: Children's TV stars Brian Cant, left, and Derek Griffiths, right, hand over a cheque in 1980 in Poole, on the south coast, where they were appearing in pantoChildren's TV stars Brian Cant, left, and Derek Griffiths, right, hand over a cheque in 1980 in Poole, on the south coast, where they were appearing in panto

He also wrote the music for 1975’s Bod, particularly the theme tunes which accompanied each of the characters – Aunt Flo, PC Copper, Frank the Postman, Farmer Barleymow and, of course, Bod himself – when they appeared on screen.


“He did his very own scat version of the Bod theme tune for our last film and that was one of the best moments of my life,” says Mike Tweddle, who is directing the Wharton film.

The Northern Echo: Mother Goose photo-call at Theatre Royal Brighton.Starring Christopher Biggins,Derek Griffiths,Jenny Funnell..Griffiths, left, appearing in panto in Brighton in 2016 with another Darlington favourite, Christopher Biggins

Griffiths, the voice of SuperTed in the 1980s, also appeared in adult comedy programmes and films like Up Pompeii!, Till Death Us Do Part, Terry and June and The Two Ronnies before establishing himself as a serious stage actor.

He has appeared in everything on TV from Crown Court and Casualty to Coronation Street, and was in The Mousetrap in the West End of London when it became the first theatre production to reopen after the pandemic.

Mike simply approached his agent to ask him to play the lead role in his last film, The Curator, and so he was the obvious choice when the Wharton film was being talked about.

The Northern Echo: Derek GriffithsDerek Griffiths

“He’s so lovely and down to earth to work with, and he is really keen on this role,” says Mike. “He asked me how I thought Arthur would speak: he came from Ghana and was quite well educated, and so we think he would be reasonably well spoken, quite eloquent, and I think Derek’s speaking voice is going to be perfect – with a few North East colloquialisms thrown in.”


Like Griffiths, Wharton was of mixed race. He was born in Jamestown, Ghana, in 1865, to Annie and Henry Wharton, one of their ten children. Henry came from Grenada, in the West Indies, and was the son of a wealthy Scottish sea captain and an African mother. He was sent to the Gold Coast as a Methodist missionary, and met Annie, a hotelkeeper from the powerful Fante people.

The Northern Echo: Arthur Wharton Image: HERITAGE FOUNDATIONArthur Wharton

Arthur was sent to England to a Methodist school in Staffordshire with a view to him becoming a missionary or, at least, a teacher. That school closed after two years and so, in 1884, he transferred to Cleveland College, off Milbank Road, in Darlington. In Darlington, he established himself as a multi-faceted sportsman: sprinter, goalkeeper, cricketer, cyclist and pedestrian (a fancy name for a competitive walker, which was a hotly contest sport). This led to him becoming the first black professional footballer, for Rotherham, although, estranged from his family in Africa and from his wife in England, his story ends sadly in 1930 near Doncaster.

“He died a penniless alcoholic, but I wanted him to realise what his legacy was, so two old mates from Darlington turn up at his boarding house and tell him how he’s changed everything,” says Mike. “Arthur gets to understand to a degree his legacy and that gives his story a bit of light.”

The Heritage Lottery has given the film, entitled A Light That Never Fades, £7,700 towards its production. Filming will begin in the New Year – Griffiths is currently starring in a musical adaption of Graham Greene’s novel, The Third Man, in London – in West Auckland, where a house overlooking the green has a suitable 1930s feel.

The other actors and crew will be connected to Mike’s Darlington-based Broken Scar Productions, which is nearing completion of its latest film about the legendary Guru boutique which closed earlier this year. The Wharton film will last about 30 minutes, and as well as being screened at film festivals and on a variety of platforms, as they say these days, it will be used by the Arthur Wharton Foundation as an educational tool.