“Football was introduced to me at secondary school,” said children’s TV legend Derek Griffiths this week when he was in Darlington to make a film about footballer Arthur Wharton.

“As you know it is played in the winter and I hate the cold, and being forced to play football was an anathema to me. I went to the headmaster and said why am I forced to play this, and he said you have to, I said no, I’m going to play truant, you can give me six of the best, and he said what subject to you hate the most? I said maths, he said right, you’ve got four periods of maths instead.

“But I bunked off them and got out of football.”

The Northern Echo: Actor Derek Griffiths who is playing Arthur Wharton in a film Picture: SARAH CALDECOTTActor Derek Griffiths who is playing Arthur Wharton in a film Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

Wharton came to Darlington in 1884 from his native Ghana to study to be a missionary but instead became a sportsman, most notably becoming the first black professional footballer. Griffiths was filming scenes in West Auckland showing how Arthur, weighed down by everything from alcoholism to racism, came to a sad end.

“I grew up in central London, and alcoholism was everywhere,” says Griffiths, who appeared in Coronation Street in 2016. “It is something I have watched since a kid and having an actor’s observational eye, you watch these people’s sad decline, and I have been able to use all that knowledge.

“When I grew up in the 1950s, racism was rampant. The local cigarette shops had advertising postcards in their window which would say ‘room to let, no Irish, no blacks, no Greeks, no Jews’, and I used to look at that and think what does this mean? I was schooled in it from day one.”

Griffiths is best known for his ubiquity on children’s TV in the 1970s and 1980s as the star of Play School, Play Away, Cabbages and Kings and SuperTed.

The Northern Echo: Derek Griffiths, who is to star as Arthur WhartonDerek Griffiths in a promotional picture for one of his children's musical television programmes

“I was in a pantomime at the Greenwich theatre, and I used to wind the kids up like mad and when they used to shout back I used to go into the audience with a newspaper and whack them over the back of the heads which they loved, they were all dockers kids, my sort of background,” he says. “A lady came backstage and said (he adopts a posh voice) ‘I’m from the BBC and I would like you to audition for Play School’, I said ‘what’s that’ and she said ‘it’s a childrens programme for about three to eight year old’ and ‘I said you’ve just watched me thumping kids around the back of the head and you’re asking me to audition, that’s not for me…’.”

His musical skills saw him pass the audition and get a place alongside Brian Cant, Johnny Ball and Humpty on Play School and write that simple theme tune for the 1975 cartoon Bod, which was narrated by Dad’s Army’s John le Mesurier.

The Northern Echo: Bod

“I was into Stephane Grappelli, the jazz violinist, and Django Reinhardt, the Belgian jazz guitarist, but for Bod I wanted to try something different,” he says. “Rather than use a soprano sax, which I played, I tried a penny whistle which is bright and cuts through the meagre little speakers we had on televisions in those days.”

The Northern Echo: Actor Derek Griffiths who is playing Arthur Wharton in a film Picture: SARAH CALDECOTTDerek Griffiths as Arthur Wharlton filming this week above Molly's Tearoom in West Auckland

For the last 20 or 30 years, he’s had an acclaimed stage career, but is now making his second short film with Darlington director Mike Tweddle. It’ll be called A Light That Never Fades, and it is hoped it will be premiered in Darlington in the early summer. It will then be entered into film festivals and the Arthur Wharton Foundation will use it as an educational tool.




The Northern Echo: Actor Derek Griffiths who has been filming an Arthur Wharton film Picture: SARAH CALDECOTTDerek Griffiths at the Arthur Wharton Foundation in Darlington this week.