John Hamblin, co-host of Australia’s Play School with a gift for cheeky innuendo that appealed to grown-ups – obituary

To his pre-school viewers he was known as ‘Funny John’ because he was always playing the fool, but to their mothers he was ‘Naughty John’

John Hamblin during an episode of the Australian version of the children's television show Play School Credit: AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

John Hamblin, who has died aged 87, was a British-born actor who achieved fame in Australia as the colourful co-presenter of the Antipodean version of Play School from 1970 to 1999.

To his pre-school fans he was known as “Funny John” because he always seemed to be playing the fool or making mistakes. To their mothers, however, he was “Naughty John” because they laughed for very different reasons.

“Hello, I’m John. I’m a garage man today,” Naughty John announces in one episode. “Do your mum and dad have a car that sits in the garage? Benita [co-presenter Benita Collings] is going to be a car. Here she comes now. I’ll just crawl underneath and see what has to be done.” Then, looking up into the camera from between Benita’s legs he says: “Well, her big end’s gone but I think I can fix it.”

In another sketch, as Benita lays the table for lunch, he asks whether “a fork is out of the question”.

Hamblin’s gift for working sexual innuendo into his performance raised eyebrows, but he was unapologetic, pointing out that mothers would get bored with an uninterrupted diet of Miss Polly Had a Dolly and The Wheels on the Bus: “The mums are the ones turning on the TV. You’ve got to play to them too.”

John Hamblin was born on May 17 1935 and grew up in Suffolk. When the local baker, as he put it, introduced his mother to the art of “putting buns in the oven”, she moved out of the family home and his father took the rest of the family to Norfolk. He lost all contact with his mother.

As a child he loved painting and play-acting with his friends, recalling that in games of Robin Hood he was always cast as Maid Marian – “Maybe because I was the prettiest.”

John Hamblin and fellow cast member Lorraine Bayly with elephant Abu on Play School, made by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Credit: AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORPORATION HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

His father had served with the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War and John did his National Service in the RAF in Cyprus. He embarked on a course at art school, but after six months fell in love with an actress and decided to become an actor.

After training, he began his career at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, and did repertory work in Bromley, Edinburgh, Liverpool and York. In 1967 he had a small role in the television series The Prisoner.

He moved to Australia with his second wife Wendy as a “Ten Pound Pom”, and as well as appearing with the Sydney Theatre Company on stage was soon landing roles on Australian television.

Hamblin was initially reluctant to audition for Play School, the Australian version of the British original, which had been introduced in 1966. “I didn’t want to do it,” he recalled, “because I thought once I go down this track I am no longer an actor, you are a Play School children’s personality. Then one day I questioned myself and thought, ‘Aren’t you being a bit up yourself here?’ I got a bit precious. I finally gave it a chance and never looked back.”

He continued to do theatre work around Australia, including appearing as Widow Twankey in a Perth production of Aladdin. “There’s not a lot of work on at this time of year,” he told his audience. “It was either this or Cinderella in Darwin.”

After leaving Play School he appeared on other television shows before retiring in 2009, with his third wife Jenny, to Hobart, Tasmania, where he rediscovered his love of painting.

In 2016 he returned for a guest appearance on a Play School 50th-anniversary special. A memoir of his life, Open Wide Come Inside, written by his friend Peter Richman, was published in 2008.

John Hamblin is survived by his wife Jenny and by a son and daughter.

John Hamblin, born May 17 1935, died September 21 2022