If you watched children’s television in the 90s, you will probably recognise the trademark smile of Dave Benson Phillips. Yep, that’s right! He’s the charming chap who presented Playdays, Get Your Own Back and Wake Up in the Wild Room. We caught up with Dave to chat about his life as a children’s television presenter, the ‘World’s Largest Gunge Fight’, and the internet death hoax that threatened to ruin his career…
Did you always want to be a performer?
Yes, from a very, very young age.
What did you do before you started working in the entertainment business?
Like all entertainers, I’ve done a lot of jobs along the way, including factory work and shop work. The strangest thing I ever did was work for a detective agency. I was just an office boy, running around and doing research, but it was really interesting.
You worked as a Pontins Bluecoat and a Children’s Uncle for Haven Holidays before getting your big break in television. What did you gain from that experience?
For me, it was invaluable. As an entertainer, it’s your job to make sure people have a good time. Their enjoyment depends on your very presence and the activities you put on for them. I learned a lot about performing and the art of working with people.
Who discovered you? How did it happen? Where were you spotted?
I was spotted when I was working for Haven. Somebody had taken my CV into the BBC and they sent somebody out to the holiday camp. Pretty soon, I received a letter from BBC Manchester saying: “We’ve seen you working. We’d like you to come in.”
Most auditions last about five minutes, but this wonderful gentleman from the BBC let me perform all my stuff for him. I opened up my suitcase and entertained him and his staff for at least two hours before eventually stopping. He must’ve thought I was an absolute loon!
I wasn’t sure how to do an audition because I was really that inexperienced, but they saw something they liked and asked me to sign up for a show.
The show in question was something called Play School. Unfortunately, as I was signing on the dotted line, the powers that be at the BBC closed Play School down. I found out just after I’d had a massive party to celebrate.
It all went very quiet for a while, but I eventually got to go on television when they started a new programme called Playdays, or Playbus as it was first known.
What was it like making your first ever TV appearance?
It was nerve-wracking. After rehearsals, when the cameras were on me, it took me 43 takes to do the first, “Hello! My name is Dave.”
I thought I was awful, but everybody was very kind and patient. They taught me everything: how to look down a lens, technical aspects, and things I could do to help them capture the shot. I got to achieve my ambition, but it was also a really good education.
You were given your own show, Get Your Own Back, in 1991. How did your life change from that point?
Playdays had changed my life because I went from a guy who wanted to be on television to a guy who was on television. Get Your Own Back was something else completely different. It pretty much put me in everybody’s living room and that was quite an amazing thing. I became more recognisable.
What did you enjoy most about presenting Get Your Own Back?
I really liked the whole mechanics of it. You had these amazing people who would put the games together; you had the people who found the contestants; you’d be briefed about the contestants; everybody would help me out as much as possible right up until the beginning of the show; and then it was all up to me. It was great to be part of that machine.
There were so many games, so many variables going on and, of course, the gunge itself, which was the star of the show. It was a real team sport, and for somebody who longed to be part of a team growing up as a kid, it was wonderful to be part of it. I’m still in contact with a lot of the team now.
In 1996 you started presenting another show on ITV called Wake Up in the Wild Room. Did you find working for ITV different to working for the BBC?
Some of the people who worked on Get Your Own Back were also responsible for Wake Up in the Wild Room, but it was my first television programme with commercial breaks. I’d never done that before.
There was no audience involved, but we used to get the kids to do some really wacky games, which we all loved putting on. Again, it was another great team sport.
In television, everything depends on the studio and the personnel you’re working with, be it ITV, BBC or Sky, and that dictates how everything is run. So yes it was different, but not by very much.
You’ve released two CDs, you performed in The Demon Headmaster musical, you sang at the London Palladium as part of the Children’s Royal Variety Performance, and you even supported McFly in Brighton on their UK tour. But what would you say has been the highlight of your music career?
I wasn’t actually expecting to support McFly; I just happened to be there. I was entertaining children in another part of the Brighton Cricket Ground, where the gig was taking place, and they said: “Listen, we’ve got a spare spot on the stage, Dave. We just need you to do something to warm up the crowd.” So I just went out there, had a chat with the audience and started singing some songs. It was fab.
That wasn’t the highlight of my music career, though! Just last week I took part in an 80s music festival called Let’s Rock the Moor. I found myself on stage playing the odd instrument with artists like Nick Heyward, Heaven 17, Boney M, Go West and Billy Ocean. If we’re talking about musical highlights, that’s pretty much up there!
I’m currently writing my seventh concert for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. That’s another highlight! My highlights seem to be ongoing, but, for me, the big highlight is that people still want me to work for them.
I understand that you were the victim of an internet ‘death hoax’ in 2009. What happened? How did you manage to cope with such a difficult situation?
To tell you the truth, I really haven’t coped with it all that well. When it happened I wasn’t internet savvy; I didn’t even have a Facebook page. And, of course, these things happened without my knowledge.
The first I knew about it was when people started phoning up, being very apologetic to my wife. One day she had something like 15 calls.
Somebody eventually sent through a link. We looked at it and sat there horrified. I was touring at the time, and theatres began to cancel my gigs because they thought I’d been killed in a car crash. I tried to rush round and say: “Look, I’m not dead,” but the damage had been done. It was horrible.
We tried to get the announcement out there, but it was too late by that point. We put up a Facebook page and started a Twitter account, but people were still perpetuating this myth.
Then things got very dark. We began to find ourselves embroiled in masquerade Twitter accounts, where people were pretending to be me. Children’s special needs groups were getting very offended at the stuff I was supposed to have said online, and it wasn’t me!
From the moment it happened to now, we’re still smoothing it out. It’s ongoing. What may have started as a prank became more sinister as time went on.
It’s been awful. I call it a blip because, thankfully, people did see through it. People still offered me the work, but there was a time when the large companies wouldn’t come near me, especially with the other horrible rumours that came out.
There was one rumour that I’d had a nervous breakdown and nobody would hire me. The other one was that I was hosting a show called Babestation. It was absolutely horrible, and the knock-on effects are still affecting us now.
What are you working on at the moment?
There’s a voiceover for a BBC children’s show that I can’t tell you too much about, but it’s got several Aussie soap stars and myself in it. I’ve also got a lot of live shows coming up.
I’ve been setting up something called ‘Whatever it Takes’, or the ‘WIT Initiative’. Basically, I have a number of programmes that I want to make and everything I do at the moment goes into making those programmes.
I work as a performer, we hire out inflatables, we provide consultancy services, and we provide entertainment for various organisations. We invest all the money that comes our way into making our children’s programmes and internet programmes. Internet television is another thing I’m currently looking at. After all, it could be the way everyone watches television in the future.
Do you still do events for students?
Yes, we do a live version of Get Your Own Back for students, where we get a stand-up gunge tank and put a hapless student in it.
People keep telling me they’d like to go in the gunge, so we’ve developed something else called ‘Possibly the World’s Largest Gunge Fight’. If you can find us enough outdoor space, we can mix enough gunge for a thousand people to go potty with and throw at each other in a field
Come and talk to me if you’re interested.
What has been the best moment of your career so far?
The best moment of my career is when someone phones me up and says: “Dave, we’ve got a job for you.” Being self-employed, it’s always difficult to generate work. In my line of work, your reputation is your main thing.
If your reputation is shot, there’s a fair chance you may not get work. I’ve had my reputation shot, but not to the point where it has stopped me from working completely. I would hate to wake up one day and realise I couldn’t do this job anymore.
I’m in the fortunate position where I can say: “My name is Dave Benson Phillips, and I entertain children.” I’m an entertainer. That is my trade, and to be able to say that is great.
You’ve worked in show business for over 25 years; you’ve done theatre, TV and radio. But what is your ultimate ambition?
I’d like to develop a programme for children, which is the British equivalent of Sesame Street. I’ve got all this experience, but I’ve never single-handedly made a programme; I haven’t written a programme, produced it, created it and put it out there with my name all over the credits.
I’d also like to sit in the pit of a theatre during panto season with a black outfit on, playing with the boys in the band; looking up at the stage, giving it a quick strum on the guitar, putting it down and letting the performers get on with it. Then I’d just like to sit there doing a crossword puzzle or whatever they do in pits. Musicians are great because they just come in, sit down, do their bits and then pack up and leave.
However, I’d ultimately like to make a whole heap of children’s television programmes that children will enjoy for years to come. I’d also like to be in a position to talk about it and teach generations of people based on my experiences.
I’d like to make a whole heap of money as well, but what I’d rather do is leave a legacy that generations of children can enjoy for years and years.
I’ve just got to get over the terrible hurdle of ‘the rumour’. The phrase “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was obviously created in a more innocent time, when they’d never heard of Twitter and they’d never used the internet.
What’s your opinion of children’s programmes on television at the moment?
They’re all still very good. Most people say children’s television isn’t as good as it was in their day, when it clearly is. It’s a generational thing. The only difference is the approach and the use of technology. Nowadays, you have a lot of computer graphics and animation, simply because the technology is available.
What’s more, you can now watch television in any way, shape or form. A lot of people now talk to me or email me, and tell me that they watch my children’s programmes on YouTube.
A lot of children’s TV programmes are still being made and we still have a good enough platform to do so. There is still the odd terrestrial channel, despite the digital changeover, but there are also entire channels dedicated to children’s television, such as CITV and CBeebies.
There are still great programmes out there. If they want to make even better programmes, they should get me involved; that’s what I think! But that’s just me.
If you could work with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Johnny Depp would be a good one because I’ve met him a couple of times and he’s very lovely. Tom Cruise would also be great because apparently I’m taller than he is!
To tell you the truth, I’d like to work with anybody who wants to work with me. That’s the best way to look at it.
What advice would you give to aspiring children’s TV presenters?
Be yourself. Unless you’re an actor and you’re playing a character, it’s always best to be yourself.
Questions from Facebook
If you could have chosen a different ‘stop’ on Playdays, which one would it be?
I was always quite envious of the five or six presenters who did the ‘Tent Stop’ on Fridays. It was like watching a group of actors performing a play each week, and I quite liked that.
I found out years later, after Playdays had ended, that I’d originally been considered for one of the regular slots on the Tent Stop, and I was really quite miffed.
Is gunge edible?
Yes, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
If you could ‘get your own back’ on anyone, who would it be?
Do you know what? I can’t think of anybody!
To find out more about Dave, please check out: http://davebensonphillips.basekit.com
Or call +44(0)1903-248258