Tuesday 28 March 2023

What Was It Like Presenting Why Don't You?

As a child, hearing the Why Don't You? theme tune meant two fantastic things: firstly, it was the school holidays and, secondly, that you were going to discover a whole new world of games, activities and crafts to get to grips with. Remember, this was in the days before YouTube and Fortnite (whatever that is), when television was the dominant source of information for children. Anyway, as we all know, the series was built around young presenters, all of whom had incredibly authentic regional accents. But what exactly was it like being a presenter on Why Don't You?

I always dreamed of becoming a presenter on Why Don't You? and, had this dream become reality, I would have known the answer. Alas, I was just too young to be one of presenters. And, for some reason, the BBC never decided to populate the series with a King's Lynn gang. Nonetheless, my curiosity surrounding the series (which featured Russell T Davies as producer) and its young, enthusiastic presenters (who included a young Ant McPartlin) persisted. Luckily, due to the phenomenal reach of Curious British Telly, I found that two Why Don't You? presenters followed me on Twitter.

Marie Rooney was part of the Bristol gang back in 1982 and Rachel Mainwaring represented the Cardiff gang a few years later in 1988. With their unique insights just a few DMs and emails away, I decided it was time to get ask a few questions.

How did you first get involved with Why Don't You? And how did it feel to get the job and be on television?

Marie: I wrote to the BBC Bristol offices and asked for an audition, I was invited and had one audition. I was excited about getting the job but was too young to really understand what it was going to mean. I enjoyed the process of recording the programme more than actually being on the telly box. I didn’t enjoy the attention from the kids at school when the programme aired, so it was a fabulous experience of why you would never want to be famous.

Rachel: Russell T Davies and the production team contacted my school (Bishop of Llandaff High School) and my drama teacher picked a few of us to ‘audition.’ The first meeting took place at school and was literally a chat with the team about ourselves. We all had to introduce ourselves and say something interesting. I have no memory of what I actually said but I know I was desperate to impress because I LOVED Why Don’t You? I was then called to the next round of auditions which involved going to the BBC studios in Llandaff. We were all given tasks to perform – mine was how to walk through a piece of paper (it involved lots of cutting and folding!) By some miracle, I landed the part. I was SO HAPPY.

The Cardiff Gang - 1988 - Rachel
pictured at the back, far right

How did the recording process work? Did it take place during term time?

Marie: We were given the script on a Sunday, rehearsed two evenings during the week and then a full day of recording on the Monday. I had permission from my school to miss the Mondays, which was great as I had double maths…!

Rachel: We filmed a lot of the outdoor scenes first, on a couple of freezing cold days in Margam Park. That’s where we first met the Why Don't You? sheep which appears in many of the outdoor scenes. Then a few weeks later, we started rehearsals on a Saturday and Sunday morning locally and then we would film at BBC Wales in Llandaff every Tuesday. So I basically had five Tuesdays off school. The school was really supportive and I just made sure I caught up with the work.

There was always a big team of presenters on the show, so how easy was it for everyone to get along and work together?

I got along with everyone, we were very much a team. I became good friends with one other presenter and the daughter of the producer.

Rachel: Jethro Bradley and I already knew each other as we were at the same school and luckily the whole gang got on. There were eight of us altogether – Ben Slade, Misty Whittle, Morgan Powell, Adam Harding, Leah (I can’t remember her surname) and Kate Goodwin-Mead (who had previously appeared).

Marie on the Why Don't You? set in 1982

Now, Rachel, I believe a young Russell T Davies was involved with the programme during your tenure, so what was it like working with him? And could you tell he was destined for greatness?

Rachel: Russell was amazing. He was so full of life and hugely creative. His love of Doctor Who was obvious back then as in one scene we were all chased by a Cyberman - and that was Russell dressed up! We had a Why Don’t You? factsheet for viewers and many of the drawings in it were drawn by Russell. I knew he would go on and do great things. He just had so much zest and enthusiasm. I cried for weeks after filming finished because he just made everything so fun.

What can you remember about the features you presented?

 I presented a rogue gallery - the producers had written to our parents without our knowledge and asked for photographs of us as babies. I was asked to present the section and keep it a secret from the rest of the gang. I did and the surprise was very funny.

Rachel: The most memorable one for me is the electric lemon - I had to make an electric lemon with one lemon, a piece of zinc and a piece of copper. Unfortunately, we took a few takes to get it right and even then it didn’t actually give me an electric shock - my acting is purely dreadful. I also made Shredded Wheat nests in the kitchen, played a racing greyhound game and many games which involved a piece of string.

Ben Slade played a bit of a ‘mad professor’ role so we also had many scenes where we weren’t allowed to touch a certain box in the cupboard and around a machine he had built which he hoped would be used for transporting us to different places - very Dr Who-inspired!!

Do you think a modern version of Why Don't You? could work on television today?

Marie: It was a more innocent time, and although some members of the Why Don't You? gang went on to other TV shows, most of us did it for fun. I think there is a danger that a programme of this nature would, today, be hijacked by those looking to become famous.

Rachel: I’d love to see it return but it would only appeal to much younger kids as teenagers can source any info they want online now.

Any other memories?

I have very fond memories of roaming Whiteladies Road as a gang, hanging out at Bristol museum at lunch time to keep warm and laughing a lot. It was a fantastic experience.

Rachel: I had a complete blast filming it. You have to remember I was 13 and getting time of school to basically have fun! It was such a laugh and although I cringe watching it back, I’m actually really proud that I was a part of the last Cardiff gang ever. I didn’t end up working in TV but that was certainly my dream for a while.

I remember being so excited because there was a feature on the Cardiff Gang in the Easter Radio Times. I’ve still got a copy of it with our picture. We were all given clothes for the show which were chosen for us, as well as a name badge designed by Russell. I had an orange top, drainpipe denim jeans with massive turn-ups and white Gola trainers. Very 80s!!!

Many thanks to Marie and Rachel!

1 comment:

  1. Why Don't You? Ah now there's a rainy half-term morning summed up for me as a kid. That and Junior Kickstart (which really was brilliant entertainment - imagine pitching a kids' show now about youngsters on motorbikes in a muddy field going round an assault course including a dodgy wooden seesaw and down a ravine to cross a stream and then attempt to get up the vertiginous far side again?) Obviously the muddy revving failure of some 11yo in a helmet and head-to-toe mud coated leathers was the main source of joy there. WDY? appealed because we imagined we could the presenters in that magic TV land. I could still sing you the theme tunes to both shows...