“Bungle’s Having a Pee!”
Graham Kibble-White interviews David Cook
First published April 2009
In 2007, while working on a book that ultimately was never to be completed (the publisher went bust), I tracked down the original presenter of Thames Television’s long-running lunchtime children’s show, Rainbow. Actor and writer David Cook hosted the programme’s first two series during its initial year on screen (1972), before quitting and being succeeded by Geoffrey Hayes. He was mildly baffled to be asked to talk about the show, being very much its ‘forgotten presenter’, but proved a charming and interesting interviewee nonetheless.
OTT: Have you been interviewed about Rainbow much in the past?
DAVID COOK: Er, no. I had a request some time ago to do something about the Rainbow thing on the net. But I didn’t. I was rather busy at the time and then time passed… So, I haven’t.
OTT: Can you give me a bit of context – what were you doing before 1972 when Rainbow began? I know you’d appeared In Z Cars and various other shows.
DAVID COOK: Yeah. Well, I’d done a bit of acting on television and I’d done the Bristol Old Vic – six months there. And I’d understudied Ian McKellan in the West End. And, er, what else had I done? I’d also done a play in the West End myself, Little Boxes by John Bowen. And I’d started actually writing at that stage because that was one of the reasons why after a year – because I did a whole year on Rainbow, and we had 53 programmes I think – I left, because I really wanted to concentrate on my second novel which I’d started. A year I felt was always enough! [Laughs].
OTT: Did you consider yourself an actor or a writer back then?
DAVID COOK: I was an actor/writer. I think I had one book published. While I was on Rainbow my first television play was on, because I remember getting reactions from the prop men and people. It was a play about brain damage starring Christopher Gable and Anna Massey. About somebody whose life is changed overnight by a car crash and has to start at the bottom and retrain to walk and eat and all the rest of it.
OTT: What was that called?
DAVID COOK: It was called Willy.
OTT: And you mentioned your first novel…
DAVID COOK: That was called Albert’s Memorial. The second one, which actually out not too long after I’d finished with Rainbow, that was Happy Endings and I remember one of the reviewers – it got very good reviews – but one of the reviewers said that it was a bit disturbing that the person who had written this novel which contained goings-on in an approved school, was written by somebody who up until recently had been teaching our five-year-olds on television! [Laughs]. So it was a probably good job that I didn’t try and do serious novels and Rainbow at the same time. [Laughs].
OTT: It looks to me as though your previous job to Rainbow was perhaps [sci-fi show] The Guardians.
DAVID COOK: Right, yes, I did that.
OTT: What was the jump to Rainbow? Did you know Pamela Lonsdale?
DAVID COOK: No, I didn’t know anybody. I’d done a play at Thames, I think after The Guardians, something called Stumbling Block, and in fact I was the stumbling block, a sort of idiot son who was constantly doing things wrong. Light comedy. So she may have seen that, but it wouldn’t, I’d have thought, encouraged her to cast me. I think I went along… they were having fairly general auditions. They’d already done a pilot…
DAVID COOK: You know all that?
OTT: Well, I know a little bit about it. John Kane was in that
DAVID COOK: That’s right.
OTT: Were you aware of it?
DAVID COOK: I wasn’t aware of that at the time I went up for it. And of course I had to think very hard: did I really want to do this? On the other hand, it was a bit of a challenge. The reason why the show was happening at the time was that the powers-that-be had said all TV companies had to produce programmes for the under-fives. None of the ITV companies were that madly keen because there didn’t seem to be an awful lot of advertising in it. Some of them did pilots and started things, and – you know – were fairly relieved when they weren’t taken on by the network. Whereas Thames actually did it very conscientiously. There was an awful lot of worry at the beginning about getting the educational stuff right. And, you know, being presented in the right way. I remember, after we’d done several episodes, somebody said to me, one of the so-called experts, “I think you’re making yourself self-consciously working class”! Well, I am working class, what am I suppose to be? So it was a kind of challenge, and also for an actor it was regular work.
OTT: Did you see it as an acting or presenting job?
DAVID COOK: Ah, that’s a very, very difficult question. It’s a very good question, but quite difficult. Was I being myself, or was I being a character called David who happened to live with a character called Bungle? It was very odd if you ever delved into it too deeply… and talked to people through a window like a pink hippopotamus called George. Very strange. In a way, I suppose, I think you just had to forget all that. You had to say, well, here we are, in this situation. We’ve arrived here. The object today is to, erm, communicate. This is what colours are, this is what certain colours look like if you put them together. Or shapes. And all sorts of things that would interest the under-fives. And it did, because it was very popular.
OTT: Were you comfortable addressing a young audience? Were you used to kids, or was that a bit of a stretch?
DAVID COOK: Well, er, I had two sisters and a younger brother. And my idea was always it was only one person at the other side of the lens, not a group of people. And I said, very early on – because I’d seen programmes in which people presenting to children were often caught looking at the wrong camera and had to adjust – I said, “Can we please make sure if this happens we can do a retake?”, because I think that would stop the believability, wouldn’t it? It would be a hiccup. And on the whole it worked reasonable well.
OTT: You said Thames took it seriously. Was it quite an earnest undertaking, then? The people making it ensuring they had the educational side of things, and they were doing it properly?
DAVID COOK: Yes, well I think Pamela Lonsdale was very good and very easy to get on with. She was also quite firm and she knew what she wanted. And there were sort of educational advisers who came in and looked at things. John Kershaw who wrote the scripts, he did a lot of homework. But, of course, it was a kind of nervous thing of, you know, getting the balance right between the educational and the entertainment and also presenting it at the right level for that age group. Erm. And not sort of either talking above them or being patronising. That was another thing that was very easy to fall into if you’re not careful.
OTT: It’s maybe an unfair question, but have you any inkling why Pamela hadn’t continued with the team from the pilot version?
DAVID COOK: I don’t know for sure. I just think that somebody didn’t think it quite gelled together. I don’t know why, or what. I never saw any of that. It’s very hard when you’re putting something together like that and casting something to know if it’s really going to work. You can only know by trying it. If you think about it, there I was, I was – what? – do you know what year it was?
DAVID COOK: I was 32 then, because I was born in 1940. So a 32-year-old man, alright, I probably looked younger, behaved younger, dancing about to The Grand Old Duke of York and things is a bit sort of silly, really. You’ve got to enter into it.
OTT: How do you do that without being self-conscious? Because there isn’t an audience of kids actually there in the studio.
DAVID COOK: I know! I know! What you’ve got is a burly sort of props man. And what they used to do, at the beginning the music would come up and you’d have this three-sided pink set and normally what would happen is that David would come through the door and say something like, “Where’s Bungle?”. But just before my cue to open the door and bounce on, I’d be shown some pornography by one of the props men. Ladies with animals and things! And I was supposed to switch that off and not go on laughing and corpsing! And present to these small children! I suppose that’s what being an actor is, and I suppose to some extent, when I was dealing with Bungle – although John Leeson, who was playing Bungle at the time (we started and left together) – to some extent I was really talking to John rather than Bungle. I was calling him Bungle and he was using a high voice. But in fact… I didn’t think of it at the time, because otherwise how can you relate to a large lump of fluffy material?
OTT: Did it feel like you were doing something – perhaps – progressive? As well as it being a new audience for ITV, it was the first time ITV was broadcasting at that time in the day.
DAVID COOK: Yeah.
OTT: So did you feel at the start of something different?
DAVID COOK: I’m not sure I did personally. I was sort of… being an actor and being self-centred and vain, I was worried if my hair was all right. Is this tank top showing the fact that I’ve got a belly? I was worried about that rather than doing great things in television, moving television forward. But, of course, I suppose all the people in the production side of it, they were conscious of it. Who would have thought then that it would go on for almost 15 years? The interesting thing was, Geoffrey Hayes – who took over – I’d actually worked with him in Dundee rep. I didn’t know who they were going to go for or anything, and suddenly there he was doing my job. And I think he did it for the whole of the rest of the time.
OTT: So you hadn’t encouraged him. You didn’t have any contact?
DAVID COOK: No, not at all. I didn’t know. I later wrote some things for a daytime series called Couples, which was about marriage guidance, so I wrote quite a few of the scripts. So I was around and acted in a few of them. And somebody said, “Geoffrey’s very worried that you’re in the studio and you’re going to pop in!” [Laughs]. And I said, “Tell him not to worry, I haven’t got time!” [Laughs]
OTT: Were you aware of the audience’s reaction?
DAVID COOK: Er, only second-hand from people saying it’s getting a good rating and the rest of it. I got letters from mums saying, “If you’re ever in Bradford, pop in and have a cup of tea”. But I wasn’t aware other than that. And, in fact, in my last week the TV Times took me to lunch and I didn’t let on till well into the main course that I wasn’t going to do any more! [Laughs] So, that was a bit mean.
OTT: So it was you, John Leeson and Peter Hawkins originally?
DAVID COOK: Peter did the voices, yes. Brilliant, brilliant Peter. And for some of the time Roy Skelton took over from Peter and pretty well reproduced very near what Peter was doing. And the puppeteers… all the things, kind of, were starting from scratch – the Zippy and…
OTT: Sunshine and Moony.
DAVID COOK: And Moony, yes. I can’t remember her name, but there was a sort of… well she seemed elderly at the time, a woman who manipulated one of the puppets. And John and someone else who were a team and did puppets and marionettes. They did things. It was magic. And I also used to be asked to read stories and do a voiceover for – I think it was called – Sally and Jake. And sometimes the kind of celebrity story reader wouldn’t turn up or we didn’t manage to get one, so I’d have to fill in doing that. I was always paid a little bit extra. It was never a fortune!
OTT: You and John Leeson left after the second series. Had you discussed it? Was it coincidence?
DAVID COOK: We talked about it. I mean, I had my reasons for leaving and John – working in that suit, it was very, very hard. Very, very hot. And he used to get out of it at the end and, I mean, he’d lost a couple of pounds almost in weight. I remember we did a public appearance at a fete – a primary school near where I grew up. It was summer, a beautiful day and as we left, I said, “We’ve got to go now, I’ve got to get Bungle back” and, er, we sort of thought we’d managed for him to nip into the little boys’ toilet to get out of the suit and disappear. And, of course, we were followed and there were these little voices saying, “Bungle’s having a pee! Bungle’s having a pee!”. It was quite difficult to make an exit without spoiling the illusion.
OTT: Why did you decide to leave? You’ve mentioned writing.
DAVID COOK: Mainly because I wanted to write. And I also thought, “Well, I can still do acting. I mean, there’ll be a sort of lull now, being David. But I’ve not gone on and on doing it for years and years. I can do acting”. In fact, not all that much acting turned up after that and I concentrated more on writing.
OTT: Was it an easy decision, or a tough one to make?
DAVID COOK: No it wasn’t very difficult. I was feeling very optimistic in those days [laughs].
OTT: Did you take any interest in Rainbow after you left? Did you look in occasionally?
DAVID COOK: No, I didn’t. Well, I mean, obviously I probably wouldn’t have been welcome. Nobody wants the ghost of the past at the door. Certainly not making any suggestions. It would have been a very bad idea.
OTT: How do you feel – without being unkind – about being the forgotten presenter of Rainbow?
DAVID COOK: Yeah.
OTT: Are you happy with that?
DAVID COOK: I don’t mind. I don’t mind at all. You know, I like the fact that managed – the group of us together – managed to be successful and set a trend or formula that worked and lasted as long as it did. But, I think if I had gone on watching it I would have been constantly thinking, “Oh, he shouldn’t have done that” or, “They shouldn’t have sung that song” or whatever. And I would have been really even sadder and more miserable than I was! [Laughs]
OTT: Was it really the writing, then, that became the career?
DAVID COOK: Yes, I think so. I still occasionally act – I did an episode of Doctors a few weeks ago. A couple of years ago I did The Bill, but it’s very, very few and far between. And now, of course, I’m 66 coming up to 67 next month and, er, so, you know I’m slowing down in every sense. In a way if I had gone on and if I’d done it for as long as Geoffrey did it, well, I mean, I suppose I would have looked odder and odder and odder as the years passed. I mean, tank tops wouldn’t have fitted me! And, er, you know, I wouldn’t have written things I’ve written.
OTT: Forgive my ignorance, but are you the same David Cook who wrote the Hetty Wainthropp books?
DAVID COOK: I am indeed.
OTT: So is that the defining thing in your career?
DAVID COOK: [Laughs] Oh please no! That came from one book. I’ve actually written nine – I think it’s nine – and er… There was Walter, which was about what we used to call a mentally handicapped man, and is screened on the first night of Channel 4 with Ian McKellan. People remember that more than Hetty Wainthropp. No, I don’t think I want Hetty Wainthropp written on my tombstone thank you very much!
WITH THANKS TO DAVID COOK