Eric Thompson

Eric Thompson (1929-1982), actor and theatre director, was born on November 9 1929 in Sleaford, Lincolnshire, the son of George Thompson, a hotel waiter, and his wife, Annie Jackson. He attended London's Old Vic Theatre School and, on a tour of English repertory theatres in 1952-3, met the actress Phyllida Law, whom he married in May 1957. The couple had two daughters, Emma and Sophie, both of whom became actors.

During the early 1960s Thompson appeared at Bristol's Old Vic and took occasional parts in popular TV series. However, it was through his work for BBC2's children's programme Play School that Thompson gained wider recognition. The programme, which first appeared in 1964, demanded presenters who would sing, dance, and play like overgrown children.

Play School had been devised by Joy Whitby. In 1965 she was offered a French children's series, Le mange enchant (1964 on), for possible English translation and airing on BBC1. The programme, centred on a carousel in a magic garden, was produced by Serge Danot and animated by Ivor Wood. Whitby suggested Thompson, who had been a regular storyteller on Play School, narrate the series. Unable to read French, he ignored the original scripts and recreated the programme based on his reinterpretation of the silent pictures. These he watched on a viewing machine loaned by the BBC, shuttling the film back and forth using foot pedals while scribbling his new script on a pad balanced on his knees. Thompson's version, The Magic Roundabout, was first broadcast in Britain on 18 October 1965 and ran for 39 five-minute episodes shown Mondays to Thursdays on BBC1 at 5:50pm.

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The programme's rapid and extensive popularity was due almost entirely to Thompson's transformation of Danot's original for a British audience. Zebulon became Zebedee, Margot begat Florence, Amboise the snail was recast as Brian, and the shaggy dog, Pollux, became Dougal, a blend of dour Scot and pomposity loosely based on the comedian Tony Hancock.

Thompson brought his eccentric English personality to bear on the series. His scripts were sprinkled with references to national comedy and theatre, literature and opera. Children loved the simple stories, diverse characters and Thompson's calm, reassuring voice, while adults appreciated his understatement and witty asides. When the second series of The Magic Roundabout was moved to the earlier time of 4:55pm, the BBC was deluged with protests from adult viewers unable to get home from work to see it. With around eight million viewers, the series was one of the first to initiate a huge range of tie-in merchandise.

Danot ceased production of his series in the late 1960s, but Thompson continued to write and narrate the English scripts for episodes that were shown into the 1970s (and in colour from 1970). Danot's later characters were again reinterpreted: Thompson named the guitar-playing rabbit Dylan after Bob Dylan and modelled the arch, upper-class cow Ermintrude on his wife. Law, meanwhile, associated her husband with Brian the snail - cheerful, optimistic and irritating.

Thompson continued his theatre career while writing and narrating The Magic Roundabout. Overwork and heavy smoking led to a heart attack in 1967, and mindful of the physical demands of performance, he turned to directing. In 1977 he completed work on The Magic Roundabout and the final episode aired in January 1977. Ursula Eason, deputy head of BBC children's programmes, sent him a personal message: "Thank you for creating what I think is a classic." Thompson died on 30 November 1982 after a heart attack. In 1992 Channel 4 broadcast almost 100 previously untranslated episodes of Le mange enchant, narrated by Nigel Planer. They owed much of their style to Thompson's original. In February 2005 a film version of The Magic Roundabout brought his characters to a new audience.

• Extracted from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by Alistair McGown. Copyright Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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