Richard Connolly, who composed Play School theme song, dies at 94

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Richard Connolly, one of Australia’s most prolific composers, has died aged 94.

Connolly is best known for writing the theme song for the children’s show Play School, as well as an internationally acclaimed hymnbook.

His signature piece from the long-running series was written overnight while Connolly was working for ABC Education.

Connolly’s version, in which he also sang lyrics by early childhood educator Dr. Rosemary Milne, debuted on July 18, 1966.

There’s A Bear In This has been re-recorded several times, most recently in 2016 as part of a triple j contest to mark the TV show’s 50th anniversary.

But Connolly’s original tune remains at the heart of the song, making it one of Australia’s best-known anthems.

A legacy created overnight

Born on November 10, 1927 in the western Sydney suburb of Granville, Connolly was the eldest of eight children.

A talented young boy who speaks Latin, he is very early designated to become a Catholic priest.

In 1946, he left the shores of New South Wales to study at the prestigious Propaganda Fide seminary in Rome.

He returned four years later unordained, choosing instead to study arts at the University of Sydney.

Connolly’s passion for theology led him to his career at the ABC, where he began working in religious broadcasts in 1956.

There he became a musical staple, composing extensively for radio and television programmes, as well as Australian documentaries and films.

His daughter, Polly Connolly, said one afternoon that she had been asked to write the theme song for a new children’s TV show, Play School.

“He basically came home and took it out and had to tape it the next day,” she told the ABC.

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Play School debuted on ABC TV on the morning of Monday, July 18, 1966 with anchors Alister Smart and Diane Dorgan.

The show survived the BBC version it was based on and is now the second longest running English language children’s show in the world.

Dr. Milne, the There’s a Bear in There lyricist, also wrote the early scripts for the series.

She died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 83.

His song and that of Connolly were inducted into the National Film and Sound Archive Sounds of Australia collection in 2017.

The collection represents audio that has “cultural, historical and aesthetic significance and relevance, which informs or reflects life in Australia”.

Connolly last performed the song for the ABC television show Gruen in 2020.

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Songs for a new era

Despite its notoriety, Play School’s theme was not the music Connolly was most proud of creating.

In the late 1950s, Connolly teamed up with Tasmanian poet James McAuley to create a collection of hymns in English.

At the time, the Catholic church was struggling to move away from singing exclusively in Latin because the new music did not sit well with parishioners.

“There was literally, for about 20 years, a worldwide shortage of music suitable for the Catholic Mass, said Noel Debien, family friend and senior specialist producer for ABC Religion and Ethics.

“It was pop music basically, and there were a lot of people who didn’t want pop music in church, they thought it belonged in concerts.

“And Richard and James gave them a way to have something that was in English – they could go to new music, but the new music was quality.”

The songs, which were later sold as the Living Parish Hymn Book, took off across the country and overseas.

Australian composer Richard Connolly in 1960.(ABC)

His daughter Polly said that apart from his nine children, her father thought the hymns were his greatest work.

“Everyone who went to Catholic school in the 70s, 80s, 90s sang daddy hymns,” she said.

“There are a lot of dad’s kids who are no longer practicing Catholics, but we’re so proud of his music; some of them are really beautiful.”

Connolly also composed the music for the 1970 visit of Pope Paul VI, the first pope to visit Australia, and again for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.

‘Live and Breathe the ABC’

The Catholic Church wasn’t the only institution Connolly helped through difficult times.

In 1967, he joined Radio Drama and Features at the ABC at a time when audiences were fading.

After studying broadcasters in France, Italy and Germany on the Churchill Fellowship in 1971, Connolly returned to turn the department into a “creative powerhouse”, said his friend and former colleague Roz Cheney.

“One of Dick’s great legacies is that he turned ABC Radio, at the time, to Europe and away from the BBC’s Anglo-Saxon dominance,” she said.

“New ways have been found to deliver wonderful programs that recognize other languages ​​and other cultures.

“We were hired by Dick to go to the future.”

A black and white photo of two men looking at a music composition book.
Richard Connolly, right, working at the ABC in 1960.(ABC)

As head of the department, Connolly oversaw the airing of radio plays and book reviews, as well as the reading of epic poems, including Aeneid and Beowulf.

“There was no dead hand of serious boredom on them – they were very lively and energetic,” Ms Cheney said.

“He was an inspiring producer.”

Polly said her dad ‘lives and breathes the ABC’ – and rugby league team, the Western Suburbs Magpies.

“It was truly an amazing thing to be at Lidcombe Oval with my dad in the 70s, all of us kids, as he roared for the Magpies,” she said.

“Literally next week he would be at the old Forbes Street radio studios recording the best international radio programs in Latin.”

Connolly retired in 1988 and spent the last years of his life at Alexander Aged Care in Brookvale, NSW.

He died May 4 and is survived by his wife Cynthia and nine children.

His funeral will take place at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney on May 19.

A black and white photo of a man playing the flute as a composer looks on.
Richard Connolly, right, working with jazz musician Don Burrows, left, in 1982.(Provided)

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