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0 Death of Iona Opie

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  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 29-10-2017
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The death of Iona Opie who, with her late husband Peter, brought to light the rich and often amusing culture of children's playground games and rhymes, sparked a memory of filming in a primary school for an episode in the ITV series Seven Ages shown back I the late 1970s. I had been fascinated by the Opie's work for a long time with their maps of the different “truce” terms children use to get out of playground games and meticulous recording of regional variations in nonsense songs. My film was set in Colchester in Essex where I hoped to find a decent cross section of the population of all ages from infants to the elderly. I cannot remember now how we alighted on the primary school we chose to film five to eleven year olds but we got a friendly reception despite the belief amongst the staff that the kind of juvenile folk culture the Opie's once recorded no longer existed.

The teachers were startled when I and the director took a couple of classes and asked the children what games they played during break time. To give them the idea that we did not mean football I would ask what they said and did when they wanted to get out of a chasing game. Hands shot up and they all called out “ Veinites” ( there is no correct spelling) and crossed their fingers. It was the same truce term that we had a primary school in north London in the 1950s.

We learned most in the playground with the camera crew mingling with the children and capturing the skipping rhymes and chasing games. There was “ Here comes Sally Walking down the alley” sung with the girls in two rows facing each other with one always peeling away to walk between them to the chorus of “ All night Long”. The Opie's had recorded more or less the same playground game in the United States. In fact many of the games and rhymes were international. How this could come about was a mystery because the culture was kept alive by a very narrow age group of children between seven and eleven. The songs and games disappeared rapidly in secondary schools.

Many of the ditties were very naughty indeed and we chose not to broadcast them. However the clapping song “ When Susie was a baby…..” which goes through the life cycle from infant to grandma was so catchy we put it in the title sequence for the series. Here is a version from the very amusing Online Dictionary of Playground Slang:

When Susie was a baby,
A baby Susie was
She went a cry, cry, cry, cry (rubs eyes)

When Susie was a toddler,
A toddler Susie was
She went a scribble, scribble, scribble, scribble (scribbling action)

When Susie was a child,
A child Susie was
She went a 'whyyyyyy? whyyyyyy? whyyyyy? whyyyy?' (pouting)

When Susie was a teenager,
A teenager Susie was
She went a 'ooh, ahh, I lost my bra,
I left my knickers in me boyfriend's car'

When Susie was a married,
A married Susie was
She went a 'aahh, unnnnggggghh, aaaahhhhh, unnnnnngggggh'

When Susie was a mother,
A mother Susie was
She went a bake, bake, bake, bake (rolling pin action)

When Susie was a grandma,
A grandma Susie was
She went a knit, knit, knit, knit

When Susie was a skeleton,
A skeleton Susie was she went a (silence)

We did not use the whole of the rhyme in the title sequence. The composer Jim Parker picked up on the girls' singing to create a catchy theme for a collage of images and we faded out of the Susie song with the teenage verse. This did not go down well with some of the popular newspapers. The Daily Express I remember wondered what kind of mentality would teach such a song to young girls clearly finding it incomprehensible that they had taught us the words. Though I have not explored playground lore in recent years I imagine it is still there, still as creative and comically wicked as ever. With the death of Iona Opie I feel sure there will be others to record the oral tradition of the playground which reveals a wealth of creativity that is largely hidden from the teachers of the national curriculum.

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