Mark Speight: Popular children's TV presenter
Tuesday 15 April 2008
Mark Speight was one of Britain's most popular children's television presenters. Since its launch in 1994 he had hosted SMart, the CBBC show that teaches young viewers how to create pieces of art using everyday objects and arts and crafts tools. He also opened up the SMart surgery to tackle viewers' art problems, and celebrities such as Harry Hill and Vic Reeves appeared on the programme to talk about their favourite artists and to share tips.
Speight had inherited his family's artistic streak – his grandfather was a painter and his mother an art teacher. "I was a slow learner at school," he admitted. "My teachers were almost like, 'Why do you want to be an artist?' But it's a good way of communicating. I really wanted to be a cartoonist and just stumbled into TV. I was helping with a TV set and got wind of an audition for SMart."
One of Speight's original co-presenters was Zoë Ball, but his longest-running on-screen partner was Kirsten O'Brien, who continued to host the programme with Speight until he announced his departure two months ago, saying that he could not continue with the show after the "tragic loss" of his fiancée, the actress and model Natasha Collins, who died in January.
Born in Seisdon, Staffordshire, in 1965, Speight was educated privately for a year at Tettenhall College, Wolverhampton, but moved at the age of 12 to the nearby Regis School (now the King's School), where he was bullied. "Suddenly, I was thrust into a comprehensive," he explained. "I turned up with a briefcase and a perfect uniform and, by the end of the first day, I had had most of it stolen." He eventually found a way to counter the bullies by becoming the class clown and responding to their taunts with humour.
Speight attended Bilston Art School, Wolverhampton, and – following a string of jobs that included being a male au pair – gained a degree in art, graphic design and business studies from the American College, London.
Shortly after landing a presenter's role on SMart, he became the host-cum-title character of the ITV Saturday-morning children's show Scratchy & Co (1995-98), which won a Royal Television Society award. He was particularly memorable for his sky-blue jacket with cloud prints and a rubber blond wig that made him look like the futuristic, computer-generated 1980s TV character Max Headroom.
Speight then hosted Name That Toon (1996-97), a quiz show in which two teams of children answered questions on cartoons, and was seen as the Abominable No Man, alongside the madcap children's presenter Timmy Mallett, in Timmy Towers (1997-2000); he also designed the programme's title sequence.
In the children's game-show See It Saw It (1999-2001), he played an indecisive monarch ruling over the kingdom of Much Jollity-on-the-Mirth and met Natasha Collins, who acted See, one of the court jesters in the first series, before she was badly injured in a car accident. Then, he hosted the fantasy game-show Beat the Cyborgs (2003-04).
Throughout this time, Speight presented various SMart spin-offs – SMart on the Road (1999-2001), travelling around Britain to help people with projects such as decorating a room, SMart Africa (2003), filmed on location for a BBC Africa Week, and SMarteenies, aimed at younger children and screened on the CBeebies channel. He and Kirsten O'Brien also trained as lumberjacks for an episode of Bring It On (2003), a show that set challenges for CBBC presenters.
In a multi-channel age, Speight was a multi-channel presenter – and had a high profile among young audiences. In The Toon Room, for the Children's Channel, he taught youngsters to draw cartoons, and, for Discovery Kids, he presented History Busters (2002-04), an amusing look at important events and people – dressing as a pirate, for instance, to demonstrate how to be a buccaneer and as Sherlock Holmes to investigate the techniques of Victorian detectives. The series won a Royal Television Society award in 2003.
He also helped Rolf Harris to create a huge version of Constable's The Hay Wain in Trafalgar Square for the live programme Rolf on Art – The Big Event (2004). Speight subsequently joined Harris in the grounds of Edinburgh Castle for a similar project, with Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, in the same series (2005). Last year, Speight himself hosted the Müller Big Art Project live on Comic Relief – The Big One, in which people from all over Britain contributed to 54 canvasses that made up a recreation of Holbein's painting of Henry VIII in Trafalgar Square.
In 2005, Speight was among celebrities pitted against each other in the ring in Celebrity Wrestling, a Saturday-evening ITV show intended to reflect the glitz and razzmatazz of American wrestling. After breaking a finger on his right hand during filming, the left-handed Speight – who fought as "The Quickdraw Kid" – observed: "I didn't realise the show was going to be so full-on."
Alongside his television work, Speight toured with his "Speight of the Art" children's workshops and was credited by many aspiring young artists as being an inspiration. He also appeared in Cameron Mackintosh's short-lived West End musical production of Moby Dick (Piccadilly Theatre, 1992) and designed the programme illustrations.
For the past two years, he had played Buttons in Cinderella pantomimes in Broxbourne and Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, inviting children to go on stage and draw a pantomime character. Speight was also president of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign.
Mark Warwick Fordham Speight, television presenter: born Seisdon, Staffordshire 6 August 1965; died London c7 April 2008.
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