By Valerie Neale
In the early morning hours of October 7, 2021, I lost my dearly beloved husband and partner of over 40 years to esophageal cancer.
The outpouring of emotion across social media platforms has been truly overwhelming. Many people in their 50s and 60s write that he was their “co-parent” because of his presence on children’s TV in the 1960s and early 70s. It seems that everyone who met him was touched by his presence.
Rick was born in London, Ontario, in 1937, of English parents. In 1957, he moved to England, where he trained as an actor at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. His acting career included three years in repertory theater at Manchester Library Theater and a London West End debut in “Fiorello!” at the Piccadilly Theater in 1962.
He was appearing at the Royal Court Theatre in Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” when he was asked by a BBC producer to be part of “Play School,” a new children’s TV program. From 1964 -1973, for 447 episodes, he sang and told stories that brought him into the homes and hearts of a whole generation of English children. He married Marina (Min ) Ayles in 1960, and his two daughters, Leaflyn (Flea) and Chrysta, born 1960 and 1963, grew up with their Dad on daily television.
In 1972, he became “Yoffy” on “Fingerbobs,” the presenter of a cast of paper finger puppets. There was only one series of 13 episodes, but it was repeated so many times over the years that he became known as Mr Fingerbobs. The series is still available on YouTube. His fame was such that when he walked into a pub with Dustin Hoffman, it was only Rick who was asked for an autograph.
He recorded two solo albums of original folk songs for Decca in the early 70s, “Twixt You and Me” and “Haya Maya.” In the late 70s, he became keyboards player and lead vocalist, along with Willy Finlayson, of a much beloved country-rock band Meal Ticket. He also wrote most of the band’s songs with his writing partner Dave Pierce. The band released three albums, “Code of the Road“ (1977), “Three Times a Day” (1977) and “Take Away” (1978).
I met Rick in the late 1970s. In February 1981, we left England for Los Angeles, where a musical written by Rick and Dave, “Captain Crash vs the Zzorg Women, Chapters 5 and 6,” ran for six weeks in a small theater, with Rick playing one of the starring roles. When the show closed after its run, we stayed on, first in L.A., where we got married in 1986, then in the San Francisco Bay Area. We moved to Patagonia in January 2017, where we both felt we had found our real home.
He decided long ago that acting was no longer for him when he walked off a stage in L.A., an event that he has written about in a one-act play, “Let’s Pretend,” which Eva Wright is working on staging in Fort Collins in 2022. But he never stopped writing, playing music and painting. He bought me my first guitar in 2003, and we started to play and sing together. In 2008, we produced our first CD, “Life Drawing,” with eight songs written by Rick, three by me and one by Leonard Cohen!
In June 2021, when Rick was about to undergo cancer surgery, we set out to record some previously unrecorded songs that were dear to our hearts. He was not strong enough to go into a studio, so we recorded them at home, in increasingly difficult circumstances. Rick came through the surgery, but it turned out that the cancer had already spread. We sent the raw tracks to a recording engineer in California who mixed and mastered them. Rick recorded the last vocal on October 3, and we received that mix back on October 6. His daughters, Flea and Chrysta, arrived from England and we listened to the album together. Rick gave the project his thumbs up and died a few hours later in my arms, in the early hours of October 7, 2021.
He has three granddaughters in England, Jaime, Marnie and Ava. We will all miss him terribly.