The show is remembered for its signature puppets – a bear called Bungle, George the pink hippo and a creature of uncertain origin, with a zip-up mouth, known as Zippy. Hayes appeared in more than 1,000 lunchtime editions between 1974 and 1992, playing the long-suffering adult character, guardian and upholder of the peace in the colourful Rainbow house. He also wrote for the series.
He had been cast for the role after the original presenter, David Cook, left 12 months into the show’s 20-year run. The two had worked together in rep and Cook had told Hayes about the upcoming vacancy.
The show had been intended as a more modest British version of the American Sesame Street. It launched as part of ITV’s first afternoon schedule, along with such other staples as Emmerdale Farm and Good Afternoon. It continued in its original form until Thames lost its licence in the 1992 ITV reshuffle.
Born in Stockport, Hayes left school at 15 and arrived in the theatre, as a scene shifter at Oldham rep, by way of jobs testing dyes in a cotton mill and as a British Rail booking clerk. In Oldham, he was given the chance to act, and he grasped the nettle by going on to attend drama school in Manchester.
He gained more stage experience in Liverpool and Dundee, and graduated to television with a semi-regular role in the BBC’s drama, Z Cars, as Detective Constable Scatliff.
Developing something of a speciality for police stories, he also appeared in an anthology series called Detective, as a lorry driver in a 1968 episode of Dixon of Dock Green, and in the Z Cars spin-off, Softly Softly: Task Force.
It was while at Thames, playing a taxi driver in the soap opera Harriet’s Back in Town – another feature of the new afternoon roster – that the audition call camwe for Rainbow. He thought the role would give him more regular work, and more money, than small, jobbing parts.
But the security did not last forever, and when Rainbow eventually ended, he found it difficult to work elsewhere.
He did, however, appear on panel shows such as Never Mind The Buzzcocks and Pointless Celebrities. He also toured clubs and universities and in 2002 presented a one-man show, Over the Rainbow, on the Edinburgh fringe.
He said at the time that the secret to Rainbow’s enduring popularity was that it was full of “magic, innocence and imagination”.
“Practically all the time people come up to me and it really breaks me up because they thank me for being part of their childhood. It makes me want to cry sometimes,” he said.
He is survived by his wife, Sarah, and son, Tom.