TV

Justin Fletcher Interview – How Mr Tumble is shaping Britain’s future…

Justin Fletcher aka Mr Tumble is the most famous person in the UK – if you’re under six. His shows are creating new ways for children to see the world

There is only one way to start a conversation with Justin Fletcher. “Hello, hello, how are you?”

He laughs, with a warmth that is as rosy as his cheeks. “Of course! The old Hello song, a lovely icebreaker.”

For over a decade the Hello song has introduced Something Special, the sensation of CBeebies, which stars Fletcher as himself, but also as the bumbling Mr Tumble and countless Tumble relatives (Aunt Polly is a particular favourite). The show has won him three Baftas and endless repeats bring in 1.9 million viewers each week. Johnny Depp has been spotted in the audience of one of Fletcher’s live shows, and last year he received an honorary degree from the University of Dundee. This is Justin’s world – we just live in it.

A fixture of CBeebies in various guises for more than 20 years, it is hard to imagine Fletcher can walk down the street without his ankles being mobbed. “I get some lovely feedback,” he says. “A lot of people call me Justin or shout, ‘Hi Mr Tumble!’. We get lovely emails, particularly about Something Special, saying ‘my child has spoken for the first time after watching’, and that’s very important.”

Johnny Depp has been spotted in the audience of one of Fletcher’s live shows

It is impossible to overestimate the significance of Something Special. Presented by Fletcher with children who have mental and physical disabilities, it was designed to showcase Makaton, a simple form of sign language. One in 10 children experience problems with language development but largely thanks to the show most toddlers in the country are familiar with rudimentary sign language and it is estimated that Makaton is now used by 100,000 people. As children grow up, they naturally stop using it – just as their memories of the many pre-school hours spent laughing along with Mr Tumble will fade. All clowns possess an element of tragedy.

Fletcher, who in 2008 was awarded an MBE for services to children’s broadcasting, is also the nation’s babysitter-in-chief. Last week it was revealed that exhausted parents are paying sleep experts up to £600 a night to help send infants to the Land of Nod. Fletcher is a calming balm at a much cheaper price. Watching him make animal masks with friends, go snow tubing or wash a very muddy pig (in episodes all currently available on iPlayer) is undeniably soothing.

He is taking time to chat to The Big Issue between performances as Mr Perks (below) in The Railway Children at London’s King’s Cross Theatre. Such is his star-power even a real steam train chugging down tracks in the centre of the auditorium barely upstages him.

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But fear not: the lure of the footlights won’t pull him off our screens. “I’m not leaving CBeebies,” he says. “I’m passionate about what I do.” (Parents across the nation breathe a sigh of relief.) Fletcher knew while studying at the Guildford School of Acting how he wanted to spend his career. “I watched Phillip Schofield with Gordon the Gopher and was taught the techniques of children’s television presenting from a chap called Iain Lauchlan, who used to present Playschool and went on to co-create Tweenies.” That was one of his first TV breaks, voicing cheeky scamp Jake and Doodles the dog. Incidentally, Fletcher also provides all the bleats for Shaun the Sheep.

“My roots are slapstick comedy,” he says. “When I was a child I watched endless Laurel and Hardy films and after I left drama school my first job was a play about Sid Field, an old music hall comedian. A chap called Jack Tripp, who was a very famous pantomime dame, taught me the double takes and the falls and the looks to camera that Ollie Hardy invented. I incorporated that into Mr Tumble.”

Fletcher is on the right side of roly-poly to make the slapstick really stick, and his antics as Mr Tumble are catnip for toddlers. Never shy of wearing a dress or making a fool of himself, Fletcher is single-handedly restoring the reputation of clowning, at the same time as celebrating diversity and teaching children how to communicate.

“You’ve got British Sign Language and other signing systems but Makaton was invented to relieve frustration, particularly if children can’t communicate vocally,” he explains. “Children could use just one simple sign if they wanted a biscuit or a drink or needed to go to the toilet. It’s become a show for everyone, it’s so inclusive. It just took off overnight.”

I’m not leaving CBeebies,” he says. “I’m passionate about what I do”

As a result, toddlers’ window on the world is more balanced and representative than most other TV viewers, not that Fletcher is able to confirm. “I don’t watch a huge amount of TV – I’m too busy making it! In fact I don’t have a TV at the moment,” he admits. Besides Something Special, Fletcher also stars – as 27 characters – in sketch show Gigglebiz, like a kids version of The Fast Show but often much funnier, and the anarchic Crackerjack-style Justin’s House, filmed with an audience of excitable kids.

“Most of my programme ideas and characters come from film music, I love listening to film music,” he says. “I’ve got a little cocker spaniel and when out walking I’ll listen to music in my headphones and imagine scenarios. My favourite composer is Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who wrote scores for films like Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood, a lot of Errol Flynn films. I’ll listen to bits of music then I start to work on mannerisms – I try to make all the characters different because it’s inevitable if you’ve played a character like Mr Tumble for 15 years people will be looking for any Tumbleisms.”

In fact, his family has a distinguished musical pedigree: his father, Guy Fletcher, wrote songs for Elvis and Ray Charles, as well as Cliff Richard’s 1973 Eurovision entry, while his cousin, also called Guy, was in Dire Straits. Continuing the tradition, this Christmas Mr Tumble releases his very own festive album.

“All the favourites sung by the whole Tumble family!” he chuckles. “I don’t like to sit still. When I’ve got a show up and running I’m already working on another in my mind. Eventually I’d love to do my own silent movie. There aren’t many feature length movies designed for young children. That would be the icing on the cake. It would be a lovely challenge.”

As Fletcher returns to rehearsals for The Railway Children, there’s only one thing left to do. Lift your hand and hold it high. Give it a wave and say goodbye!

Justin Fletcher stars in The Railway Children at King’s Cross Theatre until November 19

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