The star of CBBC's Something Special and Justin's House, Justin Fletcher talks to ToyNews about his biggest influences, his favourite toy and why disability representation on TV and the toy shelves is a campaign worth championing...
What’s it like to see yourself (or a version of yourself) as a line of toys?
It’s lovely to see Mr. Tumble as a collection of toys. I think Golden Bear has done a wonderful job and stayed very familiar to what the programme looks like. I think it’s a great extension.
In truth, it is still very strange to see myself as a range of toys. This is my 25th year in children’s television – on a side note, we need to have a party for that – and of course, throughout my career doing Justin’s House, GiggleBiz and Something Special, I have played so many different characters that it becomes a normal thing to dress up as 27 different versions of me.
But still, seeing that as a toy line is still peculiar.
What does the name Justin Fletcher bring to children’s TV and in turn, the toy space?
The key thing for me is – and I started a long time ago – that when I started Something Special, I was an actor. I trained as an actor, but I was always interested in doing children’s television, inspired by the days of The Broom Cupboard back in the day with Philip Schofield.
Since then, my key aim was to create entertainment for the whole family, not just for the children to enjoy. It’s about the family viewing experience.
However, more than anything it’s about passion. You really can’t fool children, they have to genuinely believe in what you are trying to do. It’s that clarity and commitment to what I do that I hope comes across in all my programmes.
You grew up immersed in the music and entertainment industry, how did that shape your career children’s TV?
Yes, indeed. My father – Guy Fletcher - is a songwriter and still very much active in the industry, and my cousin – another Guy Fletcher – was in Dire Straits, while my sister’s a newsreader and my aunt is a singer aswell, so it was almost inevitable that I would end up going into entertainment.
My main passion is film music, I love film scores. One of my memories as a child is watching Ron Goodwn – who wrote some big film scores – I watched him play with the orchestra. It really stuck with me and today I base quite a lot of my programmes on film music.
How do you bring that passion for music to the shows you produce?
I could talk about film scores for hours. John Williams is another one of my favourites, but I always like to work with composers that I know will bring that similar feel of live, energy to the shows.
Music in programmes is so important because it adds that extra level. If it’s not quite right, it can really affect the visual impact of the show.
On top of that, I am a live performer and we do a lot of big brand production numbers that the family can join in with. There are a lot of influences from the likes of Brian Setzer and a lot of 50s music, such as the Jitterbug.
Kids can really enjoy it, and that channels through to all of the outfits too, as a genre of music in fact 50s swing is very expressive in term of movement.
What were some of your favourite toys as a child and how did they shape the performer you are today?
I actually stumbled across some of my own favourite toys - I had quite an eclectic collection of bumper cars and classic vehicles. But I found one of my favourites in a box the other day, a very old wind-up car from the 50s. I thought I had lost it, so it was quite a moment finding it again.
Growing up, Mouse Trap had a big impact on me, I would say. It’s a very slapstick game and I could honestly talk about my love for slapstick comedy all day.
Could you condense it into a few paragraphs for us?
I was brought up on Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, watching them for hours on VHS. It really influenced my portrayal of Mr. Tumble and through him and the family, I try to fly the flag for slapstick comedy, because I believe if it is done right, it is effortless and completely timeless.
It’s one of the joys of Mr. Tumble, you have the educational element with the sign language, but it’s also fun and engaging and makes you laugh.
You’re the face of numerous hit children’s shows and even more characters, is brand appeal something you keep in mind when creating a character or show?
I just create what feels right for the time. GiggleBiz was created 20 years ago because I actually wanted to create a sketch show for children. There was nothing like that at the time. The Fast Show was around and I wanted to create a Fast Show for children.
Justin’s House is very much about bringing back the live Cracker Jack feel from years ago. I wanted a show to bring back that live audience element, making the kids the actual stars of the show.
Can you tell us more about the signing element to Mr. Tumble?
Mr. Tumble brings the Makaton singing system to children, which is great for helping kids communicate using their hands.
Quite often when children can’t vocalise, it gives them a voice. We are coming into the 14th year for Mr. Tumble and I am so very proud of the show. It helps so many children and their families. It is amazing how quickly children pick the signing up, it never ceases to amaze me.
It is a challenge learning all the signs and the script, but it is the most rewarding job I could ever do.
Is there enough representation on children’s TV at the moment, and of course, in children’s toys?
I think we could certainly do with more representation on children’s TV. It’s great, it breaks down barriers and it is completely inclusive and everyone can enjoy and watch it.
The Makaton system is so good as it relieves the frustration of troubles with vocalising, they can sign for a biscuit or a drink or the toilet with one word.
Bringing that element to the toy space is an absolute key element to the Mr. Tumble toy line. The guys at Golden Bear has done a fantastic job as far as that is concerned. The toys are very tactile, visually bright and engaging and what I really love about it, there are elements of signing on all the products as well.
We mustn’t stop making that, it has got to carry on.