Justin Fletcher: Meeting the man behind Mr Tumble
As all young children and their parents know, Justin Fletcher is the biggest star on British children's TV. He has been on screens for more than 20 years and now has a new live show. But can he really be so cheerful in real life?
Justin Fletcher is the relentlessly upbeat, infectiously goofy and lovably innocent star of CBeebies shows Something Special, Justin's House and Gigglebiz.
He is one of the BBC's most popular personalities - although those who have neither been nor had children recently have probably never heard of him.
And he is now rubbing shoulders with the likes of artist Gerhard Richter, actress Maxine Peake and musician FKA Twigs in the line-up for this year's Manchester International Festival.
The festival will stage a theatre show in which he tells the life story of his most popular character, Something Special's starry-waistcoat-wearing Mr Tumble.
In person, Fletcher comes across much as he does on screen - cheerful, enthusiastic, childlike.
How does this show differ from your other TV and live shows?
The great thing about this show is it's looking at the early years of the character Mr Tumble, which is really fun.
But the most exciting part of the show is we have a signing choir on stage. We're using children from schools around the area. We use the Makaton signing system, which helps children have a voice. If a child can't vocalise, they can use their hands to tell us what they want and that relieves the frustration.
Is there a child actor playing Master Tumble?
Yes. We've got a little chap I worked with on one of my other programmes, Gigglebiz. In fact, we've got two actors. And we've got some other lovely character actors - we've got Ronni Ancona coming in to play the headmistress of the school, so that should be good fun.
Do you still enjoy being on children's TV?
Oh, I love it. The reaction we get from the children, the families, the teachers, everyone, is incredible. When you get emails daily saying: "My child has spoken for the first time after watching this programme," it's a very important thing, and it's important that we carry on this programme. It helps so many children.
Do children or parents get more excited when they spot you in real life?
I don't know. I'll get lots of people shouting across the road. I might be in the supermarket or whatever and they'll go: "Hi Mr Tumble!"
I went to a fete with my niece, and we were walking into the entrance to the fete and someone went: "Hey Mr Tumble!" And Lara said to me: "Is Mr Tumble here? Where is he? We've got to go and see him quick." And I was thinking: "Wow, we need to find a phone box because I need to change."
Do actors on children's TV get same credit as those on prime-time comedy or drama?
I don't know. I've found my niche. I know what I love doing. And the key is not sitting still. Every few years, I like to reinvent myself. I like to come up with new ideas, new formats and new characters. That's important.
People assume that children's TV is quick and easy, but is there a craft to it?
Yes. Slapstick is tricky. It's all about timing, and it takes quite a long time to film. We tend to do it on one single camera because you get a lot more without the editing, and that goes back to the days of Laurel and Hardy, [Buster] Keaton [and Charlie] Chaplin, who mostly filmed with just one camera on a mid-shot.
How about a more radical change of direction, to straight acting?
Yeah, or adult comedy. Of course I would look at that. I would never leave children's completely. Never would. Because I love it, that's what I do.
But I've spoken to some lovely people who I've got to know over the years, like Peter Kay, and who knows, if something came up that's right for me, of course I'd look at it because it would be a real challenge for me and take me out of my comfort zone.
Don't you ever get sick of having to be so happy?
No, no. I realise I'm very lucky doing something I love doing, but I work hard at it and I really try and make programmes that are watchable not just for children but for everyone.
What do you do in your spare time?
I'm 45 now, and, as you get older, when you do all the falls and slapstick work and go onto crash mats, you get a bit slow at getting up, because it is a very physical, demanding role.
I've got a lovely family around me. I do country walks. I go fishing a bit. I take the dogs for a walk. I visit friends, and I'm trying to give myself a bit more time off, but it always seems to fail because I am a bit of a workaholic.
What's your biggest vice? Being a workaholic doesn't count.
I'm quite into classic cars. I'm quite fascinated by things like that. And I love film music. Film music is so important to me. I was brought up in the music industry. My father's a songwriter. So most of my ideas come from listening to music, and most of that is film music.
How many cars have you got?
I've got a couple of prop cars. They're two minis - they've been cut in half and then put back together so they're tiny. They've got little eyes as well. And I've got five 1950s bumper cars. And I've got a little MGB. So I tinker around with those cars when I've got a minute.
The Tale of Mr Tumble is at Manchester Opera House from 11-19 July.