Tuesday, 18 October 2016

INTERVIEW Justin Fletcher

THERE’S no mistaking the genuine warm smile of Justin Fletcher. Known to millions of kids, and their parents as his alter egos, Mr Tumble the loveable clown who signs, Arthur Sleep the newsreader who can’t help dozing mid broadcast and Anna Conda the bespectacled reptile fanatic to name but a few, Justin is as cheerful in real life as he is on the box.
The BAFTA- winning actor, presenter and entertainer has been a fixture on out TV screens for more than 20 years - mostly on the BBC TV channel CBeebies - bringing his own unique brand of humour, bonne viveur and slapstick to children.
However, for the next few weeks Justin has left CBeebies behind to take on the role of Mr Perks the stationmaster in the stage production of The Railway Children.
The show transferred to the King’s Cross Theatre via a stop at the former Eurostar terminal in Waterloo after a phenomenally successful run at the York Theatre Royal where it originally started life in 2008. With its ingenious and superb staging and featuring a real live steam engine, it is a fabulous production and rightly won acclaim from critics and audiences alike.
I meet Justin in the station ticket office at the King’s Cross Theatre for a chat about the show and how he got involved.
Greeting me warmly, he arrives after having done two performances that afternoon but if he is exhausted he certainly doesn’t show it.
Instead, together with a pair of jeans, trainers and blue hoody, he wears that radiating smile that has endeared him to millions of kids across the country.
“It’s magical and I’m having the best time,” he beams when I ask what it’s like being part of what has now become such an iconic show.
“I was asked to take on the role of Mr Perks about two years ago but couldn’t because I was too busy. 
“I came to see the show and thought ‘wow’ and I knew I wanted to play Mr Perks but at that time there never seemed to be a window of opportunity which was such a shame. I talked to a friend of mine who was in it when it was at Waterloo and he said if I got the chance I should do it as I would love it.
“Then in August this year I was asked again and I jumped at the chance!”
And being Mr Perks is more than living up to expectations not least as Justin was given encouragement by Bernard Cribbins who played the role in the original production.
“Mr Perks is a great character to play and in many ways he goes on just as much of a journey as the children do,” says Justin. 
“He adores the village and grows to love the family that moves in to it from London. But he’s a very private person and very proud so when he sees the presents the children and the villagers have given him on his birthday he can’t handle it. 
“He’s not used to that level of attention so initially he doesn’t react in a great way but then realises that it’s been made with the very best of intentions. 
“So it’s very emotional for him but it’s a story that is packed with emotion and feeling - especially at the end. I think everyone has a tear in their eyes by the end of the show - even the cast.
“What makes it is the atmosphere,” he adds. “The staging here has been done so well - the effects are terrific and it goes along at quite a pace.
“Then of course there is the train which of course is the real star of the show. 
“It’s brilliant isn’t it!” This rhetorical question directed at my two children who are sitting not too far away and who, having seen the show, nod fiercely in agreement.
Although for many, being in the show may seem like a complete departure for Justin, he tells me that it’s far from the case. He actually he started out as an actor after drama school and says he feels it’s more like going back to his roots.
However he acknowledges that the youngsters in the audience will know him mostly from his escapades on CBeebies.
“When I come out on stage at the beginning in my Mr Perks costume, they still see me as Mr Tumble,” he says. 
“So they call out ‘hello Mr Tumble!’ but when I come out again after the interval they’ve completely engaged with what’s going on and have got me as Mr Perks so their reactions are totally different. 
“It’s lovely.”
Justin decided whilst at drama school that he wanted to be an entertainer having grown up on a diet of Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
So while he was at Guildhall School of Acting he began devising and creating characters which would, years later, become part of his hit TV show Gigglebiz.
“When I was growing up I played with voices like the Muppets and I realised I had a real ear for it,” he remembers. 
“I also loved watching Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton with their slapstick humour - they were all big heroes of mine. Then there were Ronnie Barker and David Jason and their brilliant characterisations. Their timing was beautiful - remember the way David as Del Boy fell through the bar in that famous scene in Only Fools And Horses? It was delivered so well,” he smiles. 
“When I was at drama school I decided I wanted to write a show for children that was a bit slapstick and rather like the Fast Show was so I began writing all these characters.
“I came up with a whole bunch of characters including Arthur Sleep and Gail Force. Then my sister got me in a studio to do a show reel called Justin Time which I sent off to various people and that was it.”
His show reel paid off and he was snapped up by the likes of the BBC working on shows such as the Tweenies and Higgledy House.
But it was perhaps his character Mr Tumble - and the spin offs he has since created including Aunt Polly and Grandad Tumble - for his show Something Special, for which he had to learn Makaton sign language that he became best known for.
And it is this programme, which is aimed at children with delayed learning or communication difficulties, that he is most proud of.
“It’s been the highlight of my career,” he smiles. “The BBC approached me as I had been doing a show called Tikabilla. They had a very small budget to make a programme about Makaton and asked me if I wanted to do it. I learned how to sign, did a pilot and it went from there, giving me the character of Mr Tumble in the process.
“I love it because it’s so inclusive and the impact it has, and the way it has helped so many children is incredible. It’s what I’m most proud of in my career. 
“We have another series of the show coming out next year - it’ll be 15 years old. I’ll never stop making it,” he adds proudly.
And as well as Something Special, he provides some of the voices for Aardman Animation’s Timmy Time and Shaun the Sheep, he’s just finished filming Gigglebiz and there will soon be a new series of Justin’s House. 
And when his stint at Mr Perks ends in mid November he will swap his station master attire for that of Buttons when he appears in Snow White at the Hexagon Theatre in Reading.
He laughs genially when I ask if he’s planning a holiday.
“I don’t sit still and am constantly on the go, thinking about new characters and shows,” he laughs. “Believe it or not I actually get most of my inspiration from film music. I listen to a lot of it - especially from the 1940s and 50s!
“People used to say that children’s TV was a stepping stone to ‘better and bigger things’ but it was never like that for me,” he adds. 
“My first love is creating children’s TV. I’ve been doing it for 20 years and I’m passionate about it. I get a huge amount of pleasure and enjoyment out of making kids laugh - it makes me laugh too!
“In fact, there is nothing better than making people laugh!”

Justin Fletcher is in The Railway Children at at the King’s Cross Theatre until November 19. The show continues until January 9, 2017. Tickets cost from £25. Visit www.railwaychildrenlondon.com or call the box office on 0844 815 7121.

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