The ailing children’s TV sector has been single-handedly revived by one man, who drives adults crazy, but is a hero among the under-5s. Martin Saunders on the rise and rise of Justin Fletcher.
It’s going to be one thing or the other. You’ll either have no idea who Justin Fletcher is, or you’ll know exactly who Justin Fletcher is. There’s no in-between. If there are children of a certain age in your family, you’ll fall into the second group; if not, you’ll be wondering why we’ve devoted two pages of Christianity magazine to a chubby clown. No, I don’t mean me.
Either way, Fletcher is an undisputed phenomenon of British kids’ TV. His rise has been as meteoric as it has been unexpected, and has seen him pick up an MBE along the way. Like a sort of Diego Maradona of preschool entertainment, he leaves grown men conflicted by feelings of horror and awe; while his style might be irritating to adults, it is adored by the under-5s. Justin Fletcher has a nation of little people under his spell.
All this may seem of limited interest. Unless of course you, like Fletcher, happen to be part of an institution which is struggling to capture the imagination of the generation it seeks to serve. Then it might become very interesting.
After an unspectacular early career in voice-overs and kids presenting, Fletcher has since scored three big kids’ TV hits in a row. The first, Something Special was self-produced and pitched to the BBC as a resource for schools. The programme, featuring Fletcher’s most famous creation, Mr Tumble, teaches Makaton sign language, and was both aimed at – and heavily featured – children with special needs. The original idea was that it would be screened early in the morning, along with other educational shows. Instead the BBC took the visionary step of screening it as part of the regular CBeebies schedule. It became an instant hit with preschoolers of all abilities.
My own children have both loved the programme during their preschool years. They have picked up a little sign language along the way, but far more significantly, disability has been normalised for them. They understand that some children are ‘normal but different’, because they have been presented with this world view in a show that airs alongside Postman Pat.
When it comes to our ministry to children, how do we approach those among us who are similarly ‘normal but different’? Does your church tend toward the special provision approach (with a necessary degree of separation), or are you aiming for more comprehensive inclusion? This isn’t intended to be a glib question. I am inspired by how Fletcher and CBeebies have successfully integrated special needs into mainstream programming. Could we learn something here?
Mr Tumble lives on, but Fletcher has ambitiously broadened his reach. His next project – Gigglebiz – was a comedy sketch show for the same preschool audience. Such a concept had never been attempted before; a complex construction of recurring characters, short-form storytelling and quick-fire gags. Again, the BBC should be credited for trusting Fletcher’s judgement, flying as it was in the face of the industry’s prevailing wisdom. Again they were rewarded as the show became a hit.
Once more, parents were hit hard. Annoyingly, my principles force me to watch television with my children, rather than using it as a babysitter. When I ask my brood what they’d like to watch, the answer is usually the same: ‘Gigglebiz!’ (or latterly, ‘Justin’s House!’, on which, more later). This probably explains why I’ve had the chance to think this through in such forensic detail. Yet among the silly characters and the general annoyingness, you cannot fail as a parent to be impressed by the way Fletcher treats your children. Implicit in everything he produces is a deep, countercultural respect for their capacity for intelligence. Most of the ‘kids’ industry just wants to sell them stuff; I remember from my own childhood the hundreds of shows based on action figures (or was it the other way around?).
The jokes, characters and format of Gigglebiz, are (mainly) far from lowest common denominator – they’re pitched at an aspirational level. The result? Children love the show, and work to understand the more complicated aspects, rather than passively consuming unstimulating mush.
Does that challenge your approach to children and young people? Is your church engaging the young on the same passive, consumeristic terms most of their culture does? Or are you actively considering how to challenge, stretch and stimulate them? Are you treating them with such respect that you might consider them not just as groups to be cared for, but as participants to help shape what you do?
Fletcher’s hat-trick goal is an inescapably self-indulgent reinvention of the weekend morning kids’ shows not seen since the 1990s. Essentially a twice-weekly pantomime, Justin’s House puts Justin (and a couple of subservient characters) in front of a studio audience of his screaming little fans. So central is it to CBeebies’ schedule that characters and presenters from the channel’s other programmes make guest appearances. Another smash hit with the audience – and another opportunity for grumpy dads, who wish they had Fletcher’s charisma, to critique it – has crowned him king of preschool television.
Even in this familiar format, there’s a lesson – because Fletcher has managed to resurrect an institution that most thought was on its last legs. Against the odds, and in a Sky+ world where scheduling has become increasingly redundant, he’s got children making an appointment to view because they simply can’t wait any longer. Could we dream the same for our Sunday school groups? Perhaps we need to ask God for some of Mr Tumble’s prophetic vision...