Interview: Justin Fletcher, the king of CBeebies

On CBeebies' tenth birthday, the man our kids know as Mr Tumble tells us he'd like to work at Downton Abbey...

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AUDIO: We tell Mr Tumble a joke!

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CBeebies is ten years old. You must be proud of what it’s achieved?
It seems like yesterday when I was cutting the cake at the fifth birthday party! Yes, CBeebies really thinks about its programming. There’s a lot of animation out there bought in from overseas, but the UK makes some really good-quality children’s programmes.

Everyone with small kids has seen your shows. Any famous fans?
When I was performing at Legoland last year, Simon Pegg ended up spending the whole day with me. I’ve built up a good friendship with Martin Freeman. I did a show in Bath and got an email from the organisers saying Johnny Depp had been in the audience. He didn’t come backstage, though. The one I was shocked at, who knew everything about all my programmes, was Gary Barlow.

Michael McIntyre asked me to do his children’s party a few years ago. I was filming. Otherwise I would have, because I really want to meet him. His father used to write jokes for Kenny Everett – my dad used to write music for that show.

And Peter Kay’s been in touch. He watches my sketch show, Gigglebiz. Peter loves [insane cookery presenter] Dina Lady. That’s his favourite character. He’s in the same business, really. I do the same thing but for a pre-school audience.

How’s your 2012 diary looking? 
We’re doing 25 more episodes of Something Special, which uses sign language for children with learning difficulties. The character of Mr Tumble is based on very old, slapstick silent comedy but there’s some education there as well. Something Special is the only programme of its kind on television. We need programmes that help children like that. I’m putting together a pitch for a Mr Tumble movie. We’re also doing another 25 episodes of Justin’s House, which is bringing back the live-audience format you saw in programmes like Crackerjack. And I’d love to do more Gigglebiz.

Are you the hardest-working man on TV?
Ha. I love it, though! A lot of people ask if all this is a stepping stone onto other things. I’m very open to those suggestions. But it’s just fitting it in: CBeebies keep recommissioning my shows! I’m trained as an actor. I never say I’m a presenter. I always say actor. In two or three years’ time I’d like to make myself a bit more available.

For what, exactly? Comedy for grown-ups?
I’d love to do a mockumentary – dip my toe into adult characters. And I’d like to develop a show for Saturday-evening telly. A dream-come-true type of show. Not quite like Jim’ll Fix It, but something full of excitement where you don’t know quite what’s going to happen.

Why are nearly all pre-school presenters in their early 20s?
I don’t know. I’m 41 now and I always think gosh, how long will I stay in children’s TV? But in my generation, most of the Playschool presenters were in their 30s and 40s. Brian Cant! He’s the guvnor, in my eyes. Children do relate to parent figures.

Whose career are you jealous of?
Nobody on television. Maybe Jim Carrey. He’s got everything: fantastic voice talent and physical performance.

Is there an existing show you’d like to be on?
The Royal Bodyguard. It’s like watching an adult version of Mr Tumble! It’s full of visual gags. He’s falling into cakes and off chairs, and slipping on banana skins. David Jason is a real hero of mine. He’s got comic timing and fantastic physical comedy. And period drama would be fun. Something like Downton Abbey. I could play a good clumsy butler. Would people just say, look, it’s Mr Tumble? No! It’s all down to the character, isn’t it? And I’m quite good at disguise. I could give it a go.

So you’re not too typecast as Mr Tumble, then?
I used to get everyone calling me Mr Tumble. I could be dressed up as [Gigglebiz’s weather reporter] Gail Force in the middle of Hyde Park, and someone would shout: “Oi! Mister Tumble!!” But since Gigglebiz and particularly Justin’s House, people are calling me Justin a lot more. My nieces and nephews are just making the decision that Mr Tumble and I could be the same person.

Presumably you don’t go home and watch CBeebies – what do you watch?
I love wildlife, and I’m also a huge fan of film music – John Williams, Erich Korngold. So when Frozen Planet combined that stunning photography with the music by George Fenton, it ticked both boxes! My father was a songwriter, so it’s in my background. I love Dad’s Army and Only Fools and Horses – I could quote that to you. Who controls the remote in my house? I live on my own, so… me! I’ve got two cats who often sit on it, but that’s as bad as it gets.

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How about doing a reality show, like I’m a Celebrity? To reach a new audience?
It’s just not me. I’m not someone who can sit there and openly chat. I love being in the public eye – I do thousands of meet-and-greets – but I couldn’t imagine who’d want to be bored by me ranting. What little private time I have is very precious. I don’t think I’d want to televise it! I live a quiet, boring life off-camera. It’s not interesting enough.