The genius of Justin’s House

Since Verity was born what appears on our television has changed dramatically.  Where in the old days we might have found time to watch a drama series these days we watch Cbeebies.

Verity may only be 17 months old but she has her favourite programmes.  Her absolute favourite is In the Night Garden.  From the moment it goes on she is captivated.  She’ll talk to the characters and dance along with Upsy Daisy and Maka Paka.  We recently took her to the stage show and I’ll admit to having wept with pure joy at seeing how much she enjoyed herself.  After the show she got to meet her hero, Iggle Piggle.  She was enraptured.

She is also into Justin’s HouseJustin’s House, for those of you who aren’t seasoned watchers of children’s television is stars Justin Fletcher (aka Mr Tumble).  It’s set in a house in Justin Town where he and his friends, Robert the Robot and the Little Monster, enjoy singing and dancing and have all kinds of fun.

The two shows I have mentioned share a number of features.  Firstly they are uber colourful.  Then there’s the fact the episodes are structured so that if you watched the series you’d become familiar with the routine.  Both programmes have very catchy music with songs being used to introduce characters, deepening the sense of familiarity.  Finally episode plots tend to be very gentle, warm and simple.  They talk about feelings, friendship and fun.  They are definitely not the stuff of Albert Square!

Where Justin’s House is different to In the Night Garden is that Justin Fletcher has devised a slapstick stage show.  Slapstick is visual, physical comedy relying on well-rehearsed routines and sequences for laughs.  It’s easy to dismiss slapstick as an easy or base art form but children really enjoy watching people fall over, bump into each other or getting a pie in the face.  My earliest storytelling sessions were far more theatrical in their nature and my versions of The Unlucky Mummy and Dracula were crammed with slapstick gags which were always very popular with audiences.  Even now I use a lot of water pistols in my work because, in the end, who doesn’t think it’s a little bit funny to see someone get squirted in the ear?

The slapstick in Justin’s House is very slick and perfectly pitched but for me the genius of the show is to put it in front of a live audience.  The audience act like a character, joining in with songs, answering questions and responding to the unfolding story.  The audience’s role is recognised by the director who regularly cuts to the audience so the viewer can see facial expressions.  Justin also acknowledges the audience.  In the song Justin’s House, he sings about the audience saying “you’re funny and sunny, put a smile on my face, you’re brilliant, you really are great!”.  He’s right to be grateful because without the audience the whole programme would have a very different rhythm and feel quite flat or awkward.

So what can a storyteller learn from Justin Fletcher?

Be colourful – when selecting props and visual aids make sure they are bright and colourful.  I use a lot of wigs, hats and props in my storytellings and use voices and physical motifs to enhance my stories.

Have a structure – children find security in familiarity whether it be a daily routine or a storytelling.  If you are running regular sessions a format will help your group become more comfortable and more willing participants.  When I run a session as a one off I’ll explain the rules of the session before I start in order to hype them up and manage expectations; so sometimes when I do global tale sessions the children get to vote on the stories they’ll hear or if I want volunteers they’ll understand how they are going to be selected.

Use music and song – consider enhancing your set with sound.  If you can, find ways of getting the children involved in creating the sound (maybe a sing-a-long).  I don’t play any instrument to a particular standard but will incorporate recorded music, live sound effects and singing where it’s appropriate.  Sometimes creating a sound effect can be just as intriguing for an audience the story!

Consider your content – I do a lot of work for 6+ year olds.  Stories like Dennis and the Chamber of Mischief or The Hundred Mile an Hour Dog invariably include a lot of participation and a water pistol (see above).  My sessions for under-fives are much more gentle.

Get on with and enrapture your audience – in every storytelling session rapport and communion with the audience is crucial.  If you can create a lively positive environment then hopefully everybody will have a good time!  It’s easier to work with a crowd than against them.

Undoubtedly Justin Fletcher is an excellent professional who has developed very strong formats and material and clearly understands how to entertain children.  You can argue the rights and wrongs of watching television but it’d be an error to write children’s television off for it’s content and delivery – these are well made, clever productions that anybody who might like to work with children can learn from watching.  Besides if Iggle Piggle and Justin Fletcher offer Verity some light hearted fun and it makes her happy then that makes me happy too.