He’s the skate-boarding, Rastafarian felt mouse who solves crimes with a chilled-out mantra of “makin’ a bad ting good”. Yet it's parents and students who are helping to turn Rastamouse into the biggest childrens’ television cult hit since Teletubbies.
Based on the popular childrens’ books, Rastamouse was launched on the BBC CBeebies channel as an animated series with particular appeal to young Afro-Caribbean children.
Voiced by the Radio 1 presenter Reggie Yates, Rastamouse speaks in patois-inflected English and wears a traditional Rastafarian “crown” hat.
Together with his blinged-up reggae band, Da Easy Crew, the laid-back rodent is called upon to solve mysteries by the president of Mouseland, Wensley Dale, who regularly warns that “tings is ruff”.
An instant hit with its tea-time pre-school target audience, Rastamouse has now signed a record deal with EMI and the series has already been snapped up by international broadcasters.
However, Rastamouse has also attracted a surprising number of adult viewers, becoming the most-watched CBeebies programme on the BBC’s iPlayer website.
Celebrity fans include Adrian Chiles, Radio 1 DJ Rob Da Bank and the actress Tamzin Outhwaite who compared Rastamouse to the classic 1970s children’s show, Fingerbobs.
Students have detected a subversive undertone. Like The Magic Roundabout before it, Rastamouse contains coded references to drugs, it is alleged, with the constant references to “cheese” substituting for marijuana.
Rastamouse does not endorse drugs, said his creators, Genevieve Webster and Michael De Souza, who co-wrote the original books, which were published in 2003. “I can see why people might say that but there is no innuendo intended,” Ms Webster said. “There was no intention of including any language that might go over a child’s head.”
Like the Hindi-titled CBeebies series Tikkabilla, Rastamouse is intended to reflect the diversity of modern Britain. But its appeal has stretched far beyond an Afro-Caribbean audience. Some parents are baffled after discovering their children singing the joys of “irie” and insisting “me tink me know who de t’ieving mouse may be”.
One viewer complained: “Why don’t we teach children to speak English correctly before confusing them with a bastardised version of it? I feel sorry for the English teachers who have to pick up this mess.”
Rastamouse’s patois simply reflects the experience of children today, said Mr De Souza, a Rastafarian swimming instructor who began telling the stories to encourage his pupils to swim. “Children aren’t speaking the Queen’s English in the street. I talk to kids in schools and they talk in many different dialects. Rastamouse speaks in a way they can relate to.”
Ms Webster added: “The English language is beautiful but so are other dialects. We live in a lovely multicultural society and we wanted to celebrate the Caribbean dialect too. The main point is to get across Rastamouse’s positive message.”
Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community, which numbers around 600,000, has embraced the series. The BBC 1Xtra digital radio station plays clips from the show in response to listener requests and an unofficial Rastamouse theme tune remix has appeared on YouTube.
The 1Xtra DJ Young Lion, a regular Rastamouse viewer, said: “I wish there had been a programme like this when I was at school. Rastafarians were treated like outcasts. This is a childrens’ show that’s saying something different and people love the language.” The broadcasters denied that it could have a detrimental effect on children. “There’s no way that one single 10-minute show out of all the rest can make children speak a totally different language.”
Ms Webster and Mr De Souza created Rastamouse as an alternative to the staid books published for Afro-Caribbean children. Ms Webster said: “Whenever I picked up a book intended for a black audience it would be full of realistic, watercolour illustrations. There were no imaginative adventures.”
The authors wanted the CBeebies series to echo the “hand-crafted” animated series, created by Oliver Postgate, that they grew up with. Ms Webster said: “We both loved The Clangers and Bagpuss when we were young. They had a fantastic human touch.” The message of each episode is that “through understanding, love and respect, Rastamouse guarantees that redemption, not retribution, is the order of the day”.
Hit children’s shows can become huge earners – Teletubbies returned £120m to the BBC and its creator Anne Wood – and Rastamouse is now set to become an international star. The Rastamouse Company has licensed the 52-episode series to broadcasters in Poland, Australia, Canada and Israel and a range of merchandise, including plush toys and DVDs, will be unleashed.
Rastamouse has signed a record deal with EMI, which will release an album of reggae tracks featuring Mr Yates’s voice.
Reggie Yates said that he wanted the series to represent “a small step towards making the entire UK much more multicultural”.
In an interview with The Voice newspaper, he said: “There are a million and one children’s television programmes where all of the characters are either racially ambiguous or they’re very European and nobody bats an eyelid about those types of shows.
“But the minute you do something different, naturally, it earns attention. That’s not a bad thing, but it would be nice to get to a point where people just say: ‘Oh great, there’s another show that represents a different part of our community.’”
The presenter, also known as Mr Tumbles, became a cult star with the Something Special CBeebies series for special needs children. The educational show using Makaton sign language became surprise mainstream hit earning Fletcher a Children's Bafta in 2008. He was appointed an MBE in the same year.
The CBeebies presenter, who was born with one hand, prompted complaints from parents who complained that she was scaring toddlers. Burnell said: "People are frightened by disability so they don't want to see it; yet, if they saw more of it on television they wouldn't be so frightened." She stopped wearing her prosthetic arm at primary school.
Named after the Hindi-word for hopscotch, Tikkabilla's song-and-dance approach revived Play School's formula for a modern multicultural audience. It won praise for reintroducing Play School's square, round and arched windows and features a small dragon puppet named Tamba.