Godwin of the ThisIsLondon.uk site, profiles the man behind the hit children’s series at BBC.
It’s three weeks since Rastamouse first appeared on our TV screens and it’s fair to say that the BBC has a hit on its hands.
The under-sixes have taken the crime-solving, reggae-loving, patois-speaking skater to their hearts – and by all accounts they now pepper their speech with “Irie” and “ting”. Their parents adore the craft of the stop-motion animation, reminiscent of the eccentric children’s TV of yesteryear such as Bagpuss and The Clangers.
With a sizeable student crowd intent on reading druggy references into Da Easy Crew’s penchant for cheese, Rastamouse has been trending on Twitter, “going up” in what’s hot columns and earning sparkling reviews for a genuinely rather good debut single, Ice Popp.
So wagwan, exactly?
The man behind all this, Michael de Souza, 57 – unmistakeable in a Rastamouse-esque tam, which contains hair he has not cut for 30 years – is in the middle of what he describes as a whirlwind. A former engineer who gave up being told what to do in order to work with children, de Souza developed Rastamouse after meeting illustrator Genevieve Webster, 45, at Kensington Sports Centre, where he was teaching swimming. He is bemused at the debate caused by the creature they created together first for a series of books, now for a show.
“Is Rastamouse a good ting or a bad ting?” asks that morning’s Sun newspaper, with reference to complaints that the show stereotypes Caribbean people and corrupts young minds with its
patois. “I don’t like that sort of headline – it can never be a bad ting,” de Souza says, impatiently.
The condiments tycoon Levi Roots disagrees, upset that Rastamouse is a mouse as opposed to a lion, the traditional symbol of Rastafarianism (“Oh really, did he say something? I never knew that!” says de Souza sarcastically). Meanwhile, psychologist Delroy Constantine Simms, writing in The Voice, opines: “Rastamouse is no better than the new sambo – golliwog in drag. No other ethnic group in Britain would allow their religion to be represented by a rodent” (Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Jerry, Speedy Gonzalez, Dangermouse and the graphic novel Maus, which depicts the entire Jewish race as mice, presumably being aberrations.)
De Souza, who has the resounding voice of a man used to cajoling kids into the front crawl, has little time for this crude political reading of what is clearly a very personal creation. “Why he should be a lion? It’s just a matter of imagination,” he says. He’s also quick to dismiss accusations that he is corrupting young tongues.
“When people talk about the language, it just shows that they’re really removed from what’s going on. They need to go out on the street and listen to the youths – it’s a total mishmash they’re talking, a salad. When we’re in schools, reading from the Rastamouse books, some of the best students are not from the Caribbean but from Serbia, Portugal, all over the place. They just like the language.”
You can see why the manufactured controversy annoys de Souza. The show reflects a sincere desire “to give Caribbean culture a positive voice, not the stereotype”. He and
Webster self-published the books in order to retain the purity of that original voice – and both are delighted that the television adaptation has retained that sense of authorship so lacking in committee-designed children’s shows such as In the Night Garden.
There’s another reason, however. Born in Trinidad, de Souza arrived in Ladbroke Grove at the age of eight, in 1961, and found the change “awful!”. It was grey, the houses were “practically slums” and he couldn’t get used to all the chimneys. (Incidentally, west London inspired the Grove Town where Rastamouse lives, Notting Hill appearing as Natty Hill, Powys Square as Pow Pow Square, the Westbourne Grove skate park being regular locations.)
“The amazing part was that I couldn’t understand the language at all. That’s why it’s important that people take the time to understand,” he says.
There was certainly nothing like Rastamouse around at that time. “When I was in school, on a Friday we’d have a story. The headmaster would get up and read this thing called Epaminondas.
This little character was a dumb little black boy in the plantations. The headmaster used to read it with glee. Every week, his mum would say ‘Epaminondas! You ain’t got the sense you was born with!’ I used to hate it. As a black person we wasn’t feeling proud to be hearing that. Hated rubbish like that.”
Does he think this was deliberate or just naïve? “He certainly wasn’t trying to instil black pride!” he laughs. This is why Rastamouse has been received so warmly by the majority, I would suggest. It’s worth taking a trip to a local library or looking through the TV schedules to see how few children’s stories have
black culture at their centre – when I
mentored a black child, I found the absence troubling, embarrassing even.
De Souza has two grandchildren, Sophie, 12, and Ben, 10 – and he’s already seen the positive effects of his creation.
“My grandson, he’s mixed [race], his mum’s mixed, and he lives in a complete white area [in Sussex]. He was having a little bit of issues about his identity and that. But his mum says, since Rastamouse has been on, he’s full of pride, he feels so confident, because he can relate to it.”
That’s some achievement. De Souza
and Webster – who coyly admit that they are an item – clearly have the opportunity to capitalise on their creation.
But that’s never been the main aim, says de Souza.
“There’s always a rhetoric about multiculturalism. Well, don’t just talk about it – do it. Me and Genevieve, a black man and a white woman, got together with the aim of doing something for the children. People say, ‘Why can’t we be as one?’ What stops you?”
For the original report go to http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/lifestyle/article-23926166-rastamouse-is-the-new-bbc-hit-programme-for-kids.do