When all the cheese in Mouseland vanishes mysteriously, it seems there is only one rodent up to the task of solving the crime.
In the first episode of ‘Rastamouse’, the new animation premiered on the CBeebies channel earlier this year, the dreadlocked reggae musician, voiced by Radio 1 DJ Reggie Yates, is called upon by President Wensley Dale to solve the puzzling disappearance. With the help of sidekicks Scratchy and Zoomer, the trio, also known as Da Easy Crew, set out to ‘make a bad ting good’, bringing the ‘teefin’ criminal’ to justice whilst spreading a positive message of love and sharing that will appeal to even the most hardy cynic.
Whilst not quite matching the twisty narratives or socio-political discourse of programmes like Mad Men or The Wire, the series, based on books by children’s authors Genevieve Webster and Michael De Souza, is hugely successful: a cult phenomenon with adults and children alike and currently the most watched CBeebies programme on iPlayer.
Nonetheless, it seems this popularity is not unanimous. The BBC has received dozens of messages of disapproval over the subversive content of the programme. A staggering 95 people raised concerns over the show’s alleged promotion of poor English. In the series, Rastamouse and his trusty companions speak in Jamaican Patois, using phrases like ‘me wan go’ (‘I want to go’), ‘irie’ (‘happy’) and ‘wagwan’ (‘what’s going on?’), whilst Rastamouse himself dons the colourful knitted hat associated with the Rastafarian religion.
But this should by no means be disparaged by well-meaning parents. ‘Rastamouse’ provides an insight into and reflection of a language and culture that is unparalleled in any series for the under 6’s at whom it is targeted.
It is laughable to suggest that adoption of slang is not as ordinary a part of the natural course of childhood as it is in adulthood. Although a slight departure from Standard English, its effect is surely no more detrimental than the use of nonsense or invented languages so common in children’s literature for centuries: from Edward Lear’s ‘runcible spoon’ to the ‘slithy toves’ of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, notwithstanding the plethora of BBC children’s programming that features non-verbal dialogue. ‘Teletubbies’ anyone?
In a statement for the BBC, a spokesperson has said: “The Rastamouse books are written in Afro-Caribbean Patois rhyme and this authentic voice has been transferred to the TV series to retain its heart, integrity and distinctive quality.”
But critics remain divided, with accusations of racism levelled at producers for their depictions of Caribbean culture in the show. The differing opinions of some observers however are rather more disconcerting.
“It is folly to think that patois is something kids need exposing to” comments Sky News presenter Colin Brazier. “It is an obstacle to social mobility in the very communities which need it most. Young, black boys don’t need to take lessons in cultural affirmation from Rastamouse. They need to learn how to speak in a way that will not bar them from opportunity.”
Yet Mr Brazier is mistaken if he believes that increased awareness of Britain’s diversity will have any sort of detrimental effect. Perhaps it is all the years he has spent being a young, black boy that makes his comments so patronising and assured; but to suggest that ‘Rastamouse’ will somehow hamper the prospects of any of its viewers is the real folly.
In light of David Cameron’s recent comments on the state of multiculturalism in modern Britain, it is an unquestionably positive step that the sights and sounds on our televisions sets are becoming increasingly reflective of life on our streets, if only for the 10 minute slot each day that ‘Rastamouse’ occupies.
The bulk of qualms are unfounded, one mother on the Mumsnet parenting forum expressing concern for her child watching the programme and repeating the Jamaican Patois phrases used by the mouse:
“The thing I’m most worried about is her saying the words like ‘Rasta’ and going up to a child and saying (these) things … my child is white and I feel if she was to say this to another child who was not white that it would be seen as her insulting the other child.”
A small minority of complaints received by the BBC regarding ‘Rastamouse’ also claimed that the show perpetuated negative racial stereotyping of black people and culture. This reviewer remains unoffended. Perhaps I missed something. But if the overriding positive moral message of the ‘special-agents playing reggae when the work is through’ is not enough to assuage the fears of detractors of the show on grounds of race, religion and culture – issues to which young children are generally oblivious – then it is hard to know what more can be done to convince them.
Though biographical details should be of little significance to the debate, the fact that De Souza, creator of the show’s source material, is himself a black Rastafarian, makes the allegations against ‘Rastamouse’ as an external mockery of Caribbean culture rather difficult to stand up to scrutiny.
Personally, the fact that it is so difficult to take seriously any potential hazard of the series, aired before tea-time for a pre-school audience, speaks volumes for what is a gross overreaction from a minority of the anxious and well-intentioned. If the uproar surrounding the characterisation of West Indian culture in ‘Rastamouse’ really is the dangerous territory that it has proved to be, then to what extent are producers allowed to depict cultures or dialects from any demographic other than a white British one without subsequent liability from social reactionaries?
Fictional characters – we make the assumption here that Rastamouse is not a biographical character – are doomed by extension to be representatives of the group to which they belong. Until calls are made for the BBC to be taken to task for its inaccurate or sweeping portrayals of Scottish people in ‘Balamory’, black-and-white cats in ‘Postman Pat’ or penguins in ‘Pingu’, in spite of all the furore, we are obliged to see ‘Rastamouse’ for what it truly is: an amusing and educational cartoon about a cute little mouse.