Blog: Alex Poots

MIF director on a surprising addition to Manchester International Festival

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Alex Poots, chief executive and artistic director of Manchester International Festival,  on his unlikely decision to commission Justin Fletcher’s The Tale of Mr Tumble. Buy your copy of The Big Issue in the North, 25-31 May, to read an interview with Poots talking about other aspects of MIF.

We’ve always had a children’s programme at MIF. In 2011 we did a very big project on the plaza outside the new BBC site called music boxes. It was for under fives and we had tens of thousands of people attend. It was a whole adventure world, a learning world, for very young children but created by artists in these containers that created this mini-village.

In 2009 we took over the whole of the town hall and gave it over to kids who could all go on treasure hunts.

We have had Victoria Wood performing That Day We Sang, which had a whole choir of nine to 11-year-olds, and kids came to that show. It wasn’t specifically made for kids but it was about kids.

It’s not that we’ve not been for kids, I just always try to go with the best artists with the best ideas and that leads us to certain places.

This year is the first time that I have found a children’s artist who really inspired me with their heritage. Peter Salmon, who runs BBC North, introduced me to Justin Fletcher. You know, I sit there in front of telly with my kids and watch kids TV. It’s not for me and that’s why I probably don’t like most of it. But when Justin comes on, particularly as the Mr Tumble character, there is something about it that I found quite intriguing. I put this to him. I said: “Look, with all due respect I can’t quite work out why I like what you’re doing. In fact I really like it. Is it your training, your influences?” And he explained it is actually really simple. He’s not performing for me but what he does is silent and slapstick comedy.

Justin Fletcher: silent comedy
Justin Fletcher: silent comedy

This is absolutely in his DNA and actually his teacher was Jack Tripp. Now, if you chase back Jack Tripp, he goes back to Norman Wisdom, who goes back to Laurel and Hardy, who goes back to Charlie Chaplin. So you’ve got these incredibly rich characters in his heritage.

It’s not some kind of do-gooding on Justin’s behalf to do something different – it’s actually completely logical that that silent comedy, slapstick comedy, which has such depth but instantaneous appeal, can work across all these different audiences effortlessly. I think to have achieved something that looks so simple but that is actually so wide reaching and has a real heart and soul to it is a real talent he’s got.

Without getting too artsy about it, I think that’s why I see him alongside all the other artists, completely shoulder to shoulder. There’s no difference.

Justin Fletcher stars in The Tale of Mr Tumble as part of Manchester International Festival, 11-19 July, Opera House, Manchester

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