Sometimes it is hard to believe how far people will go to be able to claim they were offended (or to get a headline in a newspaper). This is a story about a clown, little kids with language problems, and very protective parents. The clown is Mr Tumble, who makes television for small kids, as part of a wonderful program called Something Special which uses Makaton signs.
An example of a short Mr Tumble appearance, with speech and (makaton) signs.
Here we seem to have a group of inspired people putting together something nice on TV and on the web. I would guess it is a program that a lot of parents and kids are very happy about. Now, about a week ago there was a strange headline in the Sun: TV’s Mr Tumble in sex fumble.
The Sun: “TV favourite Mr Tumble is greeting toddlers by saying “I’m fucking you” in sign language. The CBeebies character says the gestures mean “I’m happy to see you”. But angry parents have accused the BBC of jumbling up their signals. Dad-of-one Jamie Miller, who works for the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (RNID), was stunned when he watched Something Special with daughter Katie, five. Jamie said: “The signs for “happy” and “fucking” are quite similar but it was still an awful error to make.”… “Katie, who is learning sign language, asked what the gesture meant. I didn’t know what to tell her.”… “In British Sign Language “happy” is shown by gently brushing the palms against each other. The swear word is made by brushing the hands together between the thumb”
What a small difference in form to make a fuss over. It seems altogether hard to believe that the guy playing Mr Tumble would do this intentionally. It seems more likely that the parent saw something that he thought could be interpreted in another way than a simple greeting. Instead of simply telling his daughter the clown was signing he was happy to see her (ignoring the small difference in sign forms as long as she is still a child), he chose to make a problem out of it. Of course the BBC responded quickly by explaining the situation and denying the entire problem: The Press Association: BBC denies Mr Tumble swearing claim.
BBC spokesman: “The programme has been independently reviewed by experts – including Margaret Walker, the co-founder of Makaton – and none support the allegation that the greeting “happy to see you”, signed by presenter Justin Fletcher, could be perceived as a swear word, as The Sun alleges. CBeebies always has a Makaton expert present during recordings of Something Special, to ensure the highest professional standards.” “Justin Fletcher is recognised in the television industry and throughout the voluntary sector as someone of outstanding professionalism and dedication, and we believe that his work deserves better than this cheap and unjustified slur.”
The truth of this matter probably lies hidden at the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. It seems altogether too much of a coincidence that: (a) RNID spokeswoman Kate Sidwell said: “We advised the BBC that using Makaton would cause confusion. Makaton is used more for children with learning difficulties – it is essentially a different language.”, and (b) RNID employee Jamie Miller was the one who complained about the possible confusion. Adding up has never been my strong point, but I think I can manage in this case. But let us assume that the story is reported faithfully, and that Mr Tumble’s signing was indeed a clear case of saying “I am fucking you” at least in the eyes of children who know enough British Sign Language (BSL). We then further need to suppose that the children expect Mr Tumble to sign BSL, for them to be truly vulnerable to the proposed vulgarity. For if I am watching a Bulgarian show and the word ‘godsammeklote’ happens to come by I will not assume the Bulgarian speaker meant to say what that word means in Dutch (my native language). In a way, the insistence by the RNID that the two communication systems are different languages entirely (or the one a language and the other a sign system) backfires. More on the perception of insults and vulgarity.