It was recently reported that white actors would no longer voice characters of colour in the Simpsons, I was reminded about casting decisions we had to make over thirty years ago and the ten-year-old school girl who pointed us in the right direction.
It had seemed like a long road, with many obstacles along the way, but in 1988, Tube Mice, the first series created by Sara and myself was broadcast on CITV. Possibly through young enthusiasm or arrogance, we found ourselves in a position where we thought we could make a difference. We had been brought up with The Black and White Minstrel Show and the stereotypical characters free with each jar of Robinsons marmalade. More positive role models were Uhura in Star Trek and Lieutenant Green in Captain Scarlet. Both these characters, however, were very much secondary to the core team of heroes, where the ultimate authority was with a white middle-aged male. In Captain Scarlet, he was even named Colonel White (and, of course, the villain was Captain Black).
Visually, at Honeycomb Animation, it was second nature to include diversity within the shows we made. It was, in part, due to cutting our teeth on the BBC educational show, 'You and Me'. While making a cut-out animated version of the picture book, Nini at the Carnival for the programme, author, Errol Lloyd had visited our studio in Smithfield to help the animators with the carnival dancing movements. So when it came to designing the characters for Tube Mice, we made sure that there were mice of colour as well as regular greyish ones.
Of course, we didn't get it all right, our mouse MP was a Financial Times reading pale grey and could now be seen as the sort of old fashioned Tory that the current regime has culled. At the initial planning stages, all four of our main characters were the same light grey tone, but we had a female mouse ticket collector called Fatima in a nice shade of brown.
We were wrapping up the production of a BBC show called Mop and Smith when we were developing Tube Mice. A group of schoolchildren visited our studio and we proudly showed them our mouse designs.
'Is that a black mouse?' The ten-year-old girl of colour was unsure about this. 'Is she important or just the ticket collector?'
We realised that we had fallen into the Uhura/Lieutenant Green trap.
Thanks to the schoolgirl, changes had to be made, and we were in a privileged position to do so. Fatima was dropped to be replaced as ticket collector by Derby, a middle-aged white mouse and we would make our lead character, Bubble, a black mouse and find an actor of colour to voice her. Stand up comic, Shelia Hyde, was given the role, with Rupert Farley taking on her sidekick, Squeak. ITV got their stunt voices when we cast George Cole and Dennis Waterman as the 'bad' mice, Vernon and Toaster, but Bubble remained leader of our group of rodents.
Maybe we still didn't try hard enough to build on this early series but there were valid reasons why most of the shows that Honeycomb Animation produced after TubeMice ended up using white male comic actors as narrators. First of all, we made many pilots and not many made it through the gruelling commissioning system. Single voice, narrated shows were more cost effective, but often needed to have a star name attached to get noticed, not so much by the core children's audience, but by the commissioners, the parents and the press. We had tried but failed to secure one high profile actor of colour and failed to gain a commission for a pilot that had used the services of another.
Tube Mice went on to be shown all over the world. That ten-year-old schoolgirl, with her disapproving look, will now be in her forties now, and she may never have realised the small part she played in its success.
Bubble, from the booklet accompanying the Virgin Video release of the series.