Teletubbies: The bizarre kids' TV show that swept the world – BBC

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In March 1998 more than 1,500 television bigwigs from 82 different countries descended on the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London. They had come for the second ever World Summit on Television for Children. Various topics were up for discussion – funding, regulation, new media – but one word was on everybody’s lips: Teletubbies. The preschool show, created by Ragdoll Productions for the BBC, had begun airing in the UK a year earlier, documenting the antics of four giant, alien-looking babies with antennae atop their heads and televisions in their tummies. It was a runaway hit with both adults and children. Talk of wibbly-wobbly bottoms and Tubby Toast had swept the nation. But Tinky Winky, Laa-Laa, Dipsy and Po, with their proto chatter and penchant for repetition, had experts worried.
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“Teletubbies: are they wising up or dumbing down?” posed the moderator at the summit’s first session. A robust exchange ensued. “Regressive” and “vaguely evil” were just some of the verbal shots fired. Ada Haug, head of pre-school programmes at Norway’s NRK, accused Teletubbies of being “the most market-oriented children’s programme concept I’ve ever seen”. Mounting a passionate defence, Alice Cahn, a director at the US PBS network (which had just acquired Teletubbies), dismissed the criticisms as “ludicrous”. She then shocked the audience with an insult lifted from a well-known Saturday Night Live sketch, though it’s unclear whether Haug got the joke. The exchange was promptly quoted in newspapers from Paris to New York to Hong Kong: the debate had gone global.
Though it emerged from a tradition of gently surreal British children’s programmes, beginning with Watch with Mother in 1952, Teletubbies wasn’t as didactic as its immediate BBC Two predecessors, Play School or Playdays. It was aimed at a younger demographic and, like all Ragdoll shows from Rosy and Jim to Tots TV, took a heavily child-centred approach – one informed by years of careful observation and response gathering. “A lot of work for children is approached from an adult’s perspective,” Ragdoll founder Anne Wood tells BBC Culture. “Play School, by its title, suggests that the producers were ‘teaching’. We were trying to reflect life as a young child might engage with it. Previous Ragdoll shows didn’t get as close to what we managed with Teletubbies because it was a constant learning process.” This ethos governed every aspect of Teletubbies, from the basic plots and rudimentary speech (“eh-oh!”) to the rituals and slapstick humour – even the giggling Sun Baby. It was all incredibly appealing to toddlers – and baffling to parents. But to suggest the show wasn’t “educational”, as many did, is not quite right. “Early years environments don’t have so much of a class-based, clear learning structure,” Tim Smith, a developmental psychologist at London’s Birkbeck Babylab, tells BBC Culture. “It’s more about exposure to themes and ideas – to numbers, naming and language – to ways of seeing the world. And that’s what happened in Teletubbies: it isn’t educational in a strict way but there are educational components to its entertainment.”
Launching in 1997, Teletubbies wasn't as didactic as its immediate BBC Two predecessors, Play School (pictured) or Playdays (Credit: BBC)
This synthesis was best demonstrated in the Teletubbies’ embrace of technology. Tinky Winky et al were “technological babies on the cusp of technological change”, says Wood. They lived in a Tubbytronic Superdome with a sentient vacuum cleaner called Noo-Noo. And they had TV screens planted on their tummies, through which they viewed children out in the real world. This resonated with millennial toddlers. And this, as Smith notes, was “a clever way of embedding real-life stories within a fantastical, cartoony realm… of having educational content wrapped up into entertainment”. The repetition (“again, again!”) gave children a second chance “to really consolidate their learning, to understand what’s been presented so that they can reflect on it in the real world”.
These arguments were made repeatedly by Wood and the show’s writer Andrew Davenport, a trained speech therapist. But many remained unconvinced. “An emphasis on learning through play seems all well and good, but I found the programme confusing,” wrote one Telegraph columnist. “Let us, for heaven’s sake, stop treating the pre-kinder set as brain-dead,” pleaded another in The Australian. Their concern seemed to reflect a broader culture war raging between traditionalists, for whom a distinction between education and entertainment was an imperative, and progressives, for whom that distinction was false. This was felt keenly in the UK, where the New Labour government fronted by Tony Blair had recently been elected on the slogan “Education, education, education” and reforming initiatives included schemes designed to address a perceived decline in literacy, such as Education Secretary David Blunkett’s National Reading Campaign. That Teletubbies caused less of a stir in northern Europe – Ada Haug excluded – may be a symptom of those countries’ greater emphasis on play-based learning. After all, Denmark’s Bamses Billedbog (“Teddy’s Picture Book”), going since 1983, contained many Tubby ingredients: giant costumes, songs and nonsensical language.
Celebrity and controversy
The debate was fiercest in the US, where Sesame Street had been the gold standard for preschool TV since its launch in 1969, employing education experts from the outset. Sesame Street was very clearly didactic: each episode was – and still is – planned with specific learning objectives in mind. And its success in this regard, particularly among children from disadvantaged backgrounds, has been well documented. So, when Teletubbies frolicked on to US screens in April 1998, filling a slot in PBS’s Ready to Learn service, it provoked outcry among Sesame die-hards who saw little instruction. “There is no documented evidence that Teletubbies has any educational value at all,” decried Harvard psychologist Susan Linn. Moreover, the US was home to a large cohort of what media and education scholar David Buckingham calls the “anti-television division”, for whom any programme – Sesame Street included – was corrosive. Teletubbies’ narrow target audience would prove a major concern: “Gearing a show for very young children goes against everything I believe in”, said Dorothy Singer of Yale’s Family TV Research and Consultation Center. Even today, the American Association of Paediatrics recommends no screen time at all for children until 18 months, except for video chatting.
US Christian televangelist Jerry Falwell issued a "Parent Alert" against Tinky Winky, suggesting the character was "damaging to the moral lives of children" (Credit: BBC)
However, the controversy peaked not in academic but Christian circles. In a promotional publication for his evangelical Liberty University, televangelist Jerry Falwell issued a “Parent Alert” censuring Tinky Winky and his fabulous red handbag: “He is purple, the gay pride colour, and his antenna is shaped like a triangle: the gay pride symbol.” After his remarks were picked up by the press Falwell doubled down, claiming such “role modelling” was “damaging to the moral lives of children”. Liberal factions jumped to Tinky Winky’s defence. Berkeley City Council, a hotbed for progressive politics, drew up a resolution in support: “Long live Tinky Winky and long live freedom from self-righteousness!”. Still, the show was boycotted by many conservative parents in the US. For context, it would be four years until the country’s Supreme Court ruled anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional, and 16 years until it struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage. “We laughed when we first heard [about Falwell],” Wood later told Reuters. “But in the United States certain communities took it seriously, to our horror, and it damaged the brand considerably.” The same drama then played out in Poland eight years later when Ewa Sowińska, then Children’s Commissioner, ordered psychologists to investigate whether the show promoted a homosexual lifestyle.
Teletubbies was ultimately exonerated by the industry, picking up two Bafta Children’s Awards and two Daytime Emmy nominations. Accolades also came from bodies in Japan, Ghana and Germany. Its success prompted an avalanche of shows designed for very young children. And of these, there are few today that don’t contain a little Teletubbies DNA, whether that’s in their embrace of technology (Go Jetters, Octonauts and Tinpo are all gadget-heavy) or strongly child-centred approach. From In the Night Garden to Moon and Me, bright, fun and queasily off-kilter has become the status quo. With hindsight, the furore was just another example of the moral panic that frequently besets children’s popular culture. Talking movies, comics and video games: each was considered harmful when first introduced. What made the Teletubbies phenomenon unusual, however, was its rapid proliferation into adult culture.
In July 1997, UK magazine The Face ran a five-page story on “Teleclubbers”, a new raver subset apparently turning to Teletubbies for their “post-club comedown”. Dedicated fan pages began appearing online. At London’s Imperial College the campus activities calendar included airtimes and episode highlights. When the show first came to Hong Kong in June 1998, producers, hoping to capitalise on its burgeoning cult status, scheduled Teletubbies for 21:30 on a Friday. Not since 1960s hit The Magic Roundabout had children’s characters commanded such celebrity. Commentators pointed to their corresponding psychedelic qualities: The Magic Roundabout featured a motley crew of brightly coloured, talking creatures – Dougal the dog, Zebedee the jack-in-the-box, Dylan the rabbit – residing in a Magic Garden. (When the show was moved to the earlier time of 16:55, meaning fewer working adults would be able to watch, the BBC was inundated with complaints.) For David Buckingham, Teletubbies’ adult fanbase was also symptomatic of a more general sense of irony suffusing pop culture at the time, which perhaps explains Mr Blobby’s perennial presence on UK television or Aphex Twin’s teddy bears.
All this adult attention was doing wonders for ratings. With two million UK viewers Teletubbies was the most-watched programme in its Saturday morning slot, overtaking Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast. Which made it a target for the tabloids. Euan Stretch was deputy news editor for the Mirror at the time. He recalls how the 1990s was a decade in which British newspapers embraced and even helped create the celebrity culture that kept Teletubbies in the spotlight. “They were employing showbiz editors and reporters en masse for the first time,” he tells BBC Culture. “People wanted to read about celebrities, and newspapers reacted to provide the stories… Circulations were high, profits were high and competition was fierce.”
Teletubby Land certainly felt the heat. In her memoir Over the Hills and Far Away Nikky Smedley, aka Laa Laa, describes how the cast were banned from driving their own cars home, should they be followed. Paparazzi would dangle from helicopters in the hope of capturing a headless Tubby. It didn’t help that they’d all been made to sign NDAs, making any morsal of information that bit more delicious. “Do you know a Teletubby? Call this number and we’ll pay you for your story,” asked a daily footer in The Sun. The storm reached a climax when David Thompson, aka Tinky Winky, was sacked, via letter, just before the first season’s wrap party. Concerns over his skill in the suit had reached boiling point; Ragdoll had already been over-dubbing his voice. Unimpressed, Thompson sold a spurious story to the News of the World via the celebrity publicist Max Clifford. Headlined “Kinky Winky”, it detailed salacious on-set antics with a girlfriend. Both featured scantily clad on a double-page spread. Poor Noo-Noo had been pasted in too. Hell hath no fury like a Teletubby scorned.
For Wood, the adult world’s corruption of The Tubbies’ brand was cause for great sadness, amounting to a lack of respect for the target audience. But in many ways the BBC helped promote, and profited from, this attention. “The potential on this one is limitless,” the Head of Investment at BBC Worldwide told the Independent in 1997. There were fast-food tie-ups and a chart-topping, double platinum-selling single. (In one of the stranger episodes in pop history, hit single Teletubbies Say “Eh-Oh” was shortlisted for an Ivor Novello Award.) Barry Eldridge, then communications manager at The Entertainer, recalls the frantic build-up to Christmas 1997 as UK shoppers queued overnight to get their plush dolls. The “must have toy” had been a Christmas ritual since the late 1980s and, because orders had to be placed months in advance by hedging retailers, demand often outstripped supply. This led to “scalping” (reselling at a markup) and cheap counterfeits (Walmart’s Bubbly Chubbies met a sticky end following a Ragdoll lawsuit). “Toy rage” was also rife. The Entertainer staff had to be given training to deal with bellicose customers. “Boy, I can remember some close run-ins that nearly turned pretty ugly,” sighs Eldridge. The saga was repeated around the world. One newspaper reported children “tipped from strollers” in Hamilton, New Zealand, as shoppers stormed a store.
Teletubby dolls became the "must-have toy" in the run-up to Christmas 1997, as UK shoppers queued overnight to buy them (Credit: Alamy)
According to the BBC’s annual reports £330 million was generated during Teletubbies’ first two years, much of this coming from sales to overseas broadcasters. Indeed, Ada Huag’s “market-orientated” charge wasn’t far off the mark: Teletubbies could be overdubbed, and its live-action sequences replaced with more culturally appropriate content. The slightest change had to be signed off by Wood, mind. And copycat programmes, such as Mexico’s rather brazen Tele Chobis, were quickly stamped out by Ragdoll’s legal team. To date Teletubbies has aired in over 120 countries and been translated into 45 languages. It has reached well over a billion children, many in China, where in 2002 the show became the first foreign production aired on prime-time TV. Even Iran’s national broadcaster bought 65 episodes, dubbing them into Farsi. “It’s taking a long time to translate, as you can imagine,” a spokesperson told The Sun.
The next Teletubbies?
Twenty-five years later the Teletubbies brand continues to evolve and adapt. After five seasons, a spinoff series and a movie, the IP was bought by Canada-based DHX Media (now WildBrain). The company rebooted the show in 2015, swapping out tummy TVs for touch screens. Two animated spinoffs have since followed on YouTube, a key launch pad for children’s series. And this month a second reboot is set for release on Netflix, featuring Broadway star Tituss Burgess as narrator. It’s one of a roster of new preschool shows acquired by the streaming platform, whose dedicated kids’ zone is becoming increasingly important in the battle for subscribers. Trusted brands form part of this strategy. “Netflix, unlike Paramount+ and Disney+, for example, doesn’t have the Nickelodeon library to fall back on, so it has to commission its own children’s content. Teletubbies provides instant brand recognition,” Richard Middleton, editor of Television Business International, tells BBC Culture. The move reflects a wider industry trend: Big Brother, Gladiators and Frasier are just some of the other shows from the 1990s returning. “The proliferation of streamers and the associated programming boom means audiences are swamped by a multitude of options,” Middleton explains. “One way to cut through the clutter is to reboot.”
Still, rebooting isn’t new. Jeanette Steemers, professor of culture, media and creative industries at King’s College London, points to various classic children’s shows revisited over the years, such as Thomas & Friends and Bob the Builder. Some represent an opportunity to reimagine characters that don’t stand up to modern day views on representation, race or disability, such as Disney’s Dumbo, the original of which employed blatant African-American stereotypes. (Similarly, WildBrain asserts the multi-racial casting of Sun Babies in the new Teletubbies is an effort to “reflect the diversity of the audience”.) More often, however, reboots demonstrate a low appetite for risk in an increasingly cash-strapped sector: “It’s really difficult to come up with a hit,” Steemers tells BBC Culture. “Nobody knows what that magic sauce is, so people instead try and replicate it. The problem is that the reboot is often not as good as the original.” Angelina Ballerina is a case in point. The original series, with 2D animations based on Katharine Holabird’s beautifully illustrated books, was later revived using CGI with arguably diminishing returns. This resonates with Wood, for whom the Netflix Teletubbies represents a major devaluation of the brand. She disparages the use of digital production techniques, though her main concern is that the careful observation undertaken before shooting the original – perfecting that child-centred lens – hasn’t been replicated. When this was put to WildBrain the company chose not to comment. In detailing how Teletubbies had been updated, however, it stressed that the “spirit and concept of Teletubbies remains unchanged from the original series,” and “the stories and themes still centre around wonder, discovery, joy and silliness”.
It remains to be seen whether the reboot resonates in the same way. Netflix wields huge power but it doesn’t operate in China, where much of the Teletubbies fanbase resides. Nor will the new series be available in the UK, where the BBC holds exclusive rights. And though the Tubbies have learned to play the social media game, tweeting celebrities and riling up politicians, the controversies and zeitgeisty debates that both plagued the show and lifted it to the top of the news agenda have long since moved on.
But perhaps a more pertinent question is the one Wood asks: “Where will the next Teletubbies come from?” It would be difficult to bankroll such an outlandish project today. In the UK there are no longer any quotas on children’s content for commercial channels and the Young Audiences Content Fund, a lonely olive branch, was discontinued in January. Wood also worries that a deference to nostalgia is restricting the creativity she and Davenport were afforded in the ’90s. “There are other people out there making good work, or at least they could, were they given the opportunity.” She cites a project currently sitting with Ragdoll. “It is, I hope, in the zeitgeist of now, as much as you can feel it. Will it be seen in the whole mass of stuff being churned out? Who knows, but you have to keep trying.”
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