1 9 9 7 – 2 0 0 1 (UK)
365 x 25 minute episodes
First broadcast on Easter Monday (31 March) in 1997, this toddlers TV show featured four alien-like beings – Tinky Winky (big and purple), Dipsy (funky and green), Laa-Laa (yellow, shy and giggly) and Po (the littlest Teletubby) – who lived in a surreal land, communicated in nonsensical burblings and watched TV on their tummy screens.
Episodes followed a reassuring pattern of events that could be predicted by young children.
The baby-face sun appeared over Teletubbyland and voice trumpets popped out of the ground – “Time for Teletubbies!” – heralding the arrival of Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po.
They would sing songs, dance, eat tubby custard and tubby toast and play with Noo-Noo the vacuum cleaner with great regularity (the hundreds of ‘episodes’ were in fact assemblies of a finite stock of sequences).
A spinning windmill signalled an incoming transmission to the TV sets in the Teletubbies’ tummies – these films had children engaged in a variety of activities or the occasional story. This directly echoed the famous windows of Play School – viewers could guess which Teletubby would show today’s film.
Although intended to be of educational value for pre-school tots, there was controversy over the characters’ inarticulate – and repetitive – warblings, with vehement claims by parents that the show diminished, rather than encouraged, the speech abilities of their offspring.
Makers Ragdoll had based the series on sound educationalist principles and test-screened episodes in nursery schools, adjusting aspects of the programme accordingly.
More scandal followed when the actor who played Tinky Winky, David Thompson, was discovered to be a nude dancer.
The programme was at the centre of even more controversy in 1999 when American televangelist and conservative pundit Jerry Falwell claimed that Tinky Winky (pictured below right) was a homosexual role model for children.
Falwell based this conclusion on the character’s purple colour and triangular antenna (both the colour purple and the triangle are sometimes used as symbols of the Gay Pride movement). Tinky Winky also carried a bag that looked much like a woman’s handbag.
Several countries refused to buy the series, but what the BBC lost in foreign sales it gained in a surprise market at home: students.
A merchandising bonanza ensued, and the Teletubbies went on to have a #1 single in the UK. Merchandise sales, of everything from soft toys to Tubby Toast, totalled more than £1.2 billion.
Teletubbies creator Anne Wood (also the creator of TV AM’s Roland Rat) became one of the richest women in Britain, with a reported fortune of over £100 million.
The set for Tubbyland – for those who care – was a field in Wimpstone, Warwickshire, while the voice cast included Sandra Dickinson (Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy) and Rudolph Walker (formerly of Love Thy Neighbour).
Time for Tubby bye-bye . . .
Pui Fan Lee