First broadcast in 1997, the BBC’s Teletubbies has been one of the most successful preschool programmes of all time. It was commissioned from a well-established independent company, Ragdoll Productions. The programme represented a major investment, with 260 episodes being produced in the first commission between 1997 and 2001. These have been endlessly repeated ever since, both on the BBC’s main channel and its dedicated young children’s channel, CBeebies: in the US, they are shown on the commercial cable channel, Nick Jr. In 2014, the BBC commissioned a further 60 episodes, featuring a collection of baby Teletubbies alongside the original four main characters.
Like Sesame Street, Teletubbies involves a complex relationship between commercial and public service imperatives. While Ragdoll is a commercial company, the BBC is a public broadcaster; although BBC Worldwide, which licenses its branded merchandise and overseas sales, is a wholly owned commercial subsidiary of the Corporation. The large initial investment was only possible by virtue of the possibilities for commercial spin-offs. In its early years, there was an extensive range of Teletubby merchandise, including a magazine, books, audio and video tapes, computer games, posters, toys, clothing, watches, food and confectionery, mugs and crockery, stationery and games, as well as some less predictable items (I still possess a decaying Teletubbies mouse mat). The programme has been screened in more than 120 countries worldwide; and, like Sesame Street, it is localized for different national markets, not only through dubbing but also through the addition of locally-produced content (primarily documentary sequences).
Like its BBC predecessors Watch with Mother and Playdays, the programme itself is highly ritualistic. Each edition contains a relatively inflexible sequence of items, with fixed moments or intervals in the structure. Following an introductory sequence, there is generally a short playful sketch or dance. The Teletubbies are then ‘summoned’ by a transmitter that beams a short documentary sequence into the TV screens in their stomachs. To cries of ‘again! again!’ from the Teletubbies, this sequence is immediately repeated; and there is then a longer sketch or story featuring the Teletubbies, followed by a closing ‘bedtime’ sequence. As in several of the Watch with Mother strands, introductory, linking and closing sequences are repeated in each programme, with the same accompanying music, providing familiar, fixed landmarks. There is also much emphasis on ‘hellos’ and ‘good-byes’, addressed to the viewer, to the other Teletubbies and to the children in the documentary sequences. The Teletubbies frequently appear in a fixed sequence, from the tallest (Tinky Winky) to the smallest (Po), or vice-versa; and the arrival of each Teletubby is generally ‘announced’ in the voice-over. Each of them is also associated with a favourite object, a particular song (often heard before they appear), and with certain characteristic dance movements. Of each 26 minute edition, only about half of the material is new. In addition, some sequences are repeated between programmes – notably some of the more expensively-made computer animations – and whole programmes themselves will of course be repeated in the normal run of the television schedule.
It’s tempting, if a little predictable, to identify Teletubbies with ‘postmodernism’. The setting might loosely be described as ‘hyper-real’: the Teletubbies live in kind of high-tech bunker, buried beneath artificially landscaped bright green hills, and their costumes are in bright artificial colours. In postmodernist terms, this is a world of ‘simulacra’, of superficial appearances; although there is a more recognizable documentary realism in the documentary sequences. As Jonathan Bignell argues, the Teletubbies themselves are somehow both alien and child-like: they are a kind of cross between astronauts and toddlers (or soft toys) in outsized nappies. Likewise, the sketches play with familiar distinctions, for example between reality and fantasy, or between the human and the non-human: what the Teletubbies imagine will often appear, and there are sometimes unexplained, bizarre intrusions into Teletubby-land, for instance in one case by a passing fleet of ships. Significantly, the programme moves from the fantasy space of the Teletubbies into the real world of children, via the documentary sequences, rather than the other way round: ‘home’ is more a space of imaginative play than of everyday domestic realism.
Although, like its BBC predecessors, the programme frequently employs elements of traditional children’s culture (such as songs and nursery rhymes), media and technology also play a central role in the Teletubbies’ lives. Again, this does have a partly ‘post-modern’ feel, which combines the ultra-modern (a robot vacuum cleaner, for example) with the retro: announcements are delivered through old-fashioned Bakelite trumpet speakers, and the Teletubbies are summoned through a transmitter that resembles a windmill. Significantly, the Teletubbies have aerials on their heads and screens embedded in their stomachs; and it is through these (as compared with the windows of Play School) that we gain access to the real world outside Teletubby-land. However, the Teletubbies also live in a quiet, pastoral idyll, with real flowers and rabbits, and the documentary sequences are often set in rural, outdoor locations rather than in urban streets.
Teletubbies does have elements of postmodernism, then – although from the vantage point of the late 2010s, these might well appear almost dated. Yet as I’ve argued elsewhere, the programme also draws upon more well-established traditions in British children’s television that date back well before the 1990s. Many of the characteristics I’ve identified above were apparent in the more surrealistic animation shows of the 1970s, such as The Clangers and The Moomins – and indeed in The Flower Pot Men in the 1950s. In terms of pedagogy, Teletubbies also inherits the long tradition of child-centredness (or educational ‘progressivism’) that can be traced back to Play School and Watch with Mother, or at least to the pronouncements of its producers.
Significantly, Teletubbies was a joint venture between the BBC’s Children’s Department and its Schools Department, and the first of its kind. Yet in many respects, it is even less instructional, and much more child-centred, than its BBC predecessors; although of course it is aimed at a somewhat younger audience than Playdays, for example. The philosophy of Ragdoll’s founder, Anne Wood, is defiantly child-centred. In interviews and articles, she has consistently emphasised that children’s programmes should ‘take the child’s point of view’. Young children, Wood argues, learn through play; and they have a right to ‘fun’ and ‘entertainment’ just as much as adult viewers. Wood vehemently refuses to apologise for television as a medium, and refutes the suggestion that it is inherently inferior to more ‘educational’ media such as books.
In line with child-centred educational philosophy, the emphasis here is on meeting what are seen as children’s emotional and developmental needs. However, these are defined not in terms of preparation for school learning, but in much ‘softer’ terms. According to the BBC’s official statements, the programme aims to build confidence and self-esteem; to celebrate individuality; to build children’s imagination and sense of humour; and to encourage participation and movement. In this respect, Teletubbies makes a strong stand against the emphasis on target-setting and academic standards that was becoming apparent in UK government policy at the time (and has increased ever since).
This pedagogical approach is reflected in the form of the programme, in several ways. Within each episode, there is a considerable amount of repetition, which seems designed to induce a feeling of self-confidence. Aside from the instant repeat of the documentary sequence, this is also apparent in the longer sketches. For example, each of the Teletubbies might encounter a particular situation or problem, and respond in similar ways. Many of the shorter sketches involve variants of Freud’s ‘fort/da’ game (or ‘peekaboo’), or a ‘lost and found’ storyline. The viewer often knows more than the individual Teletubbies, and can see the solution to a problem ahead of time (especially if, as is likely, they have seen the episode before). For example, when the Teletubbies play a hide-and-seek game, we are shown where they are hiding; and when a rain cloud comes to Teletubby land, Po discovers what an umbrella is for, long after viewers will have worked this out for themselves.
The longer sketches frequently involve forms of learning or problem-solving. While there is occasional frustration and a degree of ‘naughtiness’ (notably on the part of Noo-Noo, the Teletubbies’ self-propelled vacuum cleaner), there is generally very little overt conflict. While two of the Teletubbies are male (and larger in size) and two female, and while one of them is darker-skinned, these differences are never remarked upon, let alone used as the basis for disputes between them. Of course, potential conflicts do occasionally arise. But even when the other Teletubbies run away from Laa-Laa’s ‘delightful’ song, she gets to perform a duet with Noo-Noo; and when, in one sequence, Laa-Laa and Po argue about the use of Po’s scooter, they quickly decide to share and take turns. While conflicts are quickly resolved, overt moral messages are very rare.
The documentary sequences often feature children undertaking activities independently, or with minimal guidance from adults. For instance, we see children going on a country walk, making carnival costumes or picking strawberries. In other instances, children are seen helping adults, for instance with digging potatoes, hay-making or looking for butterflies. Adults occasionally act as instructors, explaining what the children should do, but they are more frequently seen as facilitators. In the large majority of cases, we see adults and children doing things together, rather than adults performing and children watching. The voice-over in these sequences is generally spoken by the children; and the images are often shot from the child’s height and point-of-view.
At the same time, there is a great deal in the programme that invites response. At some points, viewers are implicitly invited to guess which Teletubby will appear or be chosen – for example when the documentary is transmitted into one of their tummy-screens, or when one of them waves good-bye at the very end of the programme. Particular play routines are modelled and repeated, implicitly inviting viewers to join in. The use of nonsense language, music, dance and movement, noises and comical sound effects, and the general anarchy that occasionally erupts, all implicitly invite viewers to mimic and participate. The Teletubbies themselves are highly physical: they are perpetually falling over, waving their legs in the air, sticking out their stomachs, bumping into each other, marching, running, dancing and clapping; and the sketches often culminate in a collective ‘big hug’. Yet while the pace is occasionally frenetic, there are also moments of stasis: the programme’s use of silence as a marker of transition from one sequence to another is particularly striking.
As this implies, the programme is far from traditionally didactic. There are no adults in the world of the Teletubbies themselves. A kind of quasi-adult authority is represented by the old-fashioned trumpet-speakers, but this is not always accepted. The voice-over narrator is also a representative of adult authority – for example in announcing ‘time for Tubby bye-byes’ in the bedtime ritual that ends the programme; although here too, the Teletubbies often appear as naughty children, refusing to go to bed at the first attempt.
Unlike its BBC predecessors, Teletubbies implicitly regards its audience as quite sophisticated ‘readers’ of television. As Jonathan Bignell suggests, conventional wisdom among children’s television producers would suggest that the ‘grammar’ of programmes for young children should be kept very simple and straightforward. As in the ‘early cinema’ approach of Watch with Mother, there should be an absolute minimum of editing or camera movement: change (for example from one scene to another, or from a long shot to a close-up) should be signposted and explained. In some respects, Teletubbies follows this approach, for example in its use of repetition and in how the camera orients the viewer in the visual space; yet, as Bignell suggests, it also plays with these conventions, for example through unexpected juxtapositions, camera ‘tricks’ and a playful use of sound.
Nevertheless, Teletubbies makes few concessions to any adult viewer who might be watching. Unlike in Sesame Street, there are very few jokes or references that only adults would understand; and while the programme revels in absurdity, irony is rare. As I have described elsewhere, Teletubbies had its share of adult critics when it first appeared. Among other things, it was condemned for being insufficiently ‘educational’ (that is, instructional, in the mode of Sesame Street); and for its use of nonsense language (a quality it shares with The Flower Pot Men). Its portrayal of a technologically-saturated childhood, and its relative exclusion of adults, may also have been unsettling for some. Yet in its early years, Teletubbies also acquired a cult following among adults: while many parents found it ‘cute’, it also briefly became the coolest accompaniment to ‘post-club comedown’, as young ravers unwound from the chemically-induced frenzy of the previous night. It is perhaps in this adult appropriation, rather than in the programme itself, that some of its most definitively postmodern characteristics might be found.