This week’s entry: Teletubbies
What it’s about: Iconic children’s shows are built around timeless concepts. A cat chasing a mouse. Furry friends learning about letters, numbers, and sharing. A kindly man telling stories and giving gentle moral guidance. Four unintelligible alien blobs with televisions in their stomachs. Basic tried-and-true stuff like that.
Yes, in 1997, Ragdoll Productions upended children’s television with its trippy, slow-paced show for toddlers, which became a hit first in Britain and then Stateside. Despised by parents who objected to the TV-oriented concept, or to pre-verbal children watching television at all, and beloved by parents who just wanted their child to sit happily for a few minutes so they could make some damn coffee or take a shower, Teletubbies was, and remains, a polarizing television institution.
Biggest controversy: A few years before he blamed 9/11 on “the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays,” professional asshole Jerry Falwell tipped the scales of outrage from offensive to absurd when he attacked Tinky Winky for being gay. His airtight case? “He is purple—the gay pride color,” he said. (The gay pride symbol is a rainbow, not just purple.) “And his antenna is shaped like a triangle—the gay pride symbol.” Most damning of all was TW’s prop—each Teletubby has one prized possession that recurs throughout the series. Po rides a scooter. Laa-Laa bounces a ball. Dipsy wears a Slash-like hat. And Tinky Winky carries a bag. That bag was too purselike for Falwell’s taste. Case closed.
The late ’90s probably weren’t ready for the “so what if he is?” defense, but Teletubbies’ producers did the next best thing and simply underscored the absurdity of Falwell’s claim, saying, “He’s not gay. He’s not straight. He’s just a character in a children’s series.”
Strangest fact: There’s a surprising caliber of acting talent behind Teletubbies. As we mentioned last week, the original opening narration was done by stage and screen legend Eric Sykes. The series was canceled in 2002, but was revived in 2014 with an all-star cast that included the voices of Academy Award winner Jim Broadbent, Olivier Award nominee Jane Horrocks, and Little Britain star and bestselling children’s book author David Walliams.
Thing we were happiest to learn: It’s possible to have a life after the costume. While most of the Teletubby performers’ careers peaked with the series, Pui Fan Lee, who played Po (the red one) in the original series, became the live-action host of BBC kids’ network CBeebies for several years, before pitching and starring in educational series Show Me Show Me, which is still on the air.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Even a show as gentle and baby-friendly as Teletubbies has behind-the-scenes drama. Dave Thompson, who played Tinky Winky in the original series, was fired after the first season because his “interpretation of the role was not acceptable.” (Wikipedia doesn’t give more detail than that, but an off-site search reveals producers thought his voice wasn’t right and dubbed him over before the season aired.) He was replaced by Simon Shelton, who remained in the role until the original series was canceled.
Also noteworthy: Both McDonald’s and Burger King did Teletubbies-themed giveaways, but Burger King took things one step further and introduced Teletubby-shaped chicken nuggets. The chain was criticized for trying to introduce unhealthy food to toddlers and not, surprisingly, for making food into shapes that defy the natural order.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Many other TV shows have parodied Teletubbies, among them Saturday Night Live Korea. That series, which began in 2011, is a straight adaptation of NBC’s venerable sketch show, complete with Weekend Update, musical guests, digital shorts, fake commercials, and cast members that either disappear quickly or stick around forever.
Further down the Wormhole: Wikipedia links to countless media articles about Teletubbies, most of them either insisting the show rots babies’ brains or defending the show’s gentle, surreal format. A Reuters article from 2007 insisted that human parents are better at teaching first words than plush creatures with TVs in their stomachs, as though that were an either/or parents were considering. The 165-year-old news service began by using telegraph and homing pigeons to transmit news between Belgium and Germany. Homing pigeons have been long raced for sport and long used to transmit messages, including what may be the first airmail service, delivering letters across New Zealand. Until 2002, the Indian state of Odisha used the birds as an emergency communications system after natural disasters. While thunderstorms don’t seem to belong in the same league as tsunamis and wildfires on the list of disasters, they can be deadly, especially if you’re in an airplane, as the passengers of LANSA flight 508 found out. We’ll look at the plane’s only survivor, and her harrowing struggle, next week.