My main point last entry was that “Perfect Day” saw the BBC applying its gift for pop spectacle to the demands of a more curatorial time. This would become – on broadcast TV particularly – an era of tighter demographics and multiplying niches, and the BBC would respond. BBC3, BBC4, 1Xtra, 6Music, CBBC, and in 2002 CBeebies, its channel for the under-6s, anchored for years by Teletubbies reruns.
In the old TV model, Top Of The Pops and the charts had enjoyed a happy symbiosis. With that show well along its slow decline, the charts were left without a centre. Instead they had new outlets – the supermarkets, and Woolworths, increasingly determined what reached No.1. As James Masterton pointed out in the comments for “Perfect Day”, this meant a dramatic broadening of the singles audience – the number of people visiting Tescos or Asda dwarfed the HMV or Our Price customer base, and included millions of musical impulse buyers. Put a tempting single in front of them and your sales could be colossal.
“Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh” is where these trends meet. It’s plainly a niche record with barely an eye or a furry antenna on wider accessibility. But there are enough people in that niche (parents of pre-school kids, basically) to give it seven figure sales. An awful lot of Number Ones are loved by children – the playground reception of a song has always been crucial – but this is the first number one designed for infants.
Which is entirely in keeping with its show’s aggressively radical spirit. Teletubbies was hugely successful and immediately controversial – a clean break from how pre-school TV had been done. It ditched the reassuring adult presenter in favour of a toddler’s perspective on pacing and action. In practise this meant very little explicit education or storytelling: replacing it was scripted babble-talk from the four tubbies, long sequences of dancing and messing about, cutaways to pieces of real-world play, and stories based on endless repetition of simple actions. The formula of younger kids’ TV, with its avuncular bumblers and well-scrubbed ladies telling stories and stacking up bricks, had been torn up. In its place was a show parents might find agonisingly boring but that one- and two-year olds quickly found magical.
The Teletubbies were at once the Beatles and the Pistols of pre-school TV – dramatic commercial success, remarkable innovation and a scorched earth attitude. It’s notable that none of their successors has been as extreme as they did – to take the inheritor shows on when I was the Dad of very young kids, In The Night Garden reintroduces the gentle adult narrator, and Baby Jake keeps the baby-first action but within a stronger story structure. The Teletubbies went further than anyone, first.
Squeezing that radicalism into a pop single was tricky. The writers’ solution is to structure “Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh” around a sped-up take on the theme tune, and break it up with incident – the gurgling and squelching of tubby custard, or a drop-in of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” with a baaing, mooing barnyard orchestra. The vibe is benign chaos.
But even within this single, their abandon is bounded. Teletubbyland is a carnival space, a world to play with but one policed by the movement of the sun (voiced by Toyah Wilcox!) and by abstract, unseen authorities. “Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh” ends as it begins, with peace, quiet and gentle chuckles. As a parent, I wouldn’t have it any other way, but as a piece of children’s culture muscling into the semi-adult world – the charts – it becomes vulnerable to other interpretations. Not just the “is Tinky Winky gay?” faux-controversy, or the show’s being dragged into the recurring debates around ‘dumbing down’, but more playful parallels. The screen-bellied tubbies drew comparisons to Cronenberg, and their life in a kind of kindergarten holiday camp (and their habit of playing with a giant beach ball) recalled The Prisoner. My own contribution to this disreputable canon is that the male voice (“Time for Teletubbies!”) massively reminds me of Tony Blair.
But you don’t need these extra readings to find subtext in this record. Towards the end, where a middle eight might go, some flowers give a very pert take on “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary”. This is where the song tips its hand, giving two pudgy plush fingers to the kids’ TV Teletubbies usurped. The flowers, in their Received Pronunciation mimsiness, very obviously represent that didactic tradition of rhymes and stories, and after singing they tut at the Tubbies and their “racket”.
Which – of course – starts right up again with the series’ catchprase (and parents’ bane) “Again, again!”. If “Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh” is annoying (and it is, a bit) it’s the deliberate, confrontational annoyance of “Mr Blobby” turned to a more specific end: to tell adults that this isn’t for you. And in doing that it drives home Ragdoll’s point in making the show in the first place: Teletubbies isn’t for you because toddlers aren’t like you. They are not best served by culture that treats them as latent schoolchildren or adults but by culture that takes their play and their desires seriously as they are. If this song’s presence at #1 is a sign of nicheification, its content and success is a good advert for it.