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Apr 14

TELETUBBIES – “Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh!”

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#778, 13th December 1997

ehoh 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.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    thefatgit on 8 Apr 2014 #

    #48 & 49 James Orchard Halliwell spins in his grave.

  2. 52
    flahr on 8 Apr 2014 #

    I can’t countenance giving more than a 4 to anything whose video steals so blatantly from that of “Poing” by Rotterdam Termination Source (1:53 in the TSE video)

  3. 53
    admin on 8 Apr 2014 #

    @46 I had to Google when Buster went er bust, and amazingly it was 2000. I was reading it in the 70s when it was (Great New For All Our Readers) Buster and Monster Fun. And wikip sez that in later days it absorbed both Oink (just 2 strips) and Whizzer and Chips. The latter of which I would never have believed to be the weaker brand. #comixchat

  4. 54
    Billy Hicks on 8 Apr 2014 #

    Yep, I bought the last issue. The story’s quite sad as to how it ended – through the 1990s as artists left, retired or simply died, the comic gradually began to be dominated by reprints, occasionally with crude edits to update some of the dialogue (£1 note = £5 note, etc). By 1999 there was only one artist left, Jack Edward Oliver, who drew the last new strips, wrote the letters page and basically kept the comic alive all by himself until the publishers axed it at the end of the year – the last issue was published at the very end of December 1999 but dated January 2000, just sneaking it into the next century.

    The last issue was rather glorious as Oliver, basically allowed to do what he wanted, ended the storylines of every single character in a variety of ways – some of them being killed off, others winning the National Lottery, one bizarrely being revealed as Jeremy Beadle in disguise, and eventually the Millennium Bug destroying the entire Buster universe.

  5. 55
    Mark G on 9 Apr 2014 #

    Ah, remember him from Record Mirror, RIP J. Edward

  6. 56
    Steve Williams on 9 Apr 2014 #

    I was going to suggest this was the last number one single to be released on BBC Records, but in fact it looks like another artist – who has two number ones to come – takes that crown.

  7. 57
    Tom on 9 Apr 2014 #

    #54 That’s a great story (if a bit sad). I was a Buster reader in the late 70s/early 80s, after it absorbed JACKPOT, my original choice. I bought a pile of Jackpots at a car boot sale a few years ago and my god they were shoddy – flashes of quality in the art (Steve Bell doing the Gremlins is a standout) but mixed into a big heap of lazy shite. The memory cheats, indeed.

  8. 58
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 9 Apr 2014 #

    So among the multiple unspoken sadnesses in the life Andy Capp, he was predeceased by his child?

  9. 59
    Cumbrian on 9 Apr 2014 #

    At least Andy has the, fantastic, statue immortalising him in Hartlepool.

  10. 60
    ciaran on 11 Apr 2014 #

    I was subjected to the Teletubby craze due to my then 3 year old nephew who was a massive fan.1996 and 197 consisted of this, Banana’s in Pyjamas and Barney (which oddly as a teenager was one of the funniest things I ever watched!).I even spent part of Christmas day 97 watching a teletubby video and whats worse I might have actually enjoyed it.I think it even got to a point where Homer Simpson acted as a Teletubby to bond with Maggie at one point.

    No enjoyment from this Number 1 though.The goodwill I would have to the show would not extend to the single. Though it wasn’t the first time something as bad as this was Number 1 in December it’s a sign of things to come as from here on there’s all manner of dodgy singles awaiting us as we approach Christmas in the popular years ahead.

    1

  11. 61
    Jimmy the Swede on 12 Apr 2014 #

    It seems oddly fitting to me that our forum has had something of a bunfight over the vexed question of the Teletubbies. My brother’s kids (now all young adults) were very much of the Teletubby generation so I am familiar with what the show’s about. Unlike Punctum, I can never claim a post-clubbing Sunday morning viewing of it, but where he and I certainly see eye-to-eye is that I look at that show and say “They’re in the Village!” I’m so pleased that I’m not the only one. But then Marcello and I have a history of lobbing Prisoner quotes at each other. I particularly liked the Teletubbies episode when La-La was declared “Unmutual” and the other three formed a committee to cure him. It was a success and La-La went to the stand and confessed. “Again! Again!” went up the cry. Yeah, that was The Prisoner all right!

    For the record, my own shows were “The Woodentops”, which now sounds like a comedy about the Old Bill, and of course “Sir Andrew Pandy”, where we were introduced to the eternal triangle, which was Andy, Teddy and that little raver Louby-Lou. And don’t get me started about Little Weed, which sounded more like a discreet offer rather than a kids’ tv character.

    Happy days!

  12. 62
    Kendo on 31 May 2014 #

    #27 – I don’t think that the sainted Sykes is the Blair voice on this. All that Sykes provided for the show was his “One…two…three…four….TELETUBBIES!” announcement. The Blair voice is clearly provided by someone far younger and far more inane.

    I despise this record with a passion. I appreciate that I’m not its intended audience, but when you’ve seen twenty-year-old Student Grant wankers trying to do this as a karaoke number (and fucking it up royally) any tiny amount of charm that it may have had swirls down the plughole. “Sly” jokes for students? “Oh ha ha, dworling, look – LaLa’s ball turned into an E!” Grow up. This is the auditory equivalent of a Shaun the Sheep back pack. And don’t get me started on bleeding Timmy Time. Grrrrr.

  13. 63
    Cumbrian on 13 Jun 2014 #

    The revival starts here:

    http://tbivision.com/news/2014/06/cbeebies-bringing-back-teletubbies/289152/

  14. 64
    Rory on 13 Jun 2014 #

    Amusing coincidence that the site name can be read as “tubby vision”.

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