I’ve talked about In The Night Garden – one of the BBC’s current flagship childrens’ programmes – enough in the pub to justify a post focusing on it and its strange cosmology. The show is produced by Ragdoll, who are staggeringly wealthy thanks to the international success of Teletubbies. As FT coding guru Alan has pointed out, ITNG combines the ‘tubbies ethos – lots of nonsense talk, buckets of repetition, basic characters in a cosily unreal environment – with a heavy dose of old school, Oliver Postgate style Kids’ TV. The show’s “Pontipines”, for instance, are tiny clothes peg people who emerge from their tiny house to scuttle and squeak in a way that’s directly reminiscent of Bagpuss‘ mechanical mice.

This immediately makes Night Garden more attractive viewing for nostalgist parents like me than Teletubbies, whose gentle gobbledigook is crack to the one-year old mind but harder going for Dad and Mum. The budget’s noticeably higher too – ITNG looks extremely classy, and in a further sop to middle-class parental sensibilities it even has a proper theme tune. As the programme is meant for a slightly older audience than Teletubbies, there are even actual stories, though they’re glacially paced: a typical episode has a character losing something, then asking every other character in turn if they’ve found it. Since each character has their own theme song and special dance the half hour fills up quite quickly. As yet, though, I’ve not seen an episode which has the near-random wonder of some bits of Teletubbies – those Winsor McCay moments when (for example) suddenly Tubbyland would fill with water and three ferries would sail through it and then vanish. Existence and events are less arbitrary for ITNG’s audience, and the show follows suit. But luckily, it puts its wonder elsewhere.

What makes Night Garden strange isn’t the action of the episode, but the location. I’m not really talking about the Night Garden itself, beautifully realised though it is (a sort of toddler Portmeiron, complete with giant bouncing balloons), but the metaphysics of the show. Each episode starts with a different child being lulled to sleep by a parent, who tells them about the show’s hero, Iggle Piggle, who is himself going to sleep in the tiny boat which seems to be his only home. The boat is adrift on an endless sea in an endless dark – we don’t know where it’s going, or why, only that as each episode begins Iggle Piggle is furling his sail and lighting his light, and as he falls asleep the stars above HIM turn to flowers in the Night Garden.

The week’s jolly adventure then happens, and at the end the inhabitants of the Garden go to sleep, leaving Iggle Piggle awake and alone in the darkening Garden. The kindly narrator tells him not to worry, and we pan out to find him asleep and drifting in his boat.

So to recap: Iggle Piggle is a kind of universal child adrift in a sort of womb-sea of the collective unconscious, a deeper layer of which turns out to be the Night Garden, where he can play but never truly belong – and which children can’t access directly, only through this sailor intermediary. To make the sea scenes more haunting, they’re filmed in stop-motion compared to the smooth film of framing scene and Garden. This has the effect of increasing their weird unreality for the viewer.

Judging by the success of ITNG it’s struck a chord among kids and parents – my one-year-old adores it – but what strikes me is that the show doesn’t need the framing seascape at all: on paper it would work just as well to have Iggle Piggle be a paid up member of the Night Garden crew, and simply have the child dream about them. The sea scenes – which are always the same and very short – take us into another place entirely, tapping into something much more primal that won’t soon leave the memory of this generation of kids.