Where are the Teletubbies, 20 years on?

“I literally couldn’t believe I had to work in this thing. That I’d signed a contract...” 

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“I literally couldn’t believe I had to work in this thing. That I’d signed a contract . . .” The actress Pui Fan Lee remembered what it was like to play the red-suited Po for an episode of Witness (30 March, 8.50am) marking the 20th anniversary of the first episode of Tele­tubbies. Lee had just graduated from drama school and took the job as one might take a job delivering pizzas. Little did she know she was now a part of the Beatles of kids’ television, a show that mesmerised not only the target audience, but everybody else, too, who couldn’t stop talking about it.

Teletubbies was eventually aired in over 120 countries and in 45 languages. Appar­ently, its fantastic success was in part down to the programme-makers closely consulting with a speech therapist to hone the sounds of lalation the characters made. Now, as a generation, mine can be incredibly boring about having benefited from the golden age of Oliver Postgate and Eric Thompson, but it’s worth pointing out that there was nothing remotely focus-grouped or chin-stroking about Thompson’s ramblings, or about Postgate’s awareness of sound in Clangers, or in that high point of Western civilisation, Bagpuss. Not backed by pre-school consultants or cognitive therapists, those programmes were made by a handful of people who just naturally and lovingly understood longueurs and repetition, sound and colour.

And poor Po! Only 4ft 1in in real life, she found the six-foot costume impossible, staring bleakly for hours through the mouthpiece. “It was like being put into a coffin with a hole in it,” Lee recalled, adding: “I can laugh about it 20 years later.” I always suspected (as did everybody) that the Teletubbies had slightly resentful Shakespearean actors sweating inside them. (A friend of mine teases: “No, no, not RSC, more Lecoq/Complicite than Stratford, since the Teletubbies are actually so much more in the European clowning tradition than anything . . .”)

But one thing was certain. Essentially abstract to an adult eye, Teletubbies seemed rattlingly to demonstrate that narrative was an old, old dying thing, and not what the screen was about at all. Me, I’m glad we’ve moved on to the plot-loving Peppa. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue