A mother who's always there for her Tubbies

These are heady days for the creator of Tinky Winky and friends. Interview by Matthew Sweet
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Say eh-oh to Anne Wood, the woman who gave birth to the Teletubbies. She's having a good month. Four weeks ago, she was nominated Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year, principally to acknowledge the success of her independent TV company, Ragdoll Productions. Three weeks ago, the Sunday Times Rich List calculated that her estimated pounds 55m fortune made her one of the wealthiest women in the country. Two weeks ago she received the news that Teletubbies had been nominated for an Emmy Award. Last week the Government announced that her pot-bellied, gurgling creations are to be put on display in the Millennium Dome as one of Britain's "greatest modern industrial achievements". No wonder the Teletubbies look so pleased with themselves.

This most recent piece of news has not gone down well with the culture police. "Stupid, stupid, stupid," spluttered Sir Roy Strong. Stephen Bayley, the former design director of the Dome, described the decision as an "affront to educated taste and the most profound evidence yet of dumbing down". Such comments recall the fractious days of the Teletubbies' 1997 debut, when commentators queued up to kick the soft furry bodies of Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po, and Wood was forced to defend her work. Educationists warned that the absence of comprehensible dialogue in Teletubbyland would impair the linguistic development of children. (Obviously they'd forgotten the whistling Clangers and their burbling Soup Dragon.) Assaults came from both sides of the Atlantic: "I used to think Barney the Dinosaur would make me throw something at the television set," groaned Ervin Duggan, the president of American PBS television. "Wait till you see Teletubbies."

But as any viewer knows, when a Teletubby gets knocked down, it quickly gets up again. Wood is used to dealing with this kind of derision. "I'm not going to say that those criticisms didn't hurt, because they did," she now admits. "But the Teletubbies have survived all sorts of attacks. I've been making children's television for 30 years, and we consulted children when we put Teletubbies together. So I ought to know what I'm doing."

The financial arguments are unanswerable. Between 1997 and the present, Ragdoll's annual profits boomed from pounds 700,000 to pounds 9m. The programme is selling well all over the world: "It's just Russia, China and India who haven't taken the series yet," boasts their creator. "Then the Teletubbies will rule the world."

Brought up in Durham, 61-year-old Wood began her career as an English teacher in a secondary modern school. In the mid-Sixties she left teaching to bring up her two children and to found the literacy magazine Books for Your Children, which is still being published more than 30 years later. In 1976 she began working on children's programmes at Yorkshire Television, but six years later was wooed by TV-am, where she created Roland Rat, the boorish rodent who was widely credited with saving the company from bankruptcy. Then she fell out with the head of TV-am, Bruce Gyngell, and was, in her words, "thrown out" of the company. Roland came a cropper, too. He scampered over to BBC1, but his Saturday teatime series was a ratings disaster - fewer than 2m viewers tuned in each week, and the show was axed after a handful of episodes.

Wood's divorce from TV-am, however, proved a blessing in disguise. In 1984 she founded her own independent production company, Ragdoll, based in Stratford-upon-Avon. The company had its hits and misses. Pob's Programme, for Channel 4, attracted criticism from parents who complained about the titular puppet's habit of beginning each show by spitting all over the screen and writing his name in saliva. (Actually, Wood maintains, he was only meant to be breathing on the glass.) Rosie and Jim and Tots TV proved more auspicious, partly because of Wood's keen exploitation of the growing market in children's videos. With profits rising, Ragdoll opened a shop in Stratford to market products based on their characters. A large, toy- filled area was built into the premises so that Wood could observe her customers at play and research their needs and interests. It was from these observations that Wood and her colleague, a linguist named Andy Davenport, formulated Teletubbies.

They were unprepared for the ballyhoo that greeted their debut. "We thought we'd create this innocent environment into which children could project their own ideas," Wood says. "We had no idea that people would latch on to it in the way that they have done. And because it's so open, all sorts of people, not just children, have projected all kinds of extraordinary ideas into it." Which allowed Zeitgeist-surfers to make the creatures the locus of any conspiracy theory or batty notion they liked. The Teletubbies' reception of pacifying TV signals from the Teletubbyland windmill was plausibly read by the Internet journal Salon as a metaphor for children's dependent relationship with the box. "Indoctrination so naked and pure it's almost farcical," its commentator spat. More eccentric analysts suggested that the creatures' formation movements and bunker accommodation are some kind of elliptical comment on Nazism.

If there is a sinister subtext at work, the BBC doesn't care. It has just commissioned a further 105 new episodes, so it can transmit a different one for each day of the year. Japan and Bosnia have just negotiated the rights to screen the series, and Tinky Winky and friends now have a team of accountants keeping their affairs in order. There are different versions produced for different territories: children in South Korea, for instance, see the face of a Korean baby in the sun that rises over the Teletubbies' hill home.

Two weeks ago in Cannes, the BBC threw a cocktail party to celebrate Teletubbies' status as the most widely watched children's television programme in the world. On a palm-lined balcony of the Palais des Festivals, sober BBC executives ate Teletubby cake off floppy Teletubby paper plates in the shadow of blue Teletubby balloons. "We want it to be enjoyed by children for ever," said Mark Johnstone of BBC Worldwide, a claim that the BBC would not make for any of its other programmes. "The word from Teletubbyland," announced Johnstone, "is that they all send big hugs."

Wood and the assembled crowd then enjoyed a Tubby toast - not the smiley- faced biscuit consumed in the creatures' underground bunker, but grown- up pink champagne. "To the Teletubbies!" was the general cry.

Wood's creations have also received praise from less obvious quarters. In Iris, John Bayley's memoir of his late wife, the novelist Iris Murdoch, he reveals how the creatures' activities gave them both relief from coping with Murdoch's Alzheimer's: "How are they animated, what is inside their plump cloth bodies?" he wondered. "The way they trot about and smile is almost obscenely natural, as are their grown-up male voices.... They trot about, not doing anything much, but while they are there Iris looks happy, even concentrated."

"I was very surprised and moved to read that," says Wood. "I greatly admire her work, and I was touched to think that she'd found some comfort in the Teletubbies. It was nice that it had given John Bayley a bit of comfort, too. But I was a bit taken aback when I heard that a friend of his had sat him down and told him that the Teletubbies were 'just people dressed up'. I thought, what does he mean, 'just'? Doesn't he realise how difficult it is to make?"