From Ragdoll to riches via Tubbyland

The creator of the Teletubbies has been voted Businesswoman of the Year. Yet Anne Wood's business has not made her personally rich. Can such a passionate and single-minded person have missed a trick?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY WAS unusual for Anne Wood. Instead of her usual long working day at Teletubby HQ in Stratford-upon-Avon, the woman who gave life to Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa Laa and Po was at Claridges in London to collect her Businesswoman of the Year award. Trendy young things from the event's sponsor, a champagne, kept plying her with bubbly for the photocalls. But, says a colleague: "I didn't see her sip any all morning. We did have a nice cup of tea earlier, though."

Wood's personality, say her friends, is nothing like that of the contemporary she is sometimes compared with - Anita Roddick. Both are passionate about their businesses, but while Roddick is to be found hugging Indians in Brazil or doing her thing in Labour Party videos, Wood's life is set on a more intimate, personal stage. Her current extra-curricular project is to buy a field in Warwickshire with her husband Barrie, and to create a wildlife meadow there.

The comparison with the Body Shop's creator is relevant, though, in highlighting how a certain sort of businesswoman can hit the big time. Both women were driven by a very simple idea, and started small. In Roddick's case it was a small shop in Brighton selling "natural products"; with Wood it was the setting up of a tiny television company, Ragdoll, in her home in Birmingham 14 years ago.

Her simple idea was that television should actually give children what they want. As an English teacher she had noticed how many books for children were simply a turn-off for young readers. Too often, adult authors created tomes that reflected their own idea of how young imaginations should be stimulated, and there seemed to be huge pressure on children to make the effort to enjoy what is good for them.

So, after setting up a magazine on books for children, and working her way up the children's programme department of TV-am, she eventually set up her own company in 1985 to explore her ideas in a purer, more focused way.

In a sense, the birth of Ragdoll productions was where the story of the Teletubbies, and their world domination, began - because they arose out of Wood's constant experimentation with new ways to communicate with children. Some have described her methods as scientific, but she does not really see it like that.

At the Ragdoll shop in Stratford, most of the space is filled with toys, and staff are expected constantly to monitor the way that children play. For the Teletubby programmes themselves, Wood has employed a "tester" who films small children as they are watching the stories - anything that the children do not like, does not get broadcast.

A certain amount of control freakishness on Wood's part is evident. She insists, for instance, that all filming of the Tubbies is set in authentic Teletubbyland, meaning that it always takes place on location in a converted field, out of doors or in the curious metallic dome the creatures inhabit with their strange suctorial chum, The Noo-noo. "It would make everything easier, and cheaper, if we could occasionally film in a studio. We wouldn't be so beholden to the weather, but Anne won't have it," says a programme insider.

Her confidence is endless. She is said to be fearless in taking on new projects. She is, in fact, about to make her first feature film for children - not Tubbies: The Movie, but something entirely new.

And her intensity about the Teletubbies, and conviction that they should have a limited lifespan before adjourning to Tubbyheaven has BBC bosses quaking in their corporate boots. Last year, they got the whiff of an idea that Anne might think it is time to move on to a new project, and the Children's Department "was awash with fear" until they squeezed a further 100 programmes out of her.

The Anne Wood that friends describe has passion and conviction but is not, it has to be said, a natural businesswoman. In the early days of Ragdoll, her ignorance of business methods was so worrying that she signed up for a local course on how to run a shop - a nice contrast to the pounds 15,000 business courses at the London Business School, Wharton and Harvard which middle managers at the BBC regularly attend.

And, for years, Ragdoll's profits were a lamentable 1 per cent of turnover. Even now, with the runaway global success of the Tubbies, that has inched up to only 10 per cent. What's more, the Businesswoman of the Year is managing a company a fraction of the size of an ICI or a Sainsbury's. She employs only 70 people. The profits themselves were only pounds 700,000 in 1997, and are up to pounds 9m now. The growth is impressive, but, business analysts say, the profits are ludicrously small when compared with the cultural impact of the Teletubbies worldwide.

Think about it, they say. The Teletubbies are famous in 22 countries and have been translated into 21 languages. Only Russia, India and China fall outside the Tubby map, and China is, according to the BBC, about to be conquered. And then there are the spin-offs - Tubbytoys, Tubbybooks, Tubbytoasters, Tubby records. The BBC has made pounds 23m out of the creatures. So how come Ragdoll makes only pounds 9m? Surely the Businesswoman of the Year could have kept more dosh for herself?

The answer is probably a paradox. It is Anne Wood's intensity about her mission to reach out to children that has produced her success. It is also her single-mindedness in pursuit of her idea that has meant she has not exploited the business-side as relentlessly as she might have done.

In the end, her success is limited and it is simple. Although she has made The Sunday Times Rich List, she is a small player compared with Ann Gloag, the boss of transport firm Stagecoach, who is worth a very hefty pounds 880m, or the dozen or so billionaires in British business.

And yet there simply weren't enough more powerful, or more successful, businesswomen around to beat her to the award. She herself said yesterday that her business skills were a sort of "by-product" of her passion for children's programmes. And, she said, it was a comment on the lack of success for women in business that the award still exists.

It would surely be progress if it were to evolve into Businessperson of the Year. Eh Oh.