Noddy goes to Hollywood

In just eight weeks he's topped the American television ratings, even beating Sesame Street. How did such a frightfully British export became the coolest dude in Toytown, USA?

The rehabilitation of Noddy, that winsome little fellow with the annoying bell on his hat, is complete. No longer need we hide our copies of Well Done, Noddy and his other assorted adventures authored by our very own, and briefly discredited, Enid Blyton. Noddy has mended his ways, he is polite to one and all, the Golliwogs - and all racist innuendo - have been ousted from Toyland, and we are all free to celebrate him.

We know this because even the land that invented political correctness, the United States, is falling in love with him. Goodness, when the children in the pediatric ward of the St Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan got a Christmas visit from special guests just this Tuesday, who was in the delegation? Well, Santa Claus, of course, but also some unfortunate person dressed as Noddy, all rosy-cheeked and brimming with happy anecdotes about life with his pals Big Ears and Officer Plod.

Officer Plod? Well, yes. Making Plod an Officer, rather than a PC, is one of the many little revisions visited upon the Noddy stories to make them work for an American television audience. Noddy's famous yellow car has a trunk over here, not a boot, and Noddy, wait for it, has an American accent. Where Enid had him declaring "I say", now he has adopted "Gee Whiz!" Plod, you may be relieved to hear, has been allowed to keep both his English intonations and his bobby's hat.

Since September, Noddy has become a daily fixture in the firmament of American children's television. Some pounds 4.6m have been spent by BBC Worldwide and the Enid Blyton Company, itself a subsidiary of a company called Chorion, to create a series of 40 episodes specially tailored for the young American viewer. And this week, we hear some astonishing news: Noddy is a ratings phenomenon.

Yes, if the boasting of the programme's makers is to be believed, Noddy is actually overtaking that mainstay of American kiddy TV, Sesame Street. According to the newest figures, Noddy now reaches 2.5 million US households, compared with 2.49 million for the venerable Sesame Street. Both programmes are offered by the Public Broadcast System, PBS.

PBS was unable, by the way, to confirm these figures, saying their own audience research does not extend beyond the first week of October. But never mind that.

"After only eight weeks, Noddy's ratings are exceeding those of long- established shows such as Sesame Street," gushed producer Rick Siggelow, who also created Shining Time Station, a version of Thomas the Tank Engine, for US audiences (a one-time favourite of my own offspring). "Noddy has got off to a much stronger start in America than Thomas the Tank Engine did when it was first aired."

This, of course, should give us Britons moment for considerable pride. Can it be that we are, at last, turning back the tide of cultural influence on the TV-tube that for too long has flowed relentlessly East-to-West across the dividing pond? Look at the evidence of 1998. This was the year, after all, when Teletubbies, another pearl of British creativity, staged their invasion of the New World. So step aside Big Bird. This land belongs now to Laa Laa, Dipsy, Tinky Winky and Po, now being joined by Noddy, Big Ears, Plod, Martha Monkey, Pink Cat and Dinah Doll. Even Sarah Ferguson hardly gets noticed any more.

Among the children's shows that Noddy still trails in the US is Teletubbies itself, a show that is so novel in its psychadelic weirdness that it has a strong cult following even among adults. (This correspondent has seen grown men clutching stuffed Laa Laa toys on the streets of Greenwich Village.) The American Noddy, by contrast, offers nothing that is remotely modern or daring.

The half-hour episodes include about 10 minutes of Noddy animation, all set, in good Blyton tradition, in a pre-War England time warp. The remainder of the show is dedicated to saccharine exchanges between a cast of cute children and a grandfather figure in a toy shop called "Notions, Oddities, Doodads & Delights of Yesteryear" (note the initials). A guest of dubious star-status occasionally drops by, just as in Sesame Street. In one episode, Carol Kane does a tiresome rendition of the Tooth Fairy.

And of course, there is nary a trace of the sexist and racist stereotyping that surfaced in the original Blyton books that, in the 1970s, were banned from British public libraries. There are African-Americans among the children in the shop and even in the cast of puppets playing with Noddy. This Noddy is no affront to American political correctness, because he has been transformed into high-PC himself.

Next will come the licensing bonanza. The Itsy Bitsy Entertainment Company, which has already turned Teletubbies into a multi-million- dollar franchise, has been appointed as agent for Noddy in North America, and is lining up deals for all manner of Noddy merchandise. By the new year, we are told, the shops will be piled high with Mr Wobblys and little yellow cars (with trunk). Book deals have also been signed with HarperCollins and Dorling Kindersley.

So, as the book cover says, "Well Done, Noddy". He may want to seek advice from another British favourite whose fame over here has made him into an honorary American, Winnie the Pooh.

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