Out of the mouths of babes and Teletubbies

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Every year, every Christmas, one toy wins the battle for our hearts and wallets. This time it is the Teletubbies. But as Ann Treneman discovers, the toy makers didn't have high hopes for Telletubbyland.

Every January the toy world throws a big party at which the name of the game is Spot the Winner. The players are 450 toy-makers who are there to show their wares to the 17,000 or so buyers milling round London's Olympia. The objective? To figure out what's going to be hot in the coming year and get rich quick.

Well, nobody ever said it was going to easy and this year's Nightmare in Toyland was no exception. There was Hercules and Barbie, Action Man and a walking Polly Pocket. And, amongst the hubbub and hype, were four rather cute techno-babies with strange things sticking out of their heads.

"They were just one product among hundreds," recalls a rather weary Gill Gray of the British Toy and Hobby Association. "To be honest if we could predict success, I would be speaking to you from a beach on the Bahamas."

She's right, and Ms Gray is not the only one who would be sunning themselves now if only they had known that mums would be fighting in the aisles for the things this Christmas, babies and teenagers (drugs optional) would be watching in their millions and a song whose main lyric is "Eh-Oh" would be a smash hit.

"I can sell anything with the Teletubbies on it," said one toy store manager, gesturing towards a box with the fab four cavorting on it. "I've not sold so much Fuzzy Felt in years." There is a raging black market in Teletubbies and even an alleged scandal or two. There have been searching questions about Tinky Winky's handbag ("Is he gay?") and letters to newspapers on the meaning of it all. The whole thing has grown to be the phenomena of the cult of the toy of the show of the year.

"Nobody really mentioned them as being a potential hit last year," admits Gerry Masters of the British Association of Toy Retailers. "You know, we saw them and they looked nice enough. We were told there was going to be a nice little series, something like Watch With Mother, and we saw a tiny bit of it. They were sweet and pleasant but nobody in their right minds dreamt they would ever sell a million."

Teletubbyland is not, of course, for people in their right minds. It is for babies. When I ask Ragdoll Productions what children say to them in letters, it is gently pointed out to me that the target audience cannot write yet. Nor are their viewing habits worthy of measurement.

"The interesting thing is that the audience research does not even register the under fives, which is our core audience," says a BBC spokeswoman. The official figure is around two million but no one knows the real one. First though, just in case you haven't seen it, an introduction to the green and pleasant land inhabited by Dipsy, Laa Laa, Tinky Winky and Po, as well as lots of flowers and bunny rabbits. Here the sun always shines and sometimes it even giggles. It can do this because its face is that of a real baby.

Very little happens in Teletubbyland and what does happens twice - "Again! Again! Again!" is a major line of dialogue. This repetition has a marked effect on the pace which is a little less urgent than a lollop. The Teletubbies love this but then they love everything in their techno-world. They love the TVs in their stomachs controlled by the magic Windmill. They love the Voice Trumpets who periodically pop out of the grass to announce one thing or another. Most of all they love hanging out in the techno-dome with Noo Noo the vacuum cleaner and eating Tubby toast and custard. Big events of the day are having Big Hugs, saying "Eh-Oh" and Tubby Bye Byes. If this sounds rather idiotic, think again. It's just that you have to be a toddler to appreciate the intellectual rigour. "This is a learning level that we cannot remember," says children's literature expert Nicholas Tucker.

Creator Anne Wood is a veteran of children's television and devised the creatures by marrying the beloved teddy bear with the shape of a baby in nappies. The world may seem technologically bizarre to us but it doesn't look that way to a baby who lives in a household full of weird machines. Everything has been thought through from a baby's point of view, from the repetition to the language to the decision to exclude anything that is scary or even upsetting. "There's enough of that in the world already," says Ms Wood.

This will be a particularly good Christmas for Ms Wood who is said to have bet her small company on the show that cost pounds 8.5m to make. That bet paid off - both in merchandising and deals such as selling the show to Public Service Broadcasting in the US - but it was a huge risk.

There is something reassuring for grown-ups in the fact that Teletubbyland really is so very strange in reality too. "The show is so bizarre that is has a Monty Python ring to it," says developmental psychologist Charlie Lewis.

Nicholas Tucker also admits to seeing the show, though he has an excuse in the form of his 18-month grandchild. "It's slow, benign and repetitive. Children love that." It's easy to say that now. If only someone had said it last January.

Tubby facts

Carbon dioxide build-up means the actors who play the Teletubbies can last no more than 10 minutes without taking their heads off.

Noo-Noo the vacuum cleaner is big enough to carry a small man inside who operates it via a television monitor.

The Sun Baby who rises and laughs over Teletubbyland is in fact Jessica Smith, 2, from Edinbridge in Kent.

Midlands couple Jagdish and Kamlesh Sohpal named their new baby Laa- Laa in October on the advice of their two-year-old daughter Geeta.

Teletubbies survive on a diet of pink custard and toast.

Filming takes 10 hours a day, with one hour for lunch.

Teletubby creator Anne Wood has refused to allow adult-sized T-shirts. "It's not for adults," she has said. "I want it to be seen purely as a programme for little children."

Costumes are made of a Babygro fabric that after washing can take up to eight hours to refluff (this is done by wardrobe girls using dog combs).

The actual characters are huge - Dipsy, for instance, is reported to be (with hat) nearly 10ft tall in reality.

The only way to disguise the fact they are giants is to make everything else on set big too - even the rabbits are Flemish and British giants which can grow up to two stone in weight.

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