Arts & Media: Beware of Tubbytouts at Christmas

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This year it is the Teletubbies' turn to be the big Christmas toy shortage. Paul McCann, Media Correspondent, delves into a shady world of inflated prices, whispered shipments and Tubbytouts.

The call was answered by a strange voice: "Yeah, I can get you one, pounds 45, ask no questions." And ten minutes later a "dodgy-looking" man appeared at Frank Middleweek's door in Woodford, east London. He had a package under his arm.

Leaving no name and no clue to suppliers, the black-marketeer disappeared into the night pounds 45 the richer. "I asked where he was getting them," said Mr Middleweek. "He said that was for him to know and me to find out. It was like doing something criminal."

Mr Middleweek is just one more victim in a tale of obsession, addiction. A tale where big money changes hands for strange-sounding substances. He's fallen in with a Tellytubby dealer. "We'd been queuing up at 6am and getting no where," says Mr Middleweek. "Then there was this car parked outside Children's World. In the window there was number to ring if you wanted a Teletubby. I'd been trying to get a full set for my Grandson. I needed a La La and a Po."

The strange man in the night got Mr Middleweek a La La then his wife came home with one as well. So now he's joined the chain. Advertising his Tellytubby along with 22 others in London's free ads paper Loot. He just wants his pounds 45 back but others are making a killing.

"I'm not exploiting people," says Andy from south-west London. He picked up a set of four tubbies five weeks ago for a nephew at pounds 14.99 each. Now they're surplus to requirements and he's asking pounds 325 for the set; a mark- up of 442 per cent. "If someone's mad enough to pay that kind of money that's fine with me. I'm only asking what others are asking." Andy is by no means the greediest Tubbydealer. Another advert in yesterday's paper was asking pounds 100 for one Tinky Winky.

Despite the high prices parents and grandparents determined not to disappoint their little ones are paying up all over the country to sellers in local and free advert papers.

The BBC says that a million Tubbies will have been shipped by Christmas and that the problem is caused by the stores. Teletubby toys were shown at the industry's annual toy fair last January and advance orders were too small.

A BBC spokeswoman denied that the corporation is missing out on millions of pounds of revenue because of the Tubbyshortage However, Loot gives the game away: under the ads for Teletubbies is a forlorn Thunderbirds Tracy Island, complete with rockets, vehicles and six figures. The toy of two years ago is just pounds 20.