Teletubbies say 'Eh oh... It's war!'

The BBC says it's not a competition, but parents know that the battle-lines have been drawn. Marina Baker invited a group of children to take a look at the Tweenies, the latest children's TV characters, and wonders if they spell the end for Teletubbies?
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The Teletubbies or the Tweenies? Which is your favourite? It is the greatest cultural debate since Blur vs Oasis, and it is gripping the nation. Well, that bit of the nation with children under the age of five, at least.

The Teletubbies or the Tweenies? Which is your favourite? It is the greatest cultural debate since Blur vs Oasis, and it is gripping the nation. Well, that bit of the nation with children under the age of five, at least.

At playgroups, nurseries and at coffee mornings, parents, their friends and their offspring are asking: "Are you with the Teletubbies? Or have you switched allegiance to the Tweenies?"

Non-parents who never watch BBC2 on weekday mornings probably haven't a clue what the fuss is about. I say to you: "Get informed." You never know when you might be called upon to present a toddler with a gift. Buy merchandise from the "wrong" show, and you'll have a devastated child on your hands, and an embarrassed, apologetic mother. And she won't be apologising to you - she'll be saying sorry to the child for not explaining to you clearly enough: "Tubs is so last week. We love the Tweenies now." Or vice versa.

And just as we all know our Tinky Winky from our Laa-Laa, we must now make a concerted effort to distinguish Bella from Fizz and Milo from Jake. And have a passing knowledge of Doodles, Max and Judy.

To bring you up to speed, here is the story so far: Teletubbies are four techno-teddies with televisions in their tummies. They inhabit a strange world populated by large rabbits and talking flowers, governed by a windmill emanating pink dust and a talking showerhead with a male voice. Teletubbies don't speak very well but manage to gurgle "again, again" and "big hug" with annoying/charming regularity.

It was first shown on television in March 1997. When merchandising went on sale that autumn, a million dolls sold out in three months, and were soon changing hands for more than £100 on the black market. They made a record that went straight into the charts at Number One. Only the Spice Girls at the height of their fame could knock "Teletubbies Say Eh Oh" off the top spot that Christmas.

It wasn't just toddlers who went crazy for the Tubs, which has earned the BBC £90m and is screened in 20 countries.Fuelled by too many spliffs and Roland Barthes essays, students revelled in its abstractions. Hidden meanings were discerned and a cult was born. The Teletubbies Sunday morning omnibus became the show to watch during post-rave comedowns. In the media, Teletubbies was hailed as either a gross example of dumbing down, or a hugely exciting revolution in pre-school programming, depending on which child psychologist you asked.

Two-and-a-half years later, the Tweenies arrived with hardly any publicity at all. The show features four body puppets masquerading as children. They have strange coloured faces, skinny legs and enormous feet. All supposedly aged under five, they speak better than most nine-year-olds. They spend their time in a nursery making things, under the watchful gaze of two childminders: Judy, and an old bloke called Max. The characters can convey all manner of emotions thanks to the animatronic skills of Oscar-winning Neal Scanlan, the man behind the piglet star of Babe.

While the Teletubbies inhabit a bizarre yet, somehow, familiar world, the Tweenies spend their days in an environment that's largely familiar, yet brightened by occasional oddities such as Doodles the red and yellow dog. And while the Teletubbies don't know the meaning of naughty, the Tweenies grapple with issues such as lying and sharing.

"I hate the Tweenies," said actress Caroline Abela, invited by The Independent to check out merchandise along with other parents in Brighton at the weekend. "They're so worthy. It's old fashioned, patronising, it rams morals down children's throats. It's just dressed up to look modern. Give me the Teletubbies any day. They don't try to educate, they just entertain. They're silly and make my kids roar with laughter." Does she allow her children Marisa, 3, and Jack, 4, to watch Tweenies? "Of course. They love it."

The BBC has made much of the learning-through-play activities featured in Tweenies. But most mothers admit that they never make the things featured. And it is debatable if children learn through watching puppets learn through play.

About nine small children sat down to watch a Tweenies video. After joining in with the opening song, they lost interest. "Watching television is a solitary pursuit," suggested Emma Thompson, a mother of two. "There's too much going on here." The video now forgotten, the children crowded round a Teletubbies Home Hill 13-piece playset, described on the box as a Tubbytronic Superdome. Fashioned from garish plastic, it was the hit of the afternoon.

"I visited friends recently," said Abbey Hughes, the mother of Oskar, aged two. "A beautiful Georgian dolls' house stood idle, while the kids played with their dome. Still, acting out Teletubbies is imaginative play, so you can't knock it."

The latest interactive Teletubbies dolls made the mums laugh. Squeeze their paws and they speak to each other. "Eh oh Po," etc. And lots of munching sounds when one of them squeals "tubby toast, tubby toast". Enthusiasm dampened when they realised the complete set costs £100.

Tweenies dolls, which don't do anything, were also on show. The kids delighted in holding their favourite characters - the girls liked Bella and the boys liked Jake.

"I love the Tweenies," said Nicky Fabry, mother of Tom, aged three, and eight-month-old Kitty. "Tom's quite shy at nursery. He waffles around during Teletubbies but when Tweenies is on he joins in the singing. They're his mates. I think he likes the safety of them being inside the television. And I really like the way moral issues are discussed. Hopefully some of it will filter through."

At the BBC, spokesmen are quite huffy at the idea that Tweenies and Teletubbies are in competition. "They are aimed at quite different age groups," said one. Teletubbies is for children aged 18 months upwards, while Tweenies is produced with three to five-year-olds in mind. This didn't wash with the mothers. "The programmes are shown back to back," said Abela, "so older and younger children watch both."

"They must compete," said Yale Jury. "We must choose between the merchandise. They can't really expect us to fork out for both." In just four months, the public has spent £40m on Tweenies-related products - £9m of which goes directly into the BBC coffers.

"In my day," said Thompson, "you got granny to knit you a Clanger or a Womble. I won't buy merchandise." "I've got Pokémon cards," said her son, Obi, aged seven. "I kept asking Mum to buy them, but she wouldn't. So I asked Dad instead."

Jury's five-year-old son, Oren, is also an avid Pokémon card collector. "Once they're at school, it's out of your hands," she said. " Teletubbies and Tweenies is a great way to educate your children to want such things. Is that what programme makers mean when they say that these shows are 'educational'?"

Perhaps parents should forget the battle of Teletubbies and Tweenies, and switch off their TV sets? After all, research from the American Academy of Paediatrics suggests that children under the age of two should watch no television at all because it interferes with speech development.

"No way," said the mums in unison. "It's like this," said Abela. "When Teletubbies is on we know our kids are safe. Now, thanks to Tweenies we can leave them plonked in front of the television for an additional half hour."

For mums on busy schedules it is the difference between simply doing the dishes and taking a shower as well. Perhaps we should all buy Tubby domes and Tweenies rucksacks to show our gratitude.