Toddlers, TV and a tourism crisis for Tobermory

The axing of the BBC children's series 'Balamory' has been greeted with anguish on the island of Mull. Paul Kelbie reports
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The Independent Online

After three years and more than 250 episodes the story of Balamory has come to an end. The hugely successful Bafta award-winning BBC show which spawned the multimillion-pound phenomenon of "toddler tourism" has been axed by its producers - much to the surprise and shock of residents on the Scottish island where it was set.

Just a short ferry ride from the mainland seaside town of Oban and about a four hours' drive from Glasgow, a few years ago the colourful village of Tobermory on the island of Mull was renowned for its tranquillity. About 400,000 visitors a year came to the island in search of wildlife and spectacular scenery. As a destination for older visitors touring the museums, craft shops and stately attractions of the Western Highlands and Islands, the 700-strong community of Tobermory was used to catering for day-trippers and short-break holiday-makers.

But in 2002, with the launch of the BBC children's programme Balamory - a fictional village based on the real-life Tobermory - the islanders found themselves in the middle of an unforeseen invasion. Where once the chill wind from the sea carried the relaxing calls of seabirds as it swept through the town it now brings a cacophony of excited squeals, cries and temper tantrums as thousands of eager-to-please parents descend on the island to curry favour with their star-struck children.

Almost overnight the demands on local tourist business changed. Cafés, more used to serving tea and scones, were forced to offer fish fingers and chips, restaurants had to invest in extra high-chairs and local shops saw their ice-cream and sweets sales go through the roof. And where once half-empty ferries would carry scores of quiet, middle-aged couples, they began bringing hundreds of excited pre-school youngsters and their even more excitable parents to roam the village's narrow lanes and peer in through the windows of the multi-coloured houses.

First screened in 2002 as the antithesis to the likes of the Tweenies and Teletubbies, Balamory was conceived to give pre-school children a programme featuring live people rather than creatures in furry suits with weird voices. And it seems the children were crying out for just that - within five weeks of its first broadcast, Balamory knocked the Teletubbies and the Tweenies off the top spot in the ratings and went on to win Best Children's Programme at the Broadcast Awards and a Children's Bafta for Best Pre-school Live Action Show.

Now the show, which continues to be screened on BBC2 and the CBeebies digital channel, attracts 15 million viewers each week across Europe. The children of Australia, Hong Kong, Canada and South Africa have also been introduced to characters including Miss Hoolie, Eddie McReedy, PC Plum, Archie the inventor and shop assistant Suzie Sweet. So why stop now?

"We've decided to quit while we're ahead," said the creative director, Simon Parsons, yesterday. "Balamory is one of the most popular programmes to come from CBBC Scotland and we are very proud of it. Over the past four years, we have made 254 episodes - one for every weekday for a year. Series four has only just begun to air and appears to have been as well received as previous series, but it will be the last. We are now focused on some exciting new projects which we believe could become as popular as Balamory and we hope to make an announcement soon," he added.

On Mull yesterday, where toy figures of the characters now fill the shop windows, a tour guide offers special Balamory jaunts and visitors can even stay in Miss Hoolie's house, which is in fact a bed and breakfast, and it is possible to buy anything, from Balamory-emblazoned sweatshirts to fridge-magnets, there was shock and surprise at the premature demise of the island's "golden goose".

Sandy Brunton, president of the island's chamber of commerce, admitted he was surprised. "It is very disappointing from a trade point of view as Mull and Tobermory have done well out of the programme," he said. "There's quite a lot already filmed so it won't just stop overnight but I would have thought there was still plenty of mileage left for the BBC to carry on making it. Balamory is still a huge draw."

Mr Brunton said that because the show was aimed at pre-school children, visitors, rather than turning up only during the school holidays, travelled to Tobermory throughout the year. "Our season is now one of the longest in Scottish tourism as it starts about Easter and goes right through to October, and there is still quite a lot of trade in December and January."

There is no doubt that Balamory has been a major money spinner for the BBC and for the islanders. Property prices on Mull have rocketed and it is estimated that Balamory accounts for about £5m a year extra to the tourist economy of Mull and the Western Islands. Overall tourism to Tobermory has increased by 50 per cent and, at the height of summer season, the ferry company Caledonian MacBrayne regularly takes as many as 5,000 visitors a day to an island with a population of just 980.

"It's been a huge draw and had a massive impact on the island and on Oban, bringing thousands of extra doting grandparents and parents desperate to give their children the Balamory experience," said James Fraser of VisitScotland, who believes the show generates more than 150,000 visitors a year to the island.

Mr Fraser, however, does not see the end of Balamory as the end of the road for Mull. "A whole generation has been brought up on Balamory and that will leave a legacy. These toddlers will go away with very fond memories and the view is that many of them will grow up and want to come back with their families. We see it as a long-term investment."

And despite the fortunes it has brought, not everyone is sad to see the back of the show. One trader on Mull, who would rather not be named, said the show had been a mixed blessing for the island. "Some people might think Balamory was a good thing for Mull but there are quite a few of us who would say exactly the opposite. A lot of our traditional visitors who used to come to the island for peace and quiet have been forced out by the hordes of screaming kids and their parents. We've had tourists knocking on doors and peering through windows looking for the characters who are not here.

"The adults are often worse than the children, walking about the main street without looking and forcing drivers to live on their nerves."

One local hotel owner even blamed the television series for the breakdown of his marriage, which he put down to the stress caused by having to cater for the constant stream of demands from mini-visitors and their parents. Although some residents complain about having their tranquillity spoiled the majority have been happy to milk the cash cow. Alison Dugdale, who sells Balamory merchandise from her seafront shop, said that keeping up with demand was one of the biggest problems. "It's huge," she said. "I don't think the BBC realised what it was doing when they set the programme in a tiny wee village."

"We've gone from OAPs to kindergarten kids," says Hughina Spence, who runs Beul-an-Atha (the Miss Hoolie B&B). "The kids are in their element. I tell them I'm Miss Hoolie's housekeeper and my husband is the gardener, and we look after her house when she is on holiday."

Such is the uniqueness of the Balamory influence that academics have carried out several studies into how it has affected the island and its residents.

Dr Joanne Connell, a tourism lecturer at Stirling University, claims that while it has long been accepted that place-specific films and television programmes often result in an increase in tourism to showcased destinations, Mull was unique in that its boom is driven by a pre-school children's show. "This has never been seen anywhere else in the world," said Dr Connell. "In 2003 there were about 160,000 extra visitors, which was a rise of about 40 per cent, and it was about the same last year. A lot of businesses on the island have had to adapt to providing children-friendly menus, nappy changing facilities and other facilities which cater for youngsters. Balamory has created a new phenomenon of 'toddler tourism' that has posed challenges on the island because it is a niche market."

Dr Connell said a study of the impact on the economy and the effect on local life, with so many more people running around the place, had revealed positive and negative influences. She said: "Many of the visitors are day-trippers and, while that is good for local shops and cafés, it is not so great for the accommodation providers. There is also a negative angle in that a lot of businesses are quite worried that their traditional markets, such as those people who came to look at the wildlife and enjoy the beauty of the island, are being put off by the influx of families with very young children."

Despite the decision to end production of the show it appears that the islanders will have to wrestle with the dilemmas of toddler tourism for some time to come. A spokesman for BBC Scotland said: "We have about 50 shows still to be broadcast and about 200 episodes which have already been shown but will continue to be repeated." And, as he points out, "young kids only stay young for a year or two".

There are also plans for a further three one-off films in the next few months, including a Christmas special, and a stage show, Strike Up The Band, starts a six-week run across the UK in September. It would appear that for the fictional residents of Balamory and their millions of fans the story will continue for some time while the islanders of Mull live happily ever after.

Balamory vs Tobermory

¿ All the houses featured in Balamory, with the exception of Archie the Inventor's pink castle, can be found in Tobermory. They are all commercial premises, apart from two. Tobermory was chosen as a location specifically because of its striking, coloured houses and its idyllic setting.

¿ The orange house, where Spencer the Painter lives, is owned by a widower, Hamish Johnston. His three-bedroom cottage, which dates from 1764, was originally painted white. The BBC painted it orange specially for the series and Mr Johnston liked the colour so much he decided to keep it.

¿ Miss Hoolie's house, otherwise known as Beul-an-Atha bed and breakfast on West Street is run by Hughina Spence, who likes to introduce herself to visitors as "Miss Hoolie's housekeeper".

¿ Penny Pocket and Suzie Sweet's shop on the Main Street is actually the booking office for the local Mull theatre company and is only painted red during filming. It is normally painted blue.

¿ The only other private home used in the series is PC Plum's white house in Victoria Street. It is owned by Beryl Campbell, 79, who enjoys the attention her four-bedroom, 150-year-old cottage gets from fans.

¿ Josie Jump's yellow home is in fact the Harbour Heights Hotel, owned by Richard Stojak. Edie McCredie's blue house is the chocolate factory shop on Main Street.

¿ Archie the Inventor's castle is Fenton Tower, a 16th-century tower house at North Berwick, 20 miles east of Edinburgh.