US burbles approval as the furry four land

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The Independent Online
ALREADY Americans are calling them the Fab Four. Already they're talking about the biggest Brit invasion since the Beatles. Already the magic garden they inhabit is drawing comparisons with the psychedelic world of Sergeant Pepper.

The Teletubbies had their US debut yesterday and first reactions suggest they are going to be huge. The New York Times said they were "likely to be irresistible in the US"; a reviewer in Variety suggested the world had lost its collective marbles, but acknowledged that his 21-month-old son had been entranced; focus groups organised by the Teletubbies' US distributors and talk programmes found that while parents were baffled, their children were agog. Daniel Anderson, a child psychologist who watched the Teletubbies for the first time yesterday, pronounced the programme "close to ideal" for small children.

While some parents worried that it was too slow, lacked the hubbub they come to expect from children's programmes like Sesame Street, Dr Anderson was full of praise. "It is brilliant: perfectly designed and paced for the minds of one, two or three-year olds."

The publicity alone will guarantee intense interest. Last week the Teletubbies were being advertised on New York buses; Newsweek carried a page-long article. And the debate is only just beginning.

Even before the Public Broadcasting Service carried yesterday's inaugural episode, Emily and Jester, many news-devouring Americans will have known that the fat little frolickers have spawned enormous controversy in Britain, generating accusations that they are "evil" and encourage drug-taking and homosexuality, while providing no redeeming educational value for tots. The same views are being aired in the US, where news reports in the press and TV talk in terms of "the Teletubby controversy".

"We knew that this show was going to raise some eyebrows, but nobody expected this torture," Ken Viselman, the Teletubbies' US distributor, told Newsweek. Mr Viselman has not seen anything yet. Once the Christian Right get their teeth into the Teletubbies, anything is possible. The Southern Baptists boycotted Disney last year because they believed popular cartoon films like the Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King carried subliminal messages intended to drive children to degenerate sex. What will they make of Tinky Winky and his beloved red handbag? What will they make of the episode where a letter `E' drops from the sky, bopping Dipsy on the head? While Mr Viselman was adamant that to pick the Teletubbies apart in search of secret messages would be futile, he did acknowledge that one way for adults to penetrate their toddler world was to think of adults when they are stoned.

"Were these people stoned when they made this show? What you have to look at is what kind of mood are you in when you're stoned - you're in a place where you feel safe, you're in a place where your imagination is running wild, you're in a place where you're willing to accept a whole new frontier. And that's where children are." The world over, Mr Viselman might have added. For, unless it transpires that American infants' genetic make-up differs radically from that of their British counterparts, he and all those associated with the Teletubbies stand to make a fortune in America from merchandise sales. Mothers at the American focus groups did not go home without inquiring about availability of videos.

The New York Times said the first episode left "an implicit promise and a warning: Teletubbies are bound to be the toy parents go crazy trying to find at Christmas".