Once upon a time, tiny tots' television involv-ed wobbly string puppets or ropey old toys, overlaid with an auth-oritarian commentary in pure cut-glass Received Pronunciation.
But the BBC's latest offering comes from another planet from Watch With Mother. Literally, you might say, because the Teletubbies are four fat little space aliens, complete with head-moun-ted aerials, which frolic round a strangely un-real patch of countryside and live in what looks like an underground spaceship.
Every so often, a gizmo straight out of 1984 whirs out of the hillside and orders the Teletubbies to appear or disappear, or a windmill starts spinning frantically to signal that something odd is about to happen. It's curiously reminiscent of The Prisoner, in which that mysterious white bubble used to follow Number Six round Portmeirion.
Meanwhile, the cuddly, wobbly-bottomed Teletubbies run around in a manner originally perfected by the Banana Splits, pausing once a day to see a film of some everyday event enjoyed by children. Not unlike Playschool, although instead of guessing which window will get the film, children guess which rotund tummy it will be projected upon. Andy Pandy made by the X-Files generation, you might say.
I am simultaneously intrigued and driven to distraction by it. My 18-month old daughter - whose first real experience of children's television this is - is completely transfixed. She and many of her little friends sit like stunned mullets in front of Teletubbies, occasionally grinning, dancing, pointing or making observations. They particularly like one character, the sun - in the middle of which is film of a baby's face laughing, cooing or being quizzical. It is thoroughly cute.
According to the BBC, whose Big New Pre-School Thing this is, Teletubbies aims to make learning fun, focusing on it through the joy of play and helping prepare children for their forthcoming school life. It is intended to make children feel confident, relaxed and ready to learn. Hmm.
Predictability apparently has much to do with this. Teletubbies is run to a tight formula, with the same songs and dances interspersed with a couple of themed interludes about the characters and one film about real children (repeated immediately, much to parents' initial surprise). Very little is overlaid with adult commentary, and the Tubbies themselves are not great conversationalists: they talk (and behave) like toddlers, you see. Without wishing to sound like a fogey, it is hard to see how this will help young children's speech development.
The film segments, in particular, need to be watched with an adult to interpret. The first featured a small boy helping his father to put together a child-carrying bike trailer of a sort I'd never seen before (though they might be commonplace in Islington). Another film had farm children bottle-feeding lambs, with no explanation that only a very few require this service. If it is supposed to be in children's words, perhaps the children could be encouraged to use a few more of them to help their viewers.
Teletubbies is billed as appealing to two to five-year-olds, but it is hard to believe that it would be very popular at the top end of that age range. Younger children, between 18 months and three years, adore it. The open-air format, with real rabbits, grass and sky, is delightful, especially for kids in the middle of towns, and the computer-generated bit at the end is well done. The baby sun is great, as is the tame vacuum cleaner that cleans up while the Tubbies are asleep.
The Tubbies' songs are great, too, if you are under five. Jaded adults are swiftly driven nuts by the theme song, which once heard is never forgotten. I even caught my husband whistling it in the bath.
What a pity the Teletubbies have turned my daughter into a telly addict already.