Andrew and the Teletubbies

8th August 1997 at 01:00
What will be remembered as the main popular culture debate of the nineties? Forget the relative merits of Oasis and Blur. Are the Teletubbies a force for good in our society?

For those who have never seen them, the Teletubbies are four brightly coloured teddy bear cum pixie creatures, each with an antenna and a midriff patch on which pictures of children doing interesting things are shown. They live in Teletubbyland which appears to be a converted golf course complete with artificial flowers and real rabbits. The sun, a chuckling baby's face, looks over their house.

This dwelling resembles nothing more than a turfed version of every fifties B-movie spaceship you ever saw. A slightly sinister windmill-like structure, recognisable to us physicists as some sort of transmitter, calls them out to receive images of kids riding horses, going for walks or doing arty things.

Criticism of this has been made on three fronts. First, and saddest, has been the charge that the series promotes the drugs culture because - gasp! - it is very colourful. No child of the sixties ever grew up to have a drugs problem because we only had black and white television.

Second, the Teletubbies don't talk properly, including Tinky Winky, whose actor has just been sacked amid much publicity. The same charge was levelled against Bill and Ben and was never made to stick. How many 37-year-olds do you hear flobber-dobbling instead of enunciating with perfect diction?

The third charge is harder to dismiss. The Teletubbies are not educational. Guilty. For the most part, the programme involves Teletubbies running, dancing, falling over and making silly noises. My two-year-old son Andrew thinks this is great and laughs out loud. It is good that there is a television show that has been cleverly constructed to appeal to his age-group. If the constructors were a couple of Lost in Space fans on LSD (unlikely), then so be it.

For half an hour a day I can sit down with a cup of tea and a magazine secure in the knowledge that Andrew is being amused, nothing more, by the television. The rest of the day will be an education for him, so he deserves a break. Non-educational television is a bulwark against hypocrisy. I'd like to say that my favourite programme was Horizon or Panorama or Dispatches but I'd probably rather be watching Cracker (with Scotland's very own Tellytubby, Robbie Coltrane) or Morse or the X-Files. Why should I expect my kids to be educated by the box if I use it chiefly for fun?

At the time of writing I know that the first mini-series of the late summer will soon be shown. Called something like Double Improbability, it will star Brian Dennehy (American Teletubby) who will glower his way through a glossy two-parter until justice is done and the scrolling end credits are topped off by a paragraph telling us how the main protagonists are still serving life in the state pen. And I'll be there watching, if I have not fallen asleep on the sofa from a day of educating.

Andrew has discovered the word "why?" and has an inexhaustible stream of questions which must be answered. "Why you got the window wipers on? Why you cutting the grass?" Television can be educational to children his age in as far as it can show him things he would not otherwise see. I'll be a lot more impressed when it can give him the answer why.

Gregor Steele has his suspicions that some of his S5 class watch Teletubbies.

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