Eh-Oh, Eh-Oh, Eh-Oh

24th October 1997 at 01:00
One of the lesser-known claims to fame of The TES is that it was the first newspaper to review (somewhat favourably) what was then an unhyped and unknown new children's TV programme: Teletubbies. Since the reviewer's 18-month-old daughter - previously uninterested in the small screen - instantly became fascinated by the activities of the four fat little aliens, it should have been possible to predict the avalanche of media interest which was to follow.

Two obvious headline factors were already in place: the new show ousted Playdays (a favourite with middle-class mums up and down the land) and Tinky-Winky and the rest of the gang spoke just like their target audience - the under-twos. Within weeks, Middle England was in revolt. A small but vociferous group of mothers complained to the Radio Times that babytalk on the box would hold back their children's speech development.

For instance, the Tubbies say "Eh-Oh" instead of "Hello". But so do many toddlers; it is part of learning to speak. And much research into child development demonstrates convincingly that babytalk is deceptively effective; its "telegrammatic" structure emphasises the key words in a sentence so that the very young can grasp them more easily. Adults who instinctively talk to tiny children in high voices and over-emphasise certain words may sound ludicrous to other adults, but they are acting as natural teachers and communicators. In any case, Teletubbies includes an adult narrator who speaks Standard English.

The great charm of the programme, and the secret of its appeal is that it is carefully thought-out and often funny. It is not patronising, but creates a self-contained world where small people who can't talk properly are taken seriously. Sometimes things go wrong ("Uh-Oh"), but when they do, most problems can be solved with a Big Hug. We may say that real life is not like this: but for little children, it should be.

And apart from the overtly educational bits - the counting, singing and dancing games - the audience is learning how to anticipate the predictable, that baffling household technology exists in Teletubbyland just as it does in their own homes, and that real children of their own age can do all sorts of interesting and enjoyable things for themselves.

What's more, Teletubbies gives toddlers who are not yet even potty trained a uniquely sophisticated angle on their own experience of watching television. Just at the moment in their development when they are fascinated by mirror images, it shows a baby's face in the sky also chuckling at the antics of the Teletubbies - and indicating to the small children of the media age that this is what they are doing, too. It even incorporates echoes of televisual history, with hints of programmes as diverse as The Prisoner and The Magic Roundabout.

And even if none of the above were true, and Teletubbies was simply well-crafted entertainment? Well, if adults feel the need to switch off their brains from time to time - to catch up with the latest doings in EastEnders or The Archers - why should frenetically active toddlers be denied the same high-quality relaxation?

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