From Zippy to Dipsy: a history of serious silliness
The programme's formula has traditional elements: its own fantasy world (Teletubbyland), combining Wind-in-the-Willows pastoral, with magic technology (stardust-sprayin g windmills) and a baby-faced sun. Like Sesame Street's Muppets, and Rainbow's Zippy and George, the Teletubbies are people, dressed-up to look furry and cuddly. Unlike the Muppets, they do not have recognisable adult speech, and, unlike Zippy and George, they do not interact with human beings. The Teletubbies are giant toddlers, living in an a-social environment, with only a vacuum cleaner to care for them; hence they have barely any need to speak at all.
The BBC defends their controversial use of baby talk on the grounds that children will find it "funny' and thus will "feel confident about joining in". But young children do not generally live in an environment where nobody talks in connected sentences; nor do they stay babies. Will the baby talk still appeal when today's two-year-old has "gained confidence" and turned into tomorrow's articulate four-year-old? Sustaining the audience could be a problem.
Sesame Street was astutely designed to appeal to children up to the age of seven, with jokes for caretaking adults. Teletubbies makes no concession to adults in its constant use of repetition - an essential educational tool for tinies, but irritating for grown-ups. Filmed inserts in the Teletubbies' tummies, featuring real children, adventurous music, and informative child-commentaries, are repeated immediately. Young children certainly like repetition, but one can't help suspecting that the technique is designed partly to save on production costs.
It is clear, however, that affection, care and imagination have gone into Teletubbies, and it shows. The design is stylish; the Tubbies move like dancers; it is lovely to look at; and the gentle rhythm sustains attention.A sense that they are worth all this imaginative effort is as important in helping the young to feel valued as more formal educational methods, and is something that television is especially equipped to do.
At this year's Edinburgh Television Festival, Anna Home, the BBC's head of children's programming when Teletubbies was commissioned, denied that the programme would have negative effects. "Children watched Clangers, but that didn't produce a generation of whistlers," she said. What she didn't mention, though, was that in the 1970s80s The Clangers was only one of a range of programmes available to pre-schoolers, including Play School (later Playdays); Rainbow; Pipkins; the various Watch with Mother-style lunchtime programmes, and five-minute shorts at the end of afternoon viewing. Teletubbies is now the sole original "educational" programme for pre-school children broadcast by either the BBC or ITV.
Kids may have whistled after watching The Clangers, but on Play School they could also meet friendly adults addressing them as equals. Teletubbies are enchanting, but, like children, they can't do it all by themselves.
Maire Messenger Davies is a senior lecturer in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University. She is co-author of Baby Language (Unwin Hyman, 1987) and author of Fake, Fact and Fantasy: Children's Interpretations of TV Reality (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997)