One Hit Wonders: The Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh! at 20 + The Day I Met Po

I don’t believe in the concept of Guilty Pleasures because you should never ever feel guilty about music that brings you joy.

However, there are two, OK, three records I bought in the Eighties and Nineties where, to this day, I still can’t work out where my head was at. Luckily, the not so tasty triumvirate in question were only three throwaway, silly singles that I thankfully got bored of very, very quickly.

The first—my record buying debut in fact—was a 30 pence one-sided flexi disc containing a nauseous jingle about the Central Milton Keynes shopping centre near where lived (revealed in all its un-glory here; oh, and come on, I was only ten); the second 45 was on the transformative day in July 1982 when I decided to buy non Adam Ant music for the first time since that ghastly CMK abberation. I plumped for David Essex’s Me And Me Girl (Nightclubbing). Remember this on Top of the Pops?

And the third. Well, what on earth can I say about the third?

All things considered, 1997 was a pretty good year to represent Britain around the world. OK, Princess Diana might have bet a grisly end in a Paris underpass, but ’97 was the year of Eurovision dominance, Britpop brilliance, The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony, All Saints’ Never Ever, Robbie Williams and his Angels, and, after a decade-long hiatus, it was the year ‘80s post-punk miscreants Echo & The Bunnymen made a majestic return with the pop magnificence of Nothing Lasts Forever, featuring one Liam Gallagher on guest vocals. Even the shiny and new Prime Minister Tony Blair liked that one.

Album wise, my personal favourite was a posthumous solo collection by a man who’d sadly committed suicide at the beginning of that year: Associates mainman Billy Mackenzine‘s Beyond The Sun.

Something else happened in 1997.

And it’s no understatement to say these pot-bellied porkers were something of a quiet revolution amongst kid’s telly at the time.

Teletubbies was a pre-school children’s television series that debuted on BBC Two that March. It was the freakiest show that every baby loved and (almost) every parent found annoying, but somehow Teletubbies took over the world in the late 1990s, much the same way The Beatles did in the 1960s. Tinky-Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po were the four colourful characters with a penchant for playfulness, demanded hugs, and became icons of educational television. Though many still question just what was to be learned from their antics.

On the 20th anniversary of their tubby takeover of the British singles charts, we’re looking behind the scenes of the weird show that somehow just worked.

This querulous quartet of brightly coloured Teletubbies coo and play in idyllic Teletubbyland. They love to repeat themselves (“Again! Again!”) demand hugs and engage in all manner of infant-pleasing activities such as rolling on the ground, laughing, running about, and watching real children on the TV sets in their oversized bellies (Telly tubbies, geddit?). Mysterious pinwheels and telephones rise out of the meadow to loosely direct the day’s activities. The Sun, featuring a baby’s face, comments on the proceedings with baby noises, and it rises and sets to begin and end the show.

The obese oddities look a bit like aliens, but co-creator Andrew Davenport told The Guardian that when writing the show, he was inspired by the moon landings and the physical appearance of the Apollo 11 astronauts who’d landed on the moon in 1969, when I was three weeks old. “It struck me as funny that, at this pinnacle of human achievement, the figures that emerged in bulky spacesuits from landing capsules are like toddlers, with oversized heads and foreshortened legs,” he said, “and they respond to the excitement of their new world by bouncing about. So I devised characters based on spacemen, with limited language just like the emergent speech of young children.”

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History records that I started watching the programme on Wednesday 23 July, 1997. No, really.

It was mid morning, midweek. What else was there to do? I didn’t have a workplace to go out to, due to necessity (a David Bowie magazine I was self-publishing was haemorrhaging money), was living with family in West Hampstead. I was, truth be told, a little adrift at this time, so, naturally, Teletubbies caught on with stereotypical student and unemployed types as a funny, silly thing to watch, sandwiched in between Dale Winton’s Supermarket Sweep and This Morning with Richard and Judy over on ITV.

On the morning of 6 August I was at my sister Stella’s house in Derby, where she was studying at University. The night before I’d taken her and her then boyfriend Steve to see Bowie’s Earthling drum ‘n’ bass shenanigans at Rock City in our mother’s birthplace, Nottingham. Over a long, lazy breakfast Stella wanted to impress me with all the latest CDs she’d bought – the Prodigy’s Fat Of The Land was the one I enjoyed the most – but I was far more interested in putting the box on.

“Let’s watch Teletubbies!”

“What? What are Teletubbies?”

“Oh, they’re hilarious. They’re these four primary coloured fat-suit alien things that live in the middle of a garden. They don’t know many words but roll around laughing a lot. When they run at the camera at the beginning it’s like some crazy acid trip.”

Big brother got his way. Time for Teletubbies. Time for Teletubbies!

“Tinky Winky! Dipsy! La-La! Po! Teletubbies. Teletubbies! Say hello. Eh-oh!”

When the fat foursome tuned into the telly sets on their middle regions we are presented with a video of a mum playing some amateur keyboards. Stella wasn’t impressed, thought, curiously, this human element was the part of the programme she disliked the most.

Anyway, can I just point out that there were many of us. The Teletubbies reached the peak of their popularity at the end of that year, when the TV theme tune was remixed and released as a single. On the UK chart dated 13 December 1997 — my sister’s birthday, natch — the track went straight into at No.1. I kid you not. And it stayed there for two whole weeks, going double platinum. Inexplicably, it even reached No.13 in The Netherlands.

I’d hazard a guess that a large percentage of the people who claimed they bought the ‘song’ for their kids are lying. I was yet to become a father so I had no excuse, sadly. Well, at least I didn’t buy the album.

To ‘celebrate’ the 20th anniversary of this one hit wonder single, the third of my Guilty Pleasures, here’s 20 fun facts about everyone’s favourite rainbow warriors.

1. They spoke gibberish.

The incredible success of the Teletubbies made Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po huge stars across the nation. How was it educational to kids? They just used to roll around on the floor, being fascinated with windmills and speakers that appeared from the ground. Oh, and they had the worst grasp of speech since Steven Hawking.

2. Tinky Winky was a camp, controversial figure.

Anti-gay groups slammed Tinky Winky, as TW was purple, had a triangle-shaped antenna and carried around a handbag most of the time, but on closer inspection actually turned out to be male. Very Margaret Thatcher. It caused controversy in America, where figures including the Reverend Jerry Falwell interpreted his character as promoting homosexuality and/or unconventional gender roles. The show’s creators claimed he wasn’t gay but come on, he’s as queer as Alan Carr dancing to the YMCA at Mardi Gras holding a sparkler. Needless to say the purple Winky one received the most column inches in the press, and there were more to come.

3. “Creative differences” almost split the Teletubbies apart.

The original Tinky Winky, Dave Thompson, left after the first run of episodes due to “creative differences” in 1997. It has been claimed that the production company, Ragdoll, felt his “interpretation of the role was not acceptable,” by implying the Winky one may indeed be gay. He said: “I am proud of my work for them. I was always the one to test out the limitations of the costume. I was the first to fall off my chair and roll over. I took all the risks.”

Simon Shelton Barnes portrayed TW for 14 episodes between 1998 and 2001. Barnes lived in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, quite literally down the road from where I grew up, and had trained as a ballet dancer and choreographer before taking up the role on the iconic BBC show. He said that the actors “used to receive a lot of fan mail from kids AND parents. I suppose we were a bit like the Beatles or the Take That of children’s television.”

4. But there was a reason for the handbag.

The Winky’s not for burning

Each Teletubby had their own personal prop to help them explore the world and to be used in educational activities. Tinky Winky’s handbag (bigger on the inside than on the outside; very Doctor Who) allowed him to demonstrate volume, while dancer Dipsy’s hat enabled role-playing. The coquettish Laa-Laa’s ball was intended to “reflect young children’s fascination with spheres”, while little red riding Po’s scooter explored travel and direction.

5. They required big hugs after ever manoeuvre.

Actually, having said that, there was a firm Flower Power message of love behind the show. You would frequently hear “Teletubbies love each other very much,” then the colourful creatures would move in for big hugs. Did the Brits go in for big hugs much before the Teletubbies? I don’t think so.

6. The Sun got a quarter of a grand for those demonic squeals.

The identity of the baby who played the Sun was only revealed in 2014, and it’s university student Jess Smith, 22, who was just nine months old when she became one of the most familiar faces on British television. Jess was put in a high chair for the filming so she would be looking down like the sun. Her father made her giggle by playing with a teddy bear behind the camera. And as no one could predict the success of the show, Jess was paid just £250 for filming and given a box of toys to take home.

7. It was difficult for the Teletubbies actors to escape their famous roles.

Pui Fan Lee, who played Po, attracted controversy for playing another role in the 2001 Channel 4 show Metrosexuality, in which she performed a sex act on a woman. “I didn’t take the lesbian role to be deliberately controversial,” she said. “Yes, I was Po. But I am an actress too and the role looked interesting, exciting and challenging.” Laa-Laa, meanwhile, was played by dancer Nikky Smedley, who went on to choreograph another popular children’s TV show: In the Night Garden.

8. The Teletubbies were racially diverse.

Dipsy’s face was slightly darker than the faces of the other Teletubbies. When the show was broadcast in the US, the makers told American audiences that Dipsy was intended to be black and Po was Chinese, like the actors who played them.

9. They are big in the Big Apple.

In 2007, the Teletubbies were given the keys to New York City to celebrate their 10-year anniversary, and March 28 was even named Teletubbies Day. According to the Daily Mail, people in neighbouring New Jersey search for Teletubbies on Google more than any other state.

10. They deposed David Bowie and Lou Reed.

What was the single the fat fuckers knocked off the No.1 spot? Only the official song to celebrate the BBC’s 75th anniversary, the all-star cast cover of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, featuring Bowie, Bono, Tom Jones, Elton John, Ian Broudie, The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan, Suede’s Brett Anderson, that foghorn from M People and a few thousand others. Two weeks later the Spice Girls dethroned the camp quartet to bag the Christmas Number One with the excessively forgettable Too Much.

11. Teletubbies ruled Christmas anyway.

Teletubbies merchandise, including books, dolls and baby clothes, proved so popular for that Christmas of 1997 that it outsold all other toys twice over.

12. Teletubbies liked custard and toast, though not necessarily at the same time.

Teletubbies’ snack of choice is Tubby Custard, in reality a combination of mashed potato, red and yellow acrylic paint – not necessarily for human consumption. Another favourite Teletubby food was Tubby Toast, and the portly wonders would scoff it down almost as fast as James Corden at a free buffet.

13. They had a flexible friend that sucked even better than a Dyson.

The fifth Teletubby was their George Martin, inhabiting a role similar to The Beatles’ legendary producer. He kept things at TTHQ spick and span, ordered and presentable to the general public. In fact he wasn’t even a Teletubby, he was Noo-Noo, the sucking sensation. If only Dyson could have come up with a vacuum that goes round cleaning stuff itself, and considering the mess that the frightful foursome made he had his work cut out. 

14. They’ve been accused of being foul-mouthed.

Shops in Texas pulled some talking Teletubbies plush dolls from their shelves after complaints that the Po doll was saying offensive words, specifically either “fatty” or “faggot”. The company that made the toys said that Po was actually saying the gibberish word “fidit”.

15. The Teletubbies were friends with giant, sex-crazed rabbits.

As well as being home to Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po, Teletubbyland was also inhabited by a number of rabbits. But because the Teletubby costumes were so big, to keep everything looking to scale, the animals used needed to be a species of Flemish Giant rabbit. They also apparently spent much of their time on set mating with each other in the background, which meant lots of shots had to be re-filmed.

16. If you fancy visiting the Teletubbies house, you’ll be disappointed.

The rounded green hills that the Teletubbies called home were actually part of a farm in Wimpstone, Warwickshire. When filming on the original series wrapped in 2001, the owner of the land was so sick of Teletubby fans trespassing on it that she flooded it and turned it into a pond. “People were jumping fences and crossing cattle fields. We’re glad to see the back of it,” said Rosemary Harding, who now runs an aquatics centre at the site.

17. If you want to be a spy, you have to know your Teletubbies.

Lorraine Kelly feels Dipsy moving in for the kill: Teletubbies celebrate 20 years on ITV’s Lorraine. Maybe the next 007 is black after all

Intelligence officers sitting exams to test their suitability to join the Metropolitan Police Special Branch were once asked to name all four of the Teletubbies. The Metropolitan Police defended the test, saying its officers needed to prove they were in touch with all aspects of popular culture.

18. The Teletubbies were founded on Jungian principles.

Ragdoll, the company that made the original series, has a quotation from Carl Jung as its company motto: “Without play with fantasy, no creative work has ever come to birth”.

19. Again, again!

Teletubbies and a tall, irritating person

The show was revived in 2015 for a brand-new generation. It’s now a lot more showbiz – starring the likes of Jim Broadbent, Fearne Cotton and Pet Shop Boys superfan, David Walliams.

20. I had a dream. A fantasy. To help me through reality. 

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About a big red thing. And if you see the wonder of a fairy tale I’ll tell you it. At the height of Tubbymania, when the single was at the top of the charts, I felt so extraordinary, in that when I woke up the following morning I could remember my dream. Not only that, but later that evening I did a radio show off Tottenham Court Road with Simon Gilbert of Suede and Daniel Booth, the Melody Maker journalist. After a few beers, I let slip that the previous night I’d dreamt that I got on one of the old London Routemaster double decker buses, and as I made it upstairs who was sitting up there all on her own? It was Po. And my destination made it worth the while. I remember blurting out to everyone how I sat next to her and struck up an actual conversation, and, I can still remember my words categorically, “She was really nice.”

Needless to say everyone in the building thought I should get out more. Time for Tubby bye byes then.

Steve Pafford

Again, again? AGAIN?

Oh, alright then. Here’s the multi-language edition of the song for all you bilinguals out there. I’m done.

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