Friday, 31 March 2017

Why Cant I Be You?: Teletubbies

Twenty years ago, television was visited by four strange beings from another place and something something a joke about Captain Butler when I'm clearly talking about the Teletubbies, whose brightly coloured repetitive adventures began on BBC2 this day is 1997, just between a black and white Robert Mitchum film from 1954 and deaf magazine programme "See Hear!" Well it WAS the Easter bank holiday, when all the funnest programmes are on. From those humble beginnings lay a monster though and soon everyone was in on the act...

British viewers quick off the mark (or with a wailing child desperate for distraction) may have been introduced to Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa Laa and Po with the following advert...

Quite what anyone made of that promo featuring these freaky faced colourful...things is lost to time but it didn't take long for the show to become a phenomenon and between March and Princess Diana doing a dead, Teletubbies quickly became the biggest kids show in the UK. And eventually the planet. (PLEASE NOTE: I do not believe the Teletubbies were responsible for Diana's death. Only Dipsy's movements are still unaccounted for.) But it wasn't just kids watching as this mildly concerning Channel 5 (which appeared barely hours before the Tubbies on March 30th 1997 at 6pm) news report reveals.

I read in the men's periodicals of the time it was great to smoke the marijuana drug during an episode but other than seeing it with a hangover, I never partook in riding the "Laa Laa Smokey Steam Train to monged town". I was a student though and whilst I don't think I liked it ironically, there was definitely a bemusing humour to it all that clearly only made sense if you were two years old and / or a drug addict. And playing into that, one of the earliest parodies of the series came from a second season episode of "South Park" in May 1998 showing a stoned Mr Garrison watching something distinctly Teletubby-like.

Finding the definitive first parody of the programme is tough in a sea of terrible Flash animations and unfunny mods on YouTube that invariably make the show needlessly dark, sweary or both, but noted television pioneer Brian Conley was in there quick with a much promoted sketch on his ITV "Crazy Christmas" special on December 23rd 1997. Amazingly no footage of this is online due to it being "Brian Conley's Crazy Christmas" so lets move on to one of my favourite subjects Viz Comic who got in on the act with issue 88 from February 1998 when they realised "Telly" sounds a bit like something else...

Every sketch show with more than 8p in the budget (thanks Tony Blairs!) seemed to have a crack at a Tubby spoof in the late 90s although there's was rarely much of a joke other than they don't 'alf talk funny! BBC One's "Harry Enfield's Yule Log Chums" special from 28th December 1998 roughed the kiddies favourites up to become Lovely Jubbly, Geeza, Beergut and Boff. Yes, its the "Telecockneys". Like most of Enfield's sketches at this point in his career the joke goes on about two minutes longer (Big hugs becomes "big jugs", Noo Noo is "Loo Loo" a moving lavatory and so on) than it needs to but the appearances of Matt Lucas, Phill Jupitus and Jessica Stevenson (as was) are very welcome.

Strangely the piece makes no comment on something a number of people have pointed out over the decades and that is Teletubbies' surface similarity to a very memorable "Harry Enfield's Television Programme" sketch from 1992 called "English For Aliens" in which an off-screen (and still much missed) Geoffrey Perkins tried to teach some rotund creatures with odd but uniquely shaped antennas basic phrases such as "tree", "car" and, of course, "Baby Jesus".

BBC Two's "Goodness Gracious Me" also got some knock-off costumes made in 2000 with "Delhi Tubbies" which were Teletubbies but - in a twist you wouldn't see coming from "Goodness Gracious Me", except for all the times you would - Asian. The joke didn't seem to stretch much beyond that and ends with a comedy kicking not long in. Oddly, over a decade later, a real party of blokes using the same name decided to travel across India dressed as Teletubbies in a noble attempt to raise money for a women's refuge in Bangladesh.

Funny vicar comedy "The Vicar Of Dibley" featured two children dressed as Laa Laa and Po at Alice's wedding to Hugo (because she is mentally sub-normal!!!!) but that's not a sketch show so it can get stuffed.

By 1999, the cult of the custard-slurping chums had spread across the American pond of America stateside and suddenly (minus nine months in a Korean animation cellar) they were cropping up in The Simpsons with surprising regularity starting with "Wild Barts Cant Be Broken" midway through the tenth season. Three references followed the next year with perhaps the best featuring Homer attempting to dress as a Teletubby to entertain Maggie, despite the slightly dubious line relating to Tinky Winky's sexuality.

Handily, someone has compiled all these references in this handy to watch video which saves me needing to describe them and buys me some time to think of a good excuse to explain to my family why I've spent a day writing and researching an article about the Teletubbies...

The fuzzy foursome also made appearances as "Tele-Chubbies" in needless "Pinky and the Brain" reboot "Pinky, Elmyra & the Brain". Needless to say Pinky is quite a fan but Brain...not so much!!!!!

Elsewhere, Adult Swim's largely dreadful "Robot Chicken" had the Teletubbies in place of the Power Rangers in lieu of any actual jokes (other than "they speak slowly"...which they don't) and a first season Family Guy had Stewie transfixed by their programme when he was still going "Yis! Kill the mother! Etc!" and Peter said "heheheh I am humourous and fat". Which is true, he was fat.

And then Kenan made a face.

I have no idea what this is.

Next up was...what, we're done? Oh thank you sun baby. All of these sketches and clips are fun in their own way but its testament to the easy going charm and quirky nature of the original programme that lead to it being not only a worldwide hit but a household name that could be easily referenced for a quick chuckle. Yes, it was repetitive and maybe the Christmas no.1 single was a spin-off too far but kids saw something positive and loving in those colourful little buggers so we should always be thankful for that. Time for Tubby bye-bye!

NEXT WEEK: A 50,000 word social polemic on why Charlie Chalk is better than Breaking Bad and how Stoppit and Tidyup could deffo twat everyone in Game of Thrones easy.

Happy twentieth anniversary everybody! 


  1. Because I had fuck all to do at the time, I saw bits of the Teletubbies show, and although I enjoyed their antics I never watched a full episode because there was always that boring bit in the middle where their tummy tellies would spring to life and we'd have to watch a bunch of 3 year olds doing potato prints, which was a great deal less entertaining than the other stuff.

    One of the best things about the programme was how massively paranoid it made right wing maniacs because they thought there were coded messages in the gibberish. Chris Evans ranted against them too (same as The Spice Girls).

  2. There was an episode of some Jonathan Ross thing with Sid James as the babysun. That was alright.