Teletubbies: The bizarre kids’ TV show that swept the world

Still, rebooting is nothing new. Jeanette Steemers, Professor of Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London, discusses various classic children’s shows revisited over the years, such as Thomas & Friends and Bob the Builder. Some represent an opportunity to reimagine characters that don’t stand up to modern views on representation, race, or disability, like Disney’s Dumbo, the original of which used blatant African-American stereotypes. (Similarly, Wildbrain claims that the multiracial casting of Sun Babies in the new Teletubbies is an effort to “reflect the diversity of the audience.”) More often than not, however, reboots demonstrate a low appetite for risk in an industry more also short of money. “It’s really hard to find a hit,” Steemers told BBC Culture. “Nobody knows what this magic sauce is, so people try to replicate it instead. The problem is that the reboot often isn’t as good as the original.” Angelina Ballerina is a good example. The original series, with 2D animations based on Katharine Holabird’s beautifully illustrated books, was later revived using CGI with arguably diminishing returns. This resonates with Wood, for whom Netflix’s Teletubbies represent a major brand devaluation. She disparages the use of digital production techniques, although her main concern is that the careful observation undertaken before shooting the original – perfecting this child-centred lens – has not been replicated. When this was presented to Wildbrain, the company chose not to comment. In detailing how Teletubbies had been updated, however, he pointed out that “the spirit and concept of Teletubbies remains unchanged from the original series” and “the stories and themes are still centered around wonder, discovery, joy and stupidity”.

Whether rebooting sounds the same remains to be seen. Netflix wields enormous power, but it doesn’t operate in China, where much of the Teletubbies’ fan base resides. The new series will also not be available in the UK, where the BBC holds the exclusive rights. And although the Tubbies have learned to play the social media game, tweet celebrities and annoying politicians, the controversies and in-the-moment debates that have both plagued the show and lifted it to the top of the news agenda have long since moved on.

But perhaps a more relevant question is the one Wood asks: “Where will the next Teletubbies come from?” It would be difficult to finance such a wacky project today. In the UK, there are no more quotas on children’s content for commercial channels and the Young Audiences Content Fund, a lonely olive branch, was scrapped in January. Wood also worries that respecting nostalgia could limit the creativity she and Davenport had in the 90s. “There are other people who do good work, or at least they could, if they had the opportunity.” She cites a project currently underway with Ragdoll. “It’s hopefully in tune with the times, as much as you can feel it. Will it show in all the mass produced? Who knows, but you have to keep trying.”

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