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We are all Teletubbies now Their Blairite utopia infantilised a generation

A portion of custard please (Teletubbies)


March 30, 2022   6 mins

Is children’s TV programming actually made for ravers? It’s a long time since my last pharmacologically-assisted all-nighter, but I have vivid memories of watching programming aimed at the under-fives at breakfast time, having not yet been to bed.

The bright colours, narrative non-sequiturs and plinky-plonk music typical of preschool TV are perfect for that state of neural short-circuit. And the ultimate choice back in the day was Teletubbies.

Launched on 31 March 1997, Teletubbies celebrates its 25th anniversary this week. I’ve now had the dubious privilege of meeting the show twice: first as a raver in the late Nineties, and more recently as the mother of a toddler. And it was wildly successful from the moment it landed, both with the chemically insomniac as well as its official target audience of preschool children. It’s one of the most lucrative shows in BBC history, with merchandising sales raking in billions, and by 2015 had aired in over 120 countries with translation into more than 45 languages.

But if the show has been a roaring success, it has also spurred a subculture of perverse readings, including that the Sun Baby is a demon and the  occult connection between the show and Harry Potter. Elsewhere, Teletubbyland has been interpreted as a post-apocalyptic scenario set in a bomb shelter.

And this secondary success is also richly deserved. For among many other things, it’s a brutally frank sketch of a hypermodern era that began gathering speed around the time the show launched, and has now consumed us all. And these humanoid-but-infantile Teletubby cyborgs, media devices painlessly grafted into their flesh, are fitting avatars for a uniquely modern conflation of technology and nurturing that’s on its way to collapsing the boundaries between childhood and adult life.

There were plenty of surreal children’s TV shows prior to Teletubbies. Gen Xers will remember Oliver Postgate’s Bagpuss (1974), which blended music by folk luminaries Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner with dreamy, animated storylines. Ten years later, geriatric millennials of roughly my vintage may recall the creepy claymation Trapdoor (1984) in which worms, monsters and a talking skull squirm about and sometimes eat one another in the pit under a castle.

Bagpuss captures the dreamy nostalgia and make-do-and-mend aesthetic of a Seventies era materially on its uppers and in many corners still stubbornly resistant to “modernisation”. Trapdoor is a vivid metaphor for the pitiless eat-anything-smaller-than-you morality of Thatcher’s Big Bang age. Teletubbies, though, brought the winds of change with it: no more nostalgia, and certainly no more competition. Instead, ahead of the millennium, it offered a powerfully 21st-century vision, launched in the febrile final weeks of the election campaign that ended nearly two decades of Tory hegemony.

The timing was immaculate. For Teletubbyland is a perfect fit for the bright, modern optimism of Blair’s New Labour: a clean, modern, aspirational world of universal abundance, where there is no longer any need for conflict or unhappiness because technology will deliver for all.

It’s pure Third Way. Teletubbyland is tidy, hygienic and futuristic, but not cold or forbidding. Bunnies roam around nibbling the lush grass and flowers, while the Teletubbies themselves live in a structure worthy of Grand Designs (launched two years after Teletubbies): a grass-roofed eco-home built into the hillside, filled with smart gadgets that cater to their every need.

Like good citizens of the End of History, the Teletubbies potter about this bright vision of what Aaron Bastani called “fully automated luxury communism” on short, directionless adventures. Their basic needs are met by automation, including a robot that cleans, another that makes food, and speakerphones that provide structure to their lives by emerging from the ground to announce what the Teletubbies will do next.

When they aren’t pursuing these mini-quests, they interact playfully with one another or consume short videos from human world, broadcast to them via a windmill-like aerial. This is picked up by the antennae that appear to be organic parts of their bodies, causing them to writhe in delight, and the images appear on screens embedded into their abdomens.

Everything in this aimless, media-loving, robot-tended cyborg existence is overseen by the most benign imaginable surveillance device: a baby’s face, smiling and gurgling inside the warm, life-giving sun. It’s a vivid picture of a population contained within a heavily controlled environment structured around meeting their needs, where activity is mostly consumption-oriented and pre-programmed by third parties.

In this sense, it’s perhaps no wonder small children responded enthusiastically to it. The years between Trapdoor and Teletubbies reboot also saw an immense growth in infants attending nursery. In 1981, only 24% of women went back to work a year after having a baby; but by 2001, 67% did so. And Teletubbies is an accurate depiction of the nursery environments that growing numbers of infants experienced under Blair, spurred by a raft of New Labour pro-childcare policies.

In such settings, everything is carefully controlled and focused on amusement for the children. In most cases, children aren’t involved in the work of ordinary life, such as food preparation or cleaning, unless it’s a designated activity. And while care is not exactly automated, there’s more than a nod to industrial-era efficiency and economies of scale. After all, the purpose of nursery is to free up the maximum number of caregiving adults, to do things the wider world deems more “productive” than minding a toddler.

But if Teletubbies offered an upbeat picture for toddlers of the infant childcare experience, the world inculcated by this industrialised infancy has now spread well beyond the nursery setting. And this has arguably been at the expense of our ability to engage in what the generation who watched Teletubbies as toddlers would now call “adulting”.

We’re increasingly enthusiastic about innovations, such as Deliveroo, that give the impression of magically meeting our basic needs at the touch of a button, like the Tubby Custard machine. Five years after Teletubbies, the world gained a Noo-Noo in the form of the now wildly successful Roomba. And the Teletubbies’ cyborg fusion with mass communication increasingly reflects our own relationship to technology.

A decade before the launch of the first smartphone, preschoolers all around the world were offered a vision of friendly, child-like entities laughing and playing, with what appear to be organic antenna emerging from the heads and screens embedded in their bellies. Now, 25 years after their launch, millennials check their phones on average 150 times a day and rarely go more than a few hours without a glance at the feed. Meanwhile, “wearables” such as health trackers and (if you’re a certain kind of Silicon Valley dork) augmented-reality glasses have proliferated.

And the drive for ever more intimate integration between “smart” devices and our flesh is ongoing. Elon Musk is lining up human trials of the Neuralink brain implant technology, while a majority of Americans would find implanted brain chips acceptable provided it was possible to deactivate them.

But it’s the automation of nurture combined with cyborg body enhancements that reveals Teletubbies’ most prophetic vision: a world that’s traded love in for technology – and, increasingly, even seeks to reframe technology as love.

For there are no adult Teletubbies. Whenever the Teletubbies go to bed, under their space blankets, there’s no one to tuck them in or read them a bedtime story. And today, if you wish to, you can raise your human child in a similar way: the Luka owl robot reads bedtime stories to children. The $1000 ‘Moxie’ robot even promises to help your child with “social-emotional learning” if you’re too busy to do so yourself.

Do the Teletubbies ever long for a hug from an adult? Perhaps not; they delight instead in  media broadcasts from the human world to their cyborg stomach-screens. And in the absence of adult care, they turn to one another for comfort: each show ends with a Big Hug, and the narrator’s declaration that “The Teletubbies love each other very much”.

Children aren’t Teletubbies, though. The first generation of children to be sent en masse as infants to a human version of Teletubbyland are now in their mid- to late twenties. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that full-time nursery care has no impact on academic performance, and may even improve outcomes in some cases. But other infant experiences are harder to quantify.

I wonder, sometimes, whether there is any connection between the proliferation of “self-care” content online, and the sharp increase circa Teletubbies in young adults who spent their infancy in a setting maximally geared to their safety and entertainment, but less well-resourced in terms of loving, attuned care. This is sensitive territory, as most parents are acutely torn on how to do the best for their families while making ends meet. But I still wonder.

If there is a link, perhaps it’s not so much that Teletubbies was created for ravers, as that it offers comfort of sorts to those in that delicate post-rave condition of self-inflicted chemical imbalance.

This condition can leave one both desperate for a hug and strangely unable to ask for one. And here was a show that said: don’t worry, be more Teletubby. You don’t really need an adult to care for you, any more than you did as a toddler. But nor do you need to be one – because the machines will take care of us. We’ll get Deliveroo, give each other a hug, and leave the adulting till tomorrow. Look – bunnies and Tubby Toast. Eh-oh!


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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David George
DG
David George
2 years ago

So true. You’ve a real talent, Mary, for seeing and saying and clarifying what many of us suspected.

John Bruce
JB
John Bruce
2 years ago

My generation were subjected to two useful idiots, aka Bill and Ben, being manipulated by a pernicious, psychopathic Weed into performing minor acts of vandalism, then denying their involvement. It was our introduction to Machiavellian philosophy and stood us in good stead.

Prashant Kotak
PK
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  John Bruce

I honestly read that as Mancunian philosophy initially. And on reflection, it probably fits better.

Al M
AP
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

So did I. Well, Mark E Smith always had an opinion.

Katharine Eyre
KE
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  John Bruce

Hahaha, that’s one way of looking at it!

Dustin Needle
DN
Dustin Needle
2 years ago
Reply to  John Bruce

We also grew up with Clangers, Oliver Postgate and the wonderful accompaniments of Vernon Elliott. The sound of a bassoon still takes me back 50 odd years. What a time to be young.

David Bullard
DB
David Bullard
2 years ago
Reply to  Dustin Needle

I still worry about the sinister subliminal messages sent out by The Woodentops though and wonder whether it ruined my chances of becoming governor of the Bank of England.

Jonathan Weil
JW
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Dustin Needle

Last weekend I watched my daughter (1) and mother-In-law (81) clapping and bopping joyfully to those very Clangers of which you speak. Thank God for reruns.

Al M
AP
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  John Bruce

Being an older Gen-Xer, and spending my nightclubbing years pre-Tellytubbies, Bacchanalian evenings often concluded with watching the Open University broadcasts and a game of frisbee in the park. I suppose that some of it sunk in and we got fresh air and exercise. The Tellytubbies indeed marked the beginning of Blair’s infantilisation of Britain and the further decline of the family.

Last edited 2 years ago by Al M
Lennon Ó Náraigh
L
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 years ago

Great article. But I must query this:

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that full-time nursery care has no impact on academic performance

There is some high-quality very recent evidence that shows that state-wide pre-school programmes actually make academic performance, school attendnace, disciplinary infractions, etc. worse. This is a large-scale randomized control trial, the most rigorous kind of social science that can be done. (Durkin, K., Lipsey, M. W., Farran, D. C., & Wiesen, S. E. (2022). Effects of a statewide pre-kindergarten program on children’s achievement and behavior through sixth grade. Developmental Psychology, 58(3), 470–484.)
Similar results were found with Quebec’s pre-school programme.
These results go agaisnt mainstream expectations and beliefs – surely something for Unherd to pick up on?

Rick Lawrence
RL
Rick Lawrence
2 years ago

I believe the “no impact” is a typo since the linked reference supports what you are saying

miss pink
MP
miss pink
2 years ago

I’m a teacher (not in the UK). Off the record, primary teachers and principals say that many children now are simply not ready for school. Most attend some kind of day care and as stated in the article, it is totally ‘child centred’. What this means is that they can wander around and pretty much do what they like. Due to the lack of structure, when they start school many children can’t sit still or follow instructions. Some believe (as they have been taught) that they can do what they like and tell their teachers to get f***ed when they are asked to co-operate. Another issue is the increasing number of children starting schooling who are not toilet trained.

Last edited 2 years ago by miss pink
Judy Johnson
JJ
Judy Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  miss pink

Children are starting school in the UK also who are not toilet trained.

Katharine Eyre
KE
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

As a fellow geriatric millennial, I can say there is hardly a day that goes by when I don’t feel thankful that my childhood was spent with Bagpuss, Blue Peter (in the Yvonne Fielding, Mark Curry, Caron Keating era), Byker Grove and Grange Hill. No smartphones, internet or social media and we were encouraged to make designs for new roof bosses for York Minster after the fire and send them in by post instead of hanging in front of a screen.
My one and only run-in with the Teletubbies was one morning during my studies in the early 2000s. I was all keyed up, ready to go and sit a property law exam and was looking for something to calm my nerves. 5 minutes of this brainless TV goop and I’d had enough – it stressed me out more than the thought of the exam.

Katharine Eyre
KE
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

That was it. I grew up in Yorkshire and know the Minster well so the act of doing my design (aged 4) and sending it in with the hope of it being included in the great building was really exciting. I didn’t win, but I still love to look up at those bosses whenever I go into the Minster.

Michael K
MK
Michael K
2 years ago

I always found the Teletubbies funny, but exceptionally weird. It’s incredible the parallels that Mary points out with modern life. It makes me think whether that series possibly marks the beginning of an intentional trend. Where better to grow the Transhumanism movement than with children who have no filters in their consciousness?

Paul Sorrenti
SS
Paul Sorrenti
2 years ago

In the latest CBBC phenomenon ‘Bing’ there once again are no parents, but there are informed care-givers that the creators have designed to be half the size of Bing and his friends. A reluctant acknowledgement, perhaps, that adult wisdom is required and desired, whilst simultaneously keeping them safe in the knowledge that at any moment they could pick up the adult and throw them into the sea
Unlike the Teletubbies, things occasionally go wrong, but never more than the sadness of a popped balloon or a scratched knee, which the care-giver can easily fix. My daughter was fascinated by this show, until I began reading her fables with lying boys, vengeful wolves, innocent young girls and varying intellectual degrees of pig, all of whom put their lives or livelihoods in danger. Now she’s like ‘daddy, let the Corbynistas raise their brood on this sappy rabbit nonsense – I want it REAL’

Philip Stott
PS
Philip Stott
2 years ago

The Magic Roundabout was my favourite trippy kids show, both as an actual kid and as an after rave “adult”.

Jonathan Andrews
JA
Jonathan Andrews
2 years ago

That was very interesting.

I’m curious about Mary’s statistic about the proportion of mothers returning to work within a year. I have a sense that as far as possible one parent should be at home with infant children. I offer no evidence, just a feeling.

I wonder why both parents need to work. It seems odd that I grew up with only one parent earning a less than average salary and yet materially we had everything we needed. Okay, it was a bit cold in the winter, my mother had a day’s work with washing clothes in a twin tub and my father spending weekends repairing chappy second hand cars.

I live on quite a high income now; far more than my father earned. I’m quite content but I don’t feel materially better off. Well, it wouldn’t be difficult to do without the extras.

We have friends on low income with the good luck to have inherited a home. They are very frugal but seem to me to live materially well.

I’m sorry to ramble, I know money doesn’t buy you happiness but I’m not convinced it makes you especially materially better off (compared to the 70s). So, why do families need to earn so much?

Drahcir Nevarc
RC
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

I have no telly, but am about a stone overweight.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

Much entertainment these days is aimed at the young and the imbecilic. When you stop watching it, you realize how much of it is geared toward conditioning people to be accepting of distasteful ideas and lifestyles.

Peter LR
PL
Peter LR
2 years ago

Perhaps in recognition of the outcomes for the Blair generation, they should create a new Teletubbie in a white costume called Woko!

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
GH
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
2 years ago

All my friends are hard working [married] parents that do the best for their children. The only juvenile idiot I know is me.

I never watched teletubbies. Thought it idiotic.

Prashant Kotak
PK
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Recommended “THX 1138” (1971) in the context of the subjects adjacent to this piece, an odd early Lucas/Coppola largely unknown classic.

Jason Highley
JH
Jason Highley
2 years ago

As a geriatric millenial who was horrified by Teletubbies the moment I first saw them as a child, I was doubly horrified to learn in this report that they are still on the air. Not all of us gave up on adulting though. I haven’t had cable television in 10 years, I don’t participate in any social media apart from the occassional Telegram and Gab, and I don’t subscribe to a single streaming service. My life is way better off for it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jason Highley
Francisco Menezes
FM
Francisco Menezes
2 years ago

Book of Revelations, Chapter 13, verses 16 and 17. The sign in the right hand is the i-phone. The mark on the forehead is a chip. Transactions only via CBDC. John of Padmos must have had a crystal ball.

Last edited 2 years ago by Francisco Menezes
Caroline Watson
CW
Caroline Watson
2 years ago

Strange isn’t it, that female journalists who can work from home whenever they like, and combine it with childcare, feel that they have a right to criticise other women who have no choice but to go out to work; as nurses, teachers, shop assistants and carers, to keep roofs over their children’s heads and food in their bellies?
The Teletubby young, with their blue hair and fantasies about changing sex and living without ‘fossil fuels’ remind me of HG Wells’s Eloi – and we know what happened to them!

Madeleine Jones
MJ
Madeleine Jones
2 years ago

Hello my fellow teletubbies.

David Lewis
DL
David Lewis
2 years ago

What about The Magic Roundabout?

Steve Boyd
SB
Steve Boyd
2 years ago

Has anyone seen the latest Teletubbies reboot? They have CG Teletubbie babies! What does it mean??

Jeffrey Chongsathien
JC
Jeffrey Chongsathien
2 years ago

I expect this to be the first of series, covering Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, Thundercats, He-Man, She-Ra, Dungeons and Dragons, Gummie Bears, Bucky O’Hare, M.A.S.K….

Lorenzo Gallego Borghini
LG
Lorenzo Gallego Borghini
2 years ago

This article is genius! I’ve laughed out loud (though should I cry really?)
Thank you!

Neven Curlin
NC
Neven Curlin
2 years ago

This is such good and pleasant reading! I’m of the same generation as the author, and found the Teletubbies baffling and eery, but even more so in hindsight, reading this excellent and insightful article. Thanks yet again.

Terence Fitch
TF
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Little kids liked it and their parents got a break. Artsy students who didn’t do labs sessions and so had plenty of daytime telly time on their hands watched it. They ‘grew up’ to write overblown theoretical pieces about it.

Al M
AP
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Don’t know why that got a downvote. My own experience of university was having a 9 – 5 schedule of lectures, labs and tutorials, with Wed afternoons reserved for sport. My artsy female flatmates reading English lit and art history spent their days in bed or smoking fags in front of the telly. They could barely remember which afternoon they were supposed to go in.

Last edited 2 years ago by Al M
Neil MacInnes
NM
Neil MacInnes
2 years ago

I guess as a boomer I should think myself lucky that when I pulled a pharmacologically enhanced all-nighter there was no early morning television to drag me into another generation’s childhood.
This must be the greatest amount of over intellectualised bullshit I have had the misfortune to read since, well, maybe ever.
There is no doubt Mary possess a superior intellect. Only clever people can over intellectualise to this extent.
Sometimes it pays to be just a poor little average soul.