There was a time around the turn of the century when the Teletubbies were quite simply everywhere, but while everyone knew what Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa Laa and Po looked like, no one had much of a clue who was inside the suits. Now Nikky Smedley has lifted the lid on the cultural sensation that entranced children all over the globe in a new book about her time as Laa Laa (the yellow one with the squiggly aerial).
Whether you or your children were caught up in Tubbymania or not, Nikky’s book Over the Hills and Far Away: My Life as a Teletubby, is a hilarious and fascinating insight into the extraordinary work that Ragdoll, the Stratford-upon-Avon-based producers of the Teletubbies, invested in making this remarkable children’s TV show the success it became.
Tubby or Not Tubby?
Nikky Smedley was a struggling dancer and model living hand-to-mouth in London when in 1995 she saw an advert in the performers’ bible, The Stage, seeking “artistes with stamina … unusual personalities and backgrounds.” Called in to audition and prepare something suitable for an audience of three-year-olds, she went above and beyond by dressing as a table and telling a favourite story about the time her father burned her backside on a carpet!
Whatever she did, it worked, and she began a series of further auditions as the number of hopefuls were whittled down. A veteran of numerous auditions, Nikky spent weeks and months stoically expecting a rejection letter every day, until the point when Ragdoll head honcho and creative genius Anne Wood explained the philosophy behind the embryonic show.
From then on, Nikky was hooked and convinced that it would be an enormous success. Now she really wanted the part. On Christmas Eve 1995, she received the phone call that would change her life – she had got the job!
Laa Laa Land
Filming began in earnest at a purpose-built set a few miles outside Stratford upon Avon, complete with the Teletubbies dome home, real giant rabbits (to fit with the oversized perspective created by the enormous characters) and a suitably bucolic backdrop.
Naturally claustrophobic and diminutive in stature, Nikky developed her own technique for spending up to eleven hours every day lumbering about in the eight-foot-tall suit, sweating profusely and barely able to breathe – not ideal for a chronic asthmatic. It should be noted that, whilst dealing with all this, the primary purpose of the four characters was to remain indefatigably cheerful throughout.
With scripts developed by Wood and writer Andrew Davenport after extensive research into the minds of their primary audience demographic of three-year-olds, the four Teletubbies soon learned how to manoeuvre their lumbering frames around the set effectively, dealing with the trials of unwieldy props or the unforgiving texture of Tubby custard with unremitting good humour.
Favourite among Nikky/Laa Laa’s props seems to have been her giant guitar, that even saw her feature in Guitar magazine promoting an imaginary debut album that they’d mocked up for her and entitled ‘Bibbley Cheese’.
If it all sounds a bit surreal, that’s because it surely was, but their shared experience saw the four Tubbies develop an enduring bond that would stand them in good stead when the exhaustive filming schedule began to take its toll. Nikky writes endearingly about their unbreakable bond – one that endured even when one of their number was ‘let go’and replaced by a new performer.
When they were finally released on an unsuspecting world, the Teletubbies achieved phenomenon status incredibly quickly. Translated into 45 different languages, shown in 120 countries and with global viewing figures of around three billion, the show was second only to Baywatch in global popularity and was BBC Worldwide’s biggest export.
Almost inevitably, the carefully-researched, immediately accessible language of the Teletubbies that had been painstakingly developed with the help of childhood linguistics experts, drew criticism from some quarters, usually unenlightened academics or journalists who accused it of being repetitive, over-simplistic and dumbed down.
These dissenting voices were quickly drowned out by the overwhelming success of the show, and for five years or so the Fab Four were omnipresent, even scoring a number one hit single with Teletubbies say Eh-oh in December of 1997 – an irony not lost on Nikky who had spent many years striving for pop success with her own band Psychopussy prior to donning the big yellow suit.
Worldwide awards flowed the way of Anne Wood and Ragdoll, with BAFTA and the Royal Television Society showering them with accolades, while one of Nikky’s personal favourites is the French Prix Jeunesse for ‘Most Edgy Television Programme of the Last 50 years’. Teletubby merchandise became the ‘must-have’ Christmas toy of 1997, with demand outstripping supply at most retailers and shoppers regularly camping outside stores in the hope of purchasing stock as it arrived.
With the show’s success came an inexorable media appetite for information about the performers inside the suits. The pursuit of some juicy tidbit of gossip about the masked performers saw jaded hacks trawling the local pubs around Nikky’s corner of south-east London, questioning anyone who might have known her for a tasty morsel. Many did indeed know her, but it’s testament to their unquestionable loyalty to their friend that nothing of note was revealed. Only the distraction offered by the death of Princess Diana removed the preoccupation of the media pack with the faces behind the masks.
The Comeback Tour
Eventually, of course, it all came to an end, with Anne Wood and Ragdoll moving on to other successes with Boohbah (with Nikky joining the team as a producer) and In The Night Garden among others, except that it wasn’t quite over…
In 2007, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the show, the four were reunited for a world tour that saw them receive the keys of New York from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, entertain on Dutch talk shows and regale an audience of global TV bigwigs at a conference in Singapore – all in costume, of course.
There’s no denying the fact the Teletubbies are now fully engrained in popular culture, and Nikky regularly doffs her hat to it when she performs her one-woman show ‘Confessions of a Teletubby’, a recent sellout at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. She writes lovingly about the part it has played in her life and she is rightly proud of the profound effect it has had on audiences of children for decades.
Nowadays she continues to answer The Question with good humour, and if you want to know what The Question, or indeed the answer, is, you’ll just have to buy a copy of the book. You won’t be disappointed, it’s a rollicking good read full of belly laughs and poignancy in equal parts and is available, as they say, in all good book shops.