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It is nearly 20 years ago that Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po sprang onto our TV screens, accompanied by a laughing baby in the sun.
The show was an instant success with children transfixed by the brightly-coloured Teletubbies who said ‘Eh-Oh’. However it wasn’t as eagerly received by some parents who called it ‘dangerous nonsense’ and accused it of ‘dumbing down’ children.
'Attacked in public'
Anne Wood, who founded Ragdoll Productions, producing the popular Rosie and Jim, Brum and Tots TV, prior to Teletubbies, reveals that she “didn’t expect” the controversy that ensued, saying: “I was alarmed really and fairly nonplussed. It was quite harmful, some of the abuse. We got attacked in public.
“I had to leave a party one time as a nursery teacher came up to me and was really abusive about the Teletubbies. I said to my husband 'I don’t need to be subjected to that'. She said she had been a nursery teacher for 20 years, but I had been working in TV for years before making Teletubbies.
“She thought I hadn’t done anything up till then and didn’t know what I was doing.
“I did also get a very nice letter during that time from a woman who said not to take any notice of the criticism as modern parents liked it.”
The decision not to use language and to weave repetition into the show was a bold move, with Ms Wood, admitting that Teletubbies was “the bravest thing I have ever done in my career”.
Now repetition for young children is acknowledged as part of their essential brain development. A pattern of repeated activities known as schemas are recognized as a way of helping children understand the world and themselves.
However when Ms Wood was making Teletubbies, she says: “In terms of schemas and repetition, as programmers we didn’t know, we just did it instinctively.
“We found children loved the repetition. One of the episodes I changed slightly and altered the angle losing the repetition and it was a disaster.” The success of the repetitive element led Ms Wood to do the same thing for In the Night Garden, also featuring characters with nonsense names such as Igglepiggle and Upsy Daisy in a dreamlike setting.
Last year, saw the launch of Twirlywoos, by Ragdoll Productions in association with DHX Media. Each episode featuring four birdlike creatures who have funny adventures is deliberately based on a schema or a pattern of learning around an action such as ‘round and round’, ‘up and down’, ‘inside and outside’, or ‘over and under’.
The educational thinking behind Twirlywoos comes from Professor Cathy Nutbrown of Sheffield University, who is well known in the field of early childhood education and was commissioned by the Government in 2012 to carry out the Nutbrown review into early years qualifications.
“We wanted to show parents that the programme was of educational benefit but we also wanted to make children laugh. There are so many targets in education and children are growing up having to achieve all the time,” says Anne Wood.
When Teletubbies aired on our TV screens, Professor Chris Athey, an authority on children’s schematic behaviour, “was the only one to step up” and “go public and say how educational it was”.
“When we came to make the Twirlywoos, sadly Chris had died. So we approached Cathy Nutbrown as we discovered her book called Threads of Thinking. Then we found out that Cathy was a student of Chris’s. So we asked her if she wanted to get involved with Twirlywoos. She is a lovely person with a great sense of humour.”
The educational element of Twirlywoos was given the seal of approval earlier this year by over a thousand nurseries, which received resource and activity packs to use with the programme.
Nurseries showed an episode to their children, who were then asked to emulate the actions. For example, for ‘up and down’, children watched the content and were then encouraged to throw a ball up and down or to stack building blocks up, before knocking them down.
Its success as a programme is evident from the recent news that CBeebies has commissioned another 25 new episodes. This year, the series won an award at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival (CICFF) for Best Production for Young Children aged 2-5 years. The programme also won the Best Pre-School Children’s Programme at the RTS North West Awards, which were recently held in Manchester.
Twirlywoos is different to Teletubbies and In the Night Garden, in that it is done with stop frame animation, whereas Teletubbies and In the Night Garden were done by people dressed up in costumes.
Funding for children's TV programmes
She reveals this was done for economic reasons as In the Night Garden cost as much to make as a feature film. At £14.5m for 100 half-hour episodes, the series is the most expensive children's programme commissioned and co-funded by the BBC. Teletubbies which had 365 episodes made between 1997 and 2001, is reported to have cost around £8.5m.
Ms Wood says: “TV companies haven’t got that kind of money anymore. With stop frame animation, the upfront costs are smaller” and there is “less financial risk”.
She decided against CGI (computer generated imagery) which has become a very popular format for children’s TV programme, saying “I don’t like CGI for very young children as it creates a distance between the children and the programme.
“For young children, you are wanting them to believe in what they are looking at. They need to feel as if they can touch them.”
Money is not being invested into making children’s TV programmes in the UK anymore, according to Ms Wood.
“Now we have a predominance of North American programmes. It has driven British production companies out of the children’s TV market. Britain used to be the Gold Standard when it came to children’s TV programmes.
“It is a shame children’s TV doesn’t get the respect it deserves. We don’t respect young children anymore. We just want to mould them into targets.”
Her gloomy prediction is that “in five years we won’t have any of our own children’s TV programmes. It is sad really. There are times when we want to give up in despair.”
Twirlywoos is on CBeebies every weekday at 9.30am and 1.30pm. Or you can watch it at http://www.bbc.co.uk/cbeebies/shows/twirlywoos