It was the show that every baby loved and every parent found annoying, but somehow Teletubbies took over the world in the late 1990s, much the same way The Beatles did in the 1960s. Tinky-Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po—the four colorful characters with televisions in their stomachs—demanded hugs, loved to repeat themselves, and became icons of educational television, though many still question just what was to be learned from their antics. On the 20th anniversary of the series' American premiere, we're looking behind the scenes of the weird show that somehow just worked.
1. THEY WERE RACIALLY DIVERSE, INSIDE AND OUT.
When the Teletubbies sat down with Today to reveal their true identities, fans learned that the actors inside the costumes were as diverse as the characters themselves, and each one added a bit of his or her own culture to the character they portrayed. John Simmit blended reggae into Dipsy’s babytalk, while Pui Fan Lee incorporated Cantonese into Po’s gibberish. In a short film called Understanding Teletubbies, Tina Wagner from Ragdoll Productions and educational consultant Faith Rogow revealed that body color and height are not the only differences between the four characters. “They also have different skin tones in their faces,” Rogow said. “All of that is very purposeful.”
2. THEY LOOK LIKE ALIENS BUT WERE INSPIRED BY ASTRONAUTS.
Teletubbies co-creator Andrew Davenport told The Guardian that when writing the show, he was inspired by the moon landings and the physical appearance of the astronauts. “It struck me as funny that, at this pinnacle of human achievement, the figures that emerged in bulky spacesuits from landing capsules are like toddlers, with oversized heads and foreshortened legs,” he said, “and they respond to the excitement of their new world by bouncing about. So I devised characters based on spacemen, with limited language just like the emergent speech of young children.”
3. THEY’RE A LOT TALLER THAN THEY LOOK.
Because the Teletubbies only appear on the show in their fake world, there is nothing to compare them to besides each other. Wagner revealed in the short film that in costume, Tinky-Winky is almost nine feet tall.
4. THE RABBITS IN TELETUBBYLAND WERE ALSO MASSIVE.
Teletubbies co-creator Anne Wood revealed in an interview with The Guardian that those cute and fluffy rabbits that appear in the show are not your average pet bunnies. “They needed to be big to fit in with the scale,” Wood said. There was also a problem with their health. “The only suitable ones we could find had been bred on the continent to be eaten,” Wood revealed. “We gave them perfect conditions, running free over the Teletubby grasslands, but their breeding had given them enlarged hearts, and almost weekly the animal trainer would greet me in distress and tell me another had died.”
5. IT WAS THE BBC’S BIGGEST BRAND.
According to the BBC'S annual report for 1998/1999, Teletubbies was its leading brand with over $46 million in revenue. At the time, they were seen by children in 120 countries and territories and aired in 20 languages.
6. THEY SUED WAL-MART.
Because the Teletubbies brand was so big, it had to be protected. In 1999, they sued Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for selling blatant knockoffs called Bubbly Chubbies. “It's not flattery. It's just illegal," Kenn Viselman, the chief executive of the company that marketed the Teletubbies in the United States, told the Los Angeles Times. A spokesperson said that Wal-Mart would “never knowingly infringe on copyright or trademark law,” but the company later agreed to stop selling the toys and destroyed the rest of the inventory.
7. SOME PEDIATRICIANS PROTESTED.
In 1999, the German Association of Pediatricians argued that Teletubbies was bad for children because it (and other shows like it) caused “uncontrollable television consumption in later years.” The doctors also questioned the educational value of the show.
8. TAYLOR SWIFT WAS A FAN.
This past Halloween, Taylor Swift Instagrammed a throwback photo of a Teletubbies costume she wore as a child. The photo is black-and-white, but Swift said that she was Laa-Laa and none of the other kids got it. “When you dress as the yellow teletubby for Halloween, but it's before Teletubbies got huge so all the kids at school ask you why you're dressed as a yellow pregnant alien,” she captioned the photo.
9. THERE WERE A LOT OF EPISODES.
According to IMDb, there were 365 episodes of Teletubbies produced. They aired in the UK on BBC2 between March 31, 1997 and February 16, 2001, and on PBS in the U.S. And there will be more episodes: In 2015, a Teletubbies reboot was announced. The series has also been kept alive in pop culture thanks to numerous references in everything from Family Guy to Doctor Who to Major League Baseball.
10. THEY ARE PLATINUM RECORDING ARTISTS.
On December 1, 1997, the Fab Four dropped a single called “Teletubbies Say ‘Eh-Oh'.” In the week before Christmas, the song had already reached number one on the Billboard UK Singles Chart, selling 1.2 million copies and earning a double platinum certification. It remained in the top 75 for 29 weeks.