network news: interview with a teletubby 1 2 3

tinky winky  

NN: Did you do the voices?

DT: I did a fantastic Tinky Winky voice…and she cut it out. The strange thing was all the way through the summer of filming it was all pats on the back, you're doing a great job, we love what you're doing, keep doing what you're doing, it's fantastic voice-wise and performance-wise - in front of the cameras. And then suddenly the goalposts were moved and they brought in someone else to overdub it. The thing is that when we were actually doing - cause it's not real sound - you can't actually do the real sound in the situation because of the noise of the jaws going up and down and partly because it's like the old silent films ….

NN: They're mechanical are they?

DT: Yes, the mouths and the eyes are mechanical and they actually need someone saying OK everybody all go left, go right, stop. Because you can't actually see.

NN: So you've got a remote control working it?

DT: No you've got left hand operates the eyes, for blinking the eyes, which gives life. And right hand is the mouth. We had little radio things in us which gave us our sound from a controller who'd give us instructions on what to do,- because we could only see through the mouth when it was open. So it was all - "this many steps this way", "that many steps this way, turn your head this way". You couldn't actually see and you didn't actually know what was going on and what people were doing around you. We were all being sort of controlled.

So they couldn't record the real sound and when it came to actually overdubbing the first time we did it - just literally seconds before we were doing it, she said "change your voice - don't do a high voice like you've been doing, do a deep voice". Which was weird because she said that all the scientific research said that very young kids respond better to higher voice than a lower voice and that's why the successful kids programmes have a female voice rather than a male voice. So I did this deep voice with no warning, with no chance to prepare for it, literally less than five seconds, you know.

Then they said we can't use your voice. And suddenly it was like everything was being manipulated to squeeze me out. First my voice went and then I was chucked out. The letter said my interpretation of the role was not acceptable, had not been accepted.

NN: Was Toyah on set when you were doing it?

DT: No, she was never on set, nor was Penelope Keith or Eric Sykes. They did voices like

"It's Teletubbies" and all that stuff. That would all be done in a studio.


NN: So, what is a Teletubby?

DT: Well, a Teletubby is something which exists in the imagination of young children all over the world. It's made up of a person inside a costume being filmed and then that filming being manipulated. But the weird thing is, I mean I don't ever watch it or anything, I've just like moved on….but the strange thing is someone phoned me up the other day from Holland and they said I've just finished watching you on the telly and I saw your name in the credits. But even though after they sacked me they got a new bloke in the costume

Because when I was working for them we did so much generic material, I actually appear in the show more than the new bloke and this person pointed this out to me. It was actually one where they had the new guy in it as well.

NN: They recycle old clips…

DT: Most of the programme is what they call generic shots. There's a beginning bit, the front titles, the end titles and then they have that ritual where they all do the good bye bye behind the hills and then they have the running up to the windmill and looking at their tummies and running down again and then they have other bits that aren't in every show, but they're in recurring shows. There's the bit where the teddy bear comes down and the little spinning thing, there's the bit where all the animals go processioning past and there's the bit where the ships go by and the Teletubbies all go and they sit down or they go and sit and they look at the house with the little bloke in the house. And all that's the same footage over and over and over again - if not in every episode, then in every so many episodes. And when they brought the new guy in, that was just for a couple of the dances and for the little sketches. So even with the ones with him in, I am actually in the show more. Though I don't get paid a penny for it.

NN: So you're in the show more since you got the boot?

DT: Well I was in the show more when I didn't get the boot, 'cause then I was in the sketches as well. But the point is really that I don't get paid for any of that after they brought the new bloke in, I didn't get paid a penny. And yet they use it and they've sold it all over the world and you can watch it like not just once a day, but four times a day in a load of these countries.

dave thompson


One weird thing is that a few years before I ever did the Teletubbies I was working as a stand up comedian and wanting to do what stand up comics do when they're successful - which is to get television shows and get into films or whatever. And I wasn't getting that success, like most stand ups don't because they carry on doing stand up comedy, it's a game of musical chairs and there's only so many places for the person with the Channel Four series.


And I had a really vivid dream where I was in the Midlands - and this is long before the Teletubbies - I was in the Midlands and I was running up a big green hill with loads of young mothers and their young kids behind me and I ran up to the top of this hill and when I got to the top of the hill there was a big sort of a house and I was talking to Benny Hill there and he was saying,

"I got out of live stand up comedy and I went into television, the future's in television and visual comedy on television".

After that I found myself going up to the top of this house and as I got to the top of the house it got narrower and narrower and I found myself in this tiny little room with a little desk and a little portable typewriter on it. That was all there was, with a blank sheet of paper in the typewriter.

I remembered the dream afterwards and it was really strange because first of all the Teletubbies was filmed in the Midlands; it involves the green hill with the dome; and other hills all around - over the hills and far away; it's watched mostly by young mothers with their children; they unashamadly duplicated the Benny Hill sequences of the cranked up stuff where the Teletubbies all go running round chasing each other just like Benny Hill with all the girls at the ends of his programmes. So they used that visual style of comedy. And I didn't know this at the time I had the dream, but I subsequently learned that Benny Hill used to do stand up comedy in the late fifties, he did the Windmill Theatre alongside all those other comics. And he very quickly decided that stand up comedy wasn't for him and that he wanted to go into television and to go into doing visual television because then you could sell it all over the world because there wasn't a verbal language barrier. So you go to Morocco and people say "Oh you're English - Benny Hill!".

So this dream was almost prophetic. Then of course I then got fired from the Teletubbies and ended up where I was actually faced with that situation of the typewriter (though now it's a computer) and a blank piece of paper. And I was being thrown back on my own resources and my ability to write to make a living.

And the other strange thing was I used to do these affirmations, you know like one of these new-agey psychotherapy things that you try to create a better future for yourself through affirmations. And one of the affirmations I chose for myself, again years before the Teletubbies, was "I'm sweet as jelly on the telly". Because, apparently, if the affirmation rhymes then it works better. And had one which was "I make loads of money being very funny" and the other one was "I'm sweet as jelly on the telly". And I used to do that when I was driving to a gig up in Manchester, it might be a five, six, seven hour journey. I could be at the wheel - in my mind going over with "I'm sweet as jelly on the telly, I'm sweet as jelly on the telly, I'm sweet as jelly on the telly" and I'd do it for hours and hours and hours. If there was other people in the car, I'd talk to them, obviously. But if I was on my own, that was what I'd be doing. And the affirmation came true, but it was a bit like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, 'cause when I was doing "I'm sweet as jelly on the telly" I was imagining I'd be sweet as jelly on the telly and be paid for it. Rather than as sweet as jelly on the telly - cause Tinky Winky you can say he's as sweet as jelly on the telly, and it's all over the world, but I don't actually get paid or acknowledged for it.

Again, "I make loads of money being very funny" , Teletubbies has made milllions and millions and millions of pounds, so in a way I do make money being funny because they are funny as well. But again it didn't work out because I assumed "I make loads of money being very funny" would mean I got the money, not somebody else.

NN: So there's sort of a mystic undercurrent to your work there?

DT: Well there is, but isn’t there to everything? Us being here is pretty magical. I think magic is really about highlighting to people the fact that they're alive, because life is magical. And then also stage magicians, it's illusion, and then life is also supposedly an illusion.

NN: I suppose a Teletubby is an illusion , strictly speaking it's an animatronic, and then it's computer generated?

DT: After the Teletubbies I did some work for Jim Henson and apparently the word "animatronic" technically doesn't really have any use or meaning. It's a sort of a word that got used in a situation where there wasn't really any situation for it. Animatronic supposedly means mechanical features like the pig in Babe or something - but in fact I think that's something else. I think technically "animatronic" doesn’t actually really mean that.

But the Teletubbies, technically they're not very advanced at all. But they're just very well designed and they're psychologically very well thought out. When they went to Nicky Lyons who designed the Teletubbies and is a great designer and she makes creatures for Hollywood and I think she's living in Hollywood now. She did the creatures for The Labyrinth, she's done a lot of Hollywood work, she'd very good, she's top. The very first drawings that she drew , I saw them, and they were sort of almost reptilian in their look. And Anne Wood being very very clever and knowing what she wanted straight away said "no we want something a bit more friendly" and the way the Teletubbies are - they've got no teeth and they've got no claws and that means that they only have positive, loving emotions. That's very important because, of course, very young kids are scared of bears and wild creatures. But the Teletubbies are benign, there's no teeth, no claws and they've got those little snub noses which are attractive because we're attracted to young puppies and young kittens because they haven't actually had a grown jaw. If you want to make a frightening creature like "what's the time Mr Wolf" you go for a bigger snout because that's more capable of biting and doing damage. But puppies and baby kittens their noses are shorter, as are young kids' noses. And that makes them more endearing and more appealing and less threatening. And that was all designed like that, they're furry, they're cuddly. Quite tubby is more cuddly and less threatening than extremely thin. So they're incredibly cleverly designed.

NN: But they have televisions built into them, that's not normal!

DT: They've got screens on them, that was an idea by the co-producer, Andrew somebody (Davenport) he also worked on Tots TV and he also wrote the first Teletubbies episodes. He had that idea because they wanted to make them also technological. So they weren't just cuddly furry creatures they had to be different and distinctive also to do with the technological age. And that comes from the psychology of like, young kids grow up with radios, telephones, computers, answer machines, video camcorders, cameras, everything technical around them. And the television is often on, they grow up with it on all the time so he actually had the idea of putting a television onto the tummy. That also has the appeal of when they watch the inserts of the young kids having fun, "come and see" and all that stuff, they're actually in the tummy and that makes the Teletubbies quite maternal figures because they see young children in the tummies. So on a mythical, unconscious level they have a motherly quality.

Also of course they appeal to all races because they don't have human colour.

NN: They each have a different aerial on them, you had a pink triangle?

DT: Mine was a purple triangle. Apparently the shapes of the aerials were arbitrary. And Tinky Winky happened to have a triangle. That was another strange thing - when I used to do drawings in alpha state, when I was going to this New Age psychotherapist / healer. I drew this picture of me and I used to have a big triangle going off the side of my head. It wasn't just a triangle, it was like a sort of a big cone. I'd drawn a circle to make it like a cone. Then I realised years later that all you have to do is move that around to the top and you've got Tinky Winky's aerial. So it was almost another prediction, except that it was on the side of the head rather than the top of the head.

The other strange thing about that was just after a year after being sacked from the Teletubbies I went scuba diving in Thailand and came up from one dive with right ear having gone for most intents and purposes deaf. So that means that my left ear has become this big - (makes ear trumpet gesture) - because it's actually making up for this (the right) one.

NN: Who did you play in the Henson film?

DT: I wore an animatronic lion costume and I played Livingstone the Lion and I was in two TV movies which were filmed in Los Angeles. I also did a live show in New York and that was much more technologically advanced. The Teletubbies costumes cost £35,000 each initially and the Livingstone the Lion costume cost £120,000 and that doesn't include me flying first class to New York and Los Angeles which was £4,500 a time, or my fee. But that was much more advanced because it had a loads of servo motors inside the head and it was remotely controlled. It had one person remotely controlling the eyes, by radio remote control; one person controlling the muscles of the face; with me inside the body wearing the head, doing the movements. It was made by the same bloke who made the pig and the little sheep dog in Babe.

NN: It wasn't a real pig, then?

DT: It was sometimes a real pig and sometimes a pretend pig and they very cleverly intercut between. I've seen the sheepdog in a Jim Henson place, I've been in all the three Jim Henson places: Camden Town and New York where all the Muppets are; and Los Angeles. The people controlling my lion were Muppet controllers as well. And they also controlled the anaconda in that film Anaconda. They've done loads of all that stuff. I've seen the dog and the dog looks like a convincing Welsh border collie

And then you just peel the fur back and it's like Robocop in there, or the Terminator. The technology's amazing what they can do.


NN: Your background's quite odd, it's not like you're not like a puppeteer is what I mean..

DT: No, I'm sort of a comedian / actor / writer. I'm in a feature film this year. Ben Elton's written and directed a feature film called Maybe Baby. The premiere is on the 31st of May, it's for world wide release, and it stars Hugh Laurie, Joelly Richardson It has cameos from Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson, Dawn French, Joanna Lumley and me. I'm playing a human being, playing the part of Dave, the comedian.

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