The tao of Po

Former teacher Anne Wood creates programming for children that aims to respond to their perception of the world. Helen Jones says eh-oh to the multi-millionaire creator of Roland Rat and the Teletubbies

Anne Wood has been lauded and castigated in equal measure. She is Business Woman of the Year, worth an estimated £55m and has a devoted fan base around the world; yet she is blamed for the dumbing down of a generation and in Germany is held responsible for the decline of TV. The reason? Teletubbies.

Wood, a former teacher, is the creator of the four stars – Tinky Winky, Dipsy, LaaLaa and Po – who are not only firm favourites with pre-school children in 120 countries, but are also gay icons and a cult among students. Described as a plutonium fist inside a velvet glove by British Design and Art Direction, for which she gives a President’s Lecture on Wednesday, Wood says she and co-creator Andy Davenport were quietly confident that Teletubbies would be a hit.

“There has never been a programme that speaks so distinctly to children the world over. We were the first to understand how children perceive the world around them,” she says. Despite criticism from some educationalists that Teletubbies speak nonsense and repeat the same actions time and time again, Wood insists that children learn by repetition. “Before speech and cultural influences take hold, children are the same the world over. They need reassurance and love, and Teletubbies, with its emphasis on big hugs, is reassuring and comforting and that is why it has such appeal,” she says.

Teletubbies was designed so that it could be sold around the world. The filmed inserts of children in the programmes are relevant to specific countries, but can also be used in other TV markets. “There is the capacity for cultural interchange and different countries do take each other’s filmed inserts,” Wood says. She adds that the intention was to “create an imaginative landscape for children to project their own ideas on to. But we found that everyone in the world projects their own ideas. It’s astonishing what some people have read into it.” Among these is the declaration by US fundamentalist Christians that Tinky Winky with his handbag and triangular antenna, is gay. “It was the best publicity we ever had,” says Wood.

To identify how children think and feel, Wood and her team do not conduct research or run focus groups. Instead, they observe children in creative play spaces which they have set up at Ragdoll’s headquarters in Stratford upon Avon and at the shop which they also run from the premises. Nursery schools and playgroups are also sent video tapes of work in progress and the children’s reactions to the programmes are recorded. “No one would give me any money to do any research so we did it ourselves. I find that in the world of TV the smaller the child, the smaller the budget,” she says. There are children at Ragdoll’s headquarters everyday, but Wood says some people who are involved in developing TV concepts for children “never meet a child from one week to the next”.

She adds that although she is not a public speaker by nature, she agreed to give a D&AD President’s Lecture in the hope that she might prompt designers to think about creating concepts for children. “If you look at the toys that are available they are either very cheap or serious educational stuff, and perhaps this will allow me to meet people who can design better things for them.” Wood says one of the biggest sellers in Ragdoll’s own shop is a Rosie and Jim toothbrush with a small boat in the handle which bobs up and down. “They walk out of the door. The kids love them because they are fun, and the parents love them because it encourages them to clean their teeth,” she says.

However, for Wood, merchandise never comes first. “We develop a concept for children and then the merchandise follows. It has a place because characters, as a means of communicating with children, are absolutely key.”

Wood began her media career when she discovered, as a teacher, that many children didn’t read for pleasure. She founded Books for Children, an award-winning magazine which then transformed into a TV programme called The Book Tower. Wood then joined breakfast TV programme TV-am as head of children’s programming and created Roland Rat, but after a series of internal shakedowns in 1982, she was fired. A year later, Channel 4 commissioned her to create a children’s show and so she set up her own production company. Creating the programme Pob and later Rosie and Jim – two ragdolls who live on a barge – for Central TV.

It was her experience with the Rosie and Jim concept that forced Wood to become the entrepreneur she is today. “I was the victim of a very bad deal – Ragdoll earned virtually nothing from the success of Rosie and Jim. It was a very big lesson and meant that I had to learn about how to do business. But it’s still about programmes not money,” she says. However, the financial success of Teletubbies means that other programme makers have jumped on the bandwagon and are becoming more interested in developing concepts for the under-fives.

Teletubbies is still being filmed but Wood will stop when it reaches number 365. She says that it is difficult coming up with new story lines and that it is better to go out on a high and keep the public wanting more. Although Wood has other ideas for the pre-school audience, she is also turning her attention to a slightly older age group – six- to eight-year-olds.

“We wanted to find out when children believe that childhood stops. I thought it might be around the age of ten, but we talked to children and found that their perception is that childhood ends at eight. After that they become tweens – that stage before they become teenagers.” The new programme will be a comedy. Wood is also working on a full-length, contemporary musical fairytale which she hopes will be released in 2001. There may also be a US version of Rosie and Jim in the pipeline.

Despite the new concepts, Wood believes that Teletubbies has a long shelf life and recounts a story about a very senior member of the BBC telling her that when the history of the BBC is written, the Nineties will be all about Teletubbies. “Unless something amazing comes along and wipes it off the screen, I think Teletubbies will still be around in 20 years time and that children will still enjoy it, because it reflects their perception of the world,” she says.

Anne Wood is giving the D&AD President’s Lecture Whatever Happened to Childhood, at The Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1 on 27 October at 7.15pm

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