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Teletubbies galore: do we need remakes of classic children’s TV?

Eh-oh! BBC/Ragdoll Ltd/Mitch Jenkins

The idea of a children’s classic is one that is familiar to all of us. From the “100 best children’s books” lists compiled by organisations like the Book Trust, to the endless lists of the best children’s films of all time, it’s accepted that there are certain stories to which we will return again and again – and to which we want to take our younger relatives.

But when it comes to children’s television, we’re not as willing to install the notion of a “classic” text. Today, when television circulates easily beyond its initial moment of broadcast via DVD box set, digital TV repeats, streaming through services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and other less licit means, are our children to be encouraged to return to the classics of children’s television, or does the constant demand for the “new” mean that these classics are being too quickly set aside?

A slew of remakes of “classic” children’s television are in the pipeline: Thunderbirds Are Go! (CITV), Dangermouse (CBBC), The Clangers and Teletubbies (both CBeebies) are all being remade in 2015. This signals a healthy industry in which new, big, expensive shows are still being made. However, it also might be seen as producers capitalising on what has worked well in the past, evidence of what Amy Holdsworth calls:

The economic “good sense” of forms of nostalgia television as cheap and populist programming which corresponds with the commercial safety of reproducing past successes and familiar forms.

Commercial nostalgia

In this vein, Anne Wood, the original creator of Teletubbies, recently registered her sadness at her show being remade:

It comes down to the times we’re in: people feel safer remaking hits of the past rather than investing in something new… It would be nice if more encouragement was given to new work.

A fair point. One could perhaps understand these commissioning decisions if it was apparent that the original shows did not stand up to presentation on the bigger, higher definition, television sets many of us are now watching. But the original Teletubbies was being broadcast on the BBC’s “early years” channel, CBeebies, until very recently (and indeed its contemporary, Pingu, is still shown daily). What then, is the point of this new show? Perhaps the money would be better spent elsewhere?

The new Teletubbies is to have a “refreshed and contemporary look” according to the BBC. It’s possible that in producing such a look, the show might lose some of the allure of the “acid-bright” play world of the fuzzy aliens. Which perhaps indicates that these commissions are simply calculated to relive the popularity and success of such shows and capitalise on the nostalgia of audiences.

This sentiment will be familiar to many. Cries of outrage often result whenever the latest classic film remakes are announced – think of the ire directed at the new Point Break last year, or more recently She’s All That.

For all the family

But relating to children’s entertainment, nostalgia in itself isn’t always such a bad thing. The lists of “classic” children’s cinema and literature are partly inspired by nostalgia for great stories, films and books which withstand re-reading or reviewing. So it’s legitimate to add television programmes to this list of much loved films and books, stories that we might look forward to returning to in our encounters with a younger generation. Certainly as an aunt, and later as a mother, I relished sharing The Flumps (BBC1, 1976) with the children in my life, just as I looked forward to reading Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963) or watching the Wizard of Oz (1939).

My colleagues Joanne Garde Hansen and Kristyn Gorton are undertaking a project which illuminates the value of re-screening classic children’s television in that it promotes communication between generations. In interviews with the BFI as well as other television heritage organisations, it was found that children’s TV programmes did much better if they promoted the sharing of conversation and memories between generations.

Nostalgia pulls older audiences to screenings of past children’s television, their children and grandchildren in tow. Contemporary broadcasters often struggle to create such a common culture for television in an era of niche programming and extensive choice. But nostalgia-driven shows make television inheritable and creates new audiences for archival material.

A forthcoming exhibition on the history of British children’s television that I’m involved with also highlights the importance of inter-generational audiences. This history is evidence of the huge debt that modern children’s television owes to the programming that went before.

So, then, we should re-frame nostalgia as a more positive force: it gets families talking and encourages us to revisit the classics of children’s television, rather than watching remakes that are just that little bit shinier.

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