I know where this started. It started in three places: Stratford-upon-Avon, Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and Teletubbyland.
Let’s begin at the end. The Teletubbies are amazing. Parents do not understand them because parents are not supposed to understand them. People who complain about the gibberish and repetition are missing the point. Conversely, people who complain about Tinky Winky’s penchant for skirts and handbags (not to mention the colour purple) may be on to something. That’s another argument for heads wiser and less cluttered with cultural references than mine. Still, I’ve raised four boys on this stuff and they’ve all thought it was brilliant.
Heck, when I was a student even I thought it was brilliant. Teletubbies were bright and cute and somehow rebellious, a cultural revolution of peace, love, harmony and sloth in a world that was increasingly pre-occupied with Getting Stuff Done. I was nineteen and could feel the elbow in the ribs about careers fairs. Teletubbies was regression therapy in a world that demanded you were clever, in a world of Wittgenstein and Beckett and Virginia Woolf. They were great. Years later my wife and I will use the theme for the first dance at our wedding. I have some of it on video. No, you can’t see it.
Meanwhile, back in the more or less present day, someone does this.
It’s one of those moments when you realise why God gave us Joy Division. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It is the sort of thing Ian Curtis would have loved. Actually, scratch that, Ian Curtis wouldn’t have loved it at all. He’d have said “I don’t want my song laid over those fookin’ Muppets”, or something similar. I wouldn’t have blamed him for this. It is the same in Doctor Who: I love ‘The Horns of Nimon’, but Tony Read does not, and I can’t say I hold that against him.
Also 1997: John Cusack, then just about Hollywood’s hottest property, stars in Grosse Pointe Blank, in which a disillusioned hitman returns to his home town for a high school reunion. It is worth seeing if only for the scenes between Cusack and Dan Aykroyd, in one of his finest ever roles. But there is one scene where they are inside the high school gym and everybody is getting their groove on to The Bangles. It may have been that moment I sat bolt upright in my chair and thought “Holy shit, ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ is awesome. How come I never noticed?”
It really is awesome. There’s nothing quite like the sound of a band trading verses, which is exactly what happens here. Boyzone’s ‘No Matter What’ is notorious for it. And on Heaven For Everyone, the final, effectively posthumous studio album, there’s a song called ‘Let Me Live’ – to all intents and purposes a rewritten ‘Take Another Piece Of My Heart’ – in which Freddie, Roger and Brian all take a verse each, and it sounds like one of those lovely communal efforts even though you know it probably wasn’t. John is characteristically silent, unless they decided they didn’t like his vocals, which is reportedly what happened to the Bangles’ drummer. Never work with children, animals or your siblings.
There is a bit in that video that I remember vividly from my childhood, and that’s the moment when –
Supposedly Susanna Hoffs was looking at different members of the audience, which explains the eye movement. Whether it really was to overcome stage fright we may never really know, but it’s an important point and we will come back to it later.
Fast forward to 2003, and Emily and I are poking around the shops in Straford. It is our first weekend away together. We will visit the bard’s house, try out a few of the pubs and go to see Taming Of The Shrew (still the best Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen, even after all these years). It is release day for Order of the Phoenix: I insist on finding a local independent bookshop to buy it. Two years later, with far less cashflow, I will have abandoned such pretentions, although perhaps not entirely.
Ragdoll Productions have their offices in Stratford, and there is a shop at the quieter end of town: amidst all the cuddly Teletubbies and Rosie & Jim memorabilia there is a TV showing something that will terrify me to the depths of my soul, and it is this.
“What on earth are we looking at?” I ask the young man on the till.
“Oh, it’s, like their new thing,” he says. “It’s called The Boohbahs.”
“Boohbahs? What are they, when they’re at home?”
“They’re atoms of energy. And they do dancing and there are story bits.”
That’s basically it. A pod full of bulbous particles who rest in cryosleep until awoken to do a bit of cavorting in a huge white space while frightened children watch from the comfort of their living rooms. It is Teletubbies, minus the charm. The central concept is much the same: colourful characters who dance around and tell a story. The problem is that the story and the Boohbahs aren’t really allowed to mix. There is an opening dance number (more on that in a moment), before a group of ethnically diverse children push a gigantic parcel through a portal into what passes for the real world, where its contents are delivered to a strange extended family. There’s Mr Man (who resembles a portly Laurence Fishburne), Mrs Lady, Brother and Sister – presumably on some sort of overseas student programme, from the way they’re dressed – two grandparents, and a dog. After the story – delivered exclusively in narrated mime, presumably to aid international dubbing – we return to the pod, where the Boohbahs do another dance which is loosely related to the events of the episode, before going back to bed.
But they’re seriously creepy. There’s no way around it. The whole presentation is halting and uncomfortable, replete with pauses and silences, broken by sneezes and 1970s sound effects. The Boohbahs themselves are silent puffballs with no visible presence and nothing to differentiate between them save the colour scheme: beyond this they are, to all intents and purposes, absolutely identical. There’s a futile attempt at a roll call: “Humbah! Zumbah! Zing Zing Zingbah! And the others whose names I’ve forgotten because they have no obvious personality!”. And they all line up, with almost military precision, staring hard into the camera like one possessed, before performing an array of oddly hypnotic dance moves. I pride myself on my ability to understand the way children’s programmes work but even I can’t explain this monstrosity. Is this why army recruitment is down?
The biggest problem with Boohbah, of course – and in all likelihood the reason it’s not repeated – is that it uses Chris Langham for the voiceovers. Not that I have any personal beef with Langham; he’s brilliant in The Thick Of It and whatever he may or may not have done I always believe in separating art from artist. But Langham’s history makes it awkward. This is perhaps being a little generous to Boohbah, of course, which could just as easily have been pulled from the schedules because it’s honestly a little bit crap. And in general, we try not to think about it.
Last scene of all: a couple of months ago. I’m watching YouTube videos with Edward and I notice this.
Heck, they dance, don’t they? Why not do something with that?
So I did. And here it is.
I make no apology, but I throw myself upon the mercy of the court.