Television: Tubby, And Bouncy Too

The Teletubbies' creator is back with the surreal, seductive Boohbah, designed to get kids moving

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Children are deeply weird people, and it takes a deeply weird adult to make TV for them. Fortunately for us, and for them, Anne Wood is just that weird. Wood, 65, is the pink-haired Englishwoman who created Teletubbies, that dreamy, Dadaesque little kids' show about colorful humanoids with TVs in their bellies who live under a sun that has the face of a baby. Now that Teletubbies has finally wrapped after 365 episodes, Wood has a new show that takes us back into the alternative universe of the very young. It's aimed at 3-to 6-year-olds--a slightly older crowd than the Teletubbies set--and it's called Boohbah.

It's typical of the way Wood's mind works that Boohbah, whose premiere is scheduled for Jan. 19 on PBS (check local listings), was inspired by fish eggs. "It occurred to us that we had never before made a program for children who were movers," says Wood. "So we came up with the idea of a program that would be full of infectious movement." With that in mind, Wood was flipping through a book of photographs when inspiration struck. "One of the pictures was of a tiny fish egg under the water with beautiful phosphorescence, and these two little fish-eggy eyes peeping out, and we thought, That's so funny! And yet so charming! And yet so full of possibility!"

Thus were born the Boohbahs: Jumbah (blue), Jingbah (pink), Humbah (yellow), Zumbah (purple) and the irrepressible Zing Zing Zingbah (orange). (As a result of the technical process used to create the show's special effects, there isn't, and never will be, a green Boohbah.) The Boohbahs have pear-shaped bodies that sparkle as if they have swallowed strings of Christmas lights, and when they move, they make oddly satisfying, pneumatic sounds not a little reminiscent of flatulence.

Boohbah is kind of like an alien variety show. Sometimes the five Boohbahs happily jump and bend to doinky keyboard beats, their bellies jiggling wildly, their wide, alert eyes inviting kids to move along with them. Other times there are funny, mellow sketches about jump ropes that aren't long enough and sweaters that unravel, performed by live actors called the Storypeople. Toward the end of the show, real little kids are shown doing Boohbah exercises in an endearingly wobbly way. Everything happens in perfect, idealized, light-filled meadows and beaches. Like Teletubbies, the show was a hit when it first aired in Britain last April.

Much of what makes Boohbah work is the absence of narration, of words telling the little watchers how to interpret what they're seeing instead of letting them fill the void with their own thoughts and ideas. This is so counterintuitive to the adult mind, trained to expect a constant stream of lessons and morals and pep talks, that Wood keeps videotapes of kids raptly watching Boohbah and gleefully gabbling back at the screen to calm nervous TV executives. "It's so difficult for people to believe that if you leave words off the program, children will supply them," she says, "that I kind of have to kind of show it happening for people to understand."

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