Ben Hall

Tubby Country

The birthplace of both the Teletubbies and Shakespeare, Stratford upon Avon has become a focus of pilgrimage for little people throughout the Gibberish and English speaking worlds respectively.

The international clout of the Tubbies cannot be understated. No sooner had the Fab Four set toe-less, clumpy foot in the New World than Tinky-Winky found himself the object of a fatwah proclaimed by self-appointed defender of American morals, the Rev. Jerry Falwell. The justification for this tirade? Those unmistakable badges of buggery: the handbag, lavender pelt and triangular head-aerial. Americans swung into action in the Tubbies' defence, purchasing Tinky-Winky dolls en masse and flooding the streets with Tinky-Winky costumes over Halloween. The press, by this time bored with tar-and-feathering Tinky-Winky (not that such treatment would significantly alter a Tubby's naturally fuzzy appearance), turned their guns on the rest of the quad. 'Teletubbies can kill your kids' headlines screamed, citing cases of several small children crushed to death attempting to give Russian-style 'big hugs' to the Tubbies on the screens of their big fat American TV sets.

These are just sour grapes, of course. What evangelist, TV producer or film director, of any stripe, wouldn't give his back teeth to command such adulation? Wouldn't Mr Spielberg be just a bit smug if rapturous cinema audiences started sprinting down the centre aisle and splatting themselves against his latest blockbuster? The Rev. Falwell is likewise smarting from the unpopularity of his own deeply unpleasant creed. One can imagine him wearing the heads of his VHS player to the bone, scouring each episode for any suggestion of deviancy or, at the very least, a blurred freeze-frame of possible background rabbit copulation on the astroturf. As a matter of fact, the Teletubbies inhabit an ordered, regulated world presided over by a traditional, Old Testament God. What more appropriate way to represent such a deity than as a monstrous baby in the sky, manifesting itself without warning to exhibit arbitrary disapproval or mirth?

So it is that Chapel Street in Stratford upon Avon now contains two shrines. The first is the centre-piece souvenir shop and HQ of Ragdoll Productions Ltd., creators of the Teletubbies. The second is Nash's House; home of Shakespeare in his dotage.

One of the first things you notice when you get off the bus in Stratford is the flags. Great, big banners, bearing the banana-yellow spear (geddit?) of the bard's own coat of arms, snap in the wind over each of the three town-centre properties cared for by the Shakespeare's Birthplace Trust. They're an incongruous sight for England. By the curiously modern virtue of being a medieval kingdom, rather than a nation-state, we've never had much of a flag culture. Both the Union-Jack and George Cross have all but been abandoned to far-right fringe-politics and that last great bastion of popular, uniformed fascism, football. The flags that fly over Stratford are of a different type, they are the standards of England's state-religion, heritage.

The process by which living culture becomes heritage is a complex one but broadly analogous to that of the formation of fossils. A living, shagging, evolving animal performs its genetic duty and then dies. Its remains are squashed flat for a long period of time until, at last, unearthed by specialists and put on display, in a glass box, accompanied by a wildly inaccurate 'artist's impression'. At this point only does the creature become an object of intense interest and veneration to members of the public who have, in all likelihood, run over dozens of the same fossil's living descendants in their range-rovers, without a second thought. Or, to put it another way; culture is to heritage as dairy cows grazing on lush pasture are to St. Ivel processed cheese slices.

Stratford maintains a strict, kosher segregation of live cows and rubber cheese. The artists are confined to the RSC and the pilgrims to the shrines. Chief shrine, the Kaaba of the Shakespeare world, with the biggest flag of them all, is the wibbly-wobbly timbered birthplace itself. An entire house preserved in aspic; eat your heart out Damian Hurst! The imposing, neo-Stalinist, concrete Shakespeare Centre, hugs close by like some over-protective, cringing acolyte. This is the eye of the Shakespeare vortex; a heritage singularity sucking in people from the furthest corners of the globe. I yielded to its pull during my last visit to Stratford; ushered along past the museum cross-stations and into the garden, where I was stopped by a trembling Indian who puffed out his chest to be photographed. This gentleman was not the only person I noticed suffering from a visible erosion of self-belief as he neared the object of his reverence. It was like watching normally confident, out-going folk soil themselves in the presence of royalty. Inside the house I had to release two paralysed middle-aged Americans who couldn't even bring themselves to use the exit, for fear that the iron latch and door itself were 'do-not-touch' exhibits. The house's contents are unremarkable; it is the walls themselves that people come to see, and to breath the air between. It is secular relic-worship; that same sweet, febrile urge which drives Catholic faithful to press sweaty lips to dusty reliquaries of dubious mummified human toes.

Heritage speaks the universal language of the inferiority complex and kisses the arse of an affluent public who want to believe that just 'being there', going through the motions and having the T-shirt is as good as doing or understanding. It is the cultural equivalent of a New Guinean cargo-cult, the adherents of which believe they can attain cash wealth and material status simply by pouring coins from one bowl into another, and back again, for hours on end. The Teletubbies, on the other hand, speak the universal language of nothing-in-particular. Their following of recent-embryos may well grow up and join actual cults, though nothing as vindictive as that of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's. Most likely they will be attracted to something authoritarian but loving, co-operative and sexually well-adjusted. Perhaps they’ll become followers of Osho Rajneesh, the eccentric, Rolls-Royce-collecting, Indian mystic famously expelled from the US in the 1980's for tax irregularities and, almost like Tinky-Winky, being too damn popular. Or maybe, before they reach that stage, their young minds will be subverted by the current vogue for cartoon super-hero militarism, or elevated by the sophisticated, atheist social-morality of re-runs of The Clangers. Until then, don't worry, the future's still bright. Bright red, that is, and yellow, and purple, and green. Amen.

Ben Hall © 1999/2007