I often tell people that Teletubbies gave me a sense of the sublime.
For those of you who by some miracle do not know, Teletubbies was a wildly popular psychedelic children’s TV show of 365 (!) episodes that left indelible marks on the minds and retinae of those who were growing up between 1997-2001. Towards the end of certain episodes ‘special’ or ‘magical’ events would take place that were unexplained, unconnected to the rest of the narrative and often unbelievable, even compared with the rest of the show’s established paraphernalia (felt igloos, sentient vacuums, gut television). It was one such ‘event’ that I believe spawned a sense of numinous curiosity in my 4-year-old self. First featured in ‘Café Chocolate’, broadcast May 5 1997, it involved the four fluorescent protagonists disappearing inside their house and the entire Hobbiton-esque paradise slowly flooding with CGI water until not a single grass peak could be seen. Then, on the horizon of this new ocean, three shadows appeared and, as they got closer, became recognisably three ocean liners. They came right up to the screen, turned so we could see them in precise detail, then retreated again into the distance. The Flood gradually dissipated and the Teletubbies re-emerged, smiling, as if nothing untoward had happened. Then, Tubby Toast, Tubby Bye-Bye– the usual.
I’m being deliberately sensational when I say Teletubbies can inspire a sense of the Other, but children’s television does have an important role to play in the development of children’s sense of the absurd. Even when not being directly educational (Blue Peter, Art Attack, Come Outside), thoughtfulness and inspiration are key components of classic entertainment shows for the under-tens. I’d argue that what appeared to some parents as dumbing-down (the Teletubbies rarely spoke anything but nonsense, but neither did Bill & Ben the Flower Pot Men) was in fact an attempt to provide symbolic stimuli to the impressionable minds of its toddler viewership, the psychedelica giving them a greater sense of awareness. Let’s not forget that Teletubbies wasn’t the first kids’ TV show to employ psychedelic images to summon a sense of something else: stop-motion delights like The Clangers and The Magic Roundabout were catnip to the hippy ethic of the ‘60s baby-boomers (was there ever a better metaphor for a hallucinogenic trip than the bright colours and repetitive music of the Roundabout theme?), whilst carrying more intense messages. Both shows expressed a political bent in certain episodes to the extent that the French-made Roundabout is believed by some to be an allegory for the political movements of the time, the terrier Dougal a canine Charles de Gaulle. Similarly, the commonly-held mark by which ‘good’ children’s entertainment is judged is its ability to engage adults, too: Adventure Time, Sorry, I’ve Got No Head, anything touched by Pixar.
The actual experiences that a child might take from the bizarre, strangely symbolic aqueous interlude in ep. 26 ‘Café Chocolate’ are myriad: the swift rise and fall of the tides can induce a sense of the passing of time and, on their decline, an acute feeling of loss or nostalgia for something with which we have only just been acquainted, and yet feels deep and ancient, ‘the eternal note of sadness’ brought in by Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’. It’s a harsh and uncompromising implication of natural temporariness for the viewer. Meanwhile the ships, far distant and then right up close, suggest the notion of perspective, visual and temporal. For me, the lasting memory of this episode is the reinforced idea of the distant horizon. Teletubbyland’s magical nowhere-ness was hugely expanded when we glimpsed a farther horizon and thus an ever-expanding continuation of that imagined world.
Horizons remain exciting prospects long after we grow out of the appeal of Tubby Toast. They are a point where two infinite properties meet (sky and sea or land), or at least appear to.
When we see a horizon (particularly a distant one), we see a line, but in fact all we’re recognising is the point at which our faculty of observation ceases to operate. The end of vision, until the creation of radio and the telegraph, meant the last possible point of communication – via lighthouse, beacon, flags, flares, doing a dance – but, despite this sense of finality (which remains to this day – do you properly finish waving off visitors until they are ‘out of sight, out of mind’?), we have always been aware that the horizon promises more.
We see a horizon as a straight line but we know that the earth is curved. Contained within the line, then, is an infinite continuing meeting of the air and the earth. It is a measuring mark for eternity – a finite point that suggests infinite material, something that is both there and not-there. We look to horizons for meaning and magic in the same way we look for pots of gold at the end of rainbows, or colourful midgets somewhere over them, because we have seen something that is both present and absent, visible but not entirely graspable. Hence heroes and adventurers at the end of films predictably ride into sunsets (High Noon, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, parodied in Blazing Saddles) – it provides finality, but also suggests that the characters will continue onwards forever. It’s the perfect solution to the problem of fiction – Real Life, if we can take it broadly as non-fiction, never concludes neatly, but a horizon provides the requisite completeness of form, with the endlessness of reality.
That endlessness is what makes horizons traditionally worth longing after and also inherently melancholy. A horizon contains all eternity (it is where Galeano’s ‘utopia’ is kept) so it is probable that the things one seeks are hidden there but (like ‘utopia’) they remain unattainable. This is particularly pronounced in ‘Café Chocolate’: water has a long history of symbolic associations, appropriately reflective, amorphous, powerful yet undefinable. Adam Foulds’ village boy in the Prologue to The Quickening Maze (2009) sees ‘heaven in water’ just as he sees ‘the world’s secrets’ hidden over the horizon – both contain the universe’s MacGuffin. Meryl Streep stares moodily out to sea in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Karel Reisz’s 1981 film based on the John Fowles’ 1969 novel) hoping for the return of her lover. She stares at nothing. But it is a nothing that suggests everything. Horizons appear frequently in religious iconography – God is typically the Sun in Christianity (Psalm 84:11) but also throughout other religions (Helios, Ra, Tonatiuh), and the sunset provides the moment at which divine power almost (but, in fact, never) joins with the earth. Horizons are the grey-area where the devoted attempt to find a closer spirituality, and as such achieve the same effect as mescaline’s use in Native American religious ceremonies and the sensual experiments of liberal bohemian types (Huxley in The Doors of Perception) – letting you see and feel further than you are a capable of being. That numinous reaching will also often come tinged with loss and nostalgia. Thompson’s ‘wave speech’ in the crazed Fear and Loathing celebrates the ‘middle sixties’ zeitgeist as it mourns it, with hallucinogenic experience the centre of an era defined and lost – once again the strange and spiritual inseparable from the melancholy notion of time passed and passing. Similarly ‘Café Chocolate’, as we wave goodbye to ships never-to-be-seen-again, journeying onward we-know-not-where, ‘the kind of peak that never comes again’.
Infinity. Melancholy. Nostalgia. Loss. This is a lot for a 4 year-old to experience at 8am on a Saturday morning– and I’d put good money that for most ‘90s babies, Teletubbies remains the embarrassing nylon distraction that it appeared at the time. But children’s television undeniably has the capacity for inspiration: hidden away in its shapes and colours is the suggestion of the horizon, and, if you are looking for it, the seed of the sublime.
And no, I still don’t know why it’s called ‘Café Chocolate’.