SHE was in one of the most iconic foursomes of the 90s – but few would recognise Nikky Smedley until she utters the famous catchphrase, “Eh-oh”.
The 56-year-old dancer played Laa-Laa in the Teletubbies, the hit BBC children’s show, which ran for 365 episodes from March 1997 until February 2001.
“I’m so proud to have been a Teletubby,” says Nikky, talking exclusively to Fabulous for Telly Timewarp, our new series where we chat with former small-screen icons.
“Today, 22 years after it ended, I’ll never forget the awful taste of ‘tubby custard’, sweating up a storm in the five-stone yellow costume and the horny bunnies that plagued the set.”
Nikky, from Stratford on Avon, Warwickshire, said: “Laa-Laa made my career and opened up doors to buying a house and travelling the world. Entertaining millions of children worldwide was a privilege.”
Laa-Laa, famed for her sunshine yellow suit and curly antenna, along with her Tinky Winky, Dipsy and Po, were the brainchild of Anne Wood, founder of production company Ragdoll, and writer Andrew Davenport.
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The characters were instantly adored by preschoolers thanks to their toddler-esque mannerisms and gibberish speech.
But adults loved them too, with Nicky even being recognised in the street.
“People usually recognised my voice, not my face,” she said. “I could never refuse to do Laa-Laa’s voice because she was so loved.
“It was lovely to bring joy to so many people
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“Occasionally I’d be buying sausages in a store and be asked to do Laa-Laa’s voice. That was bonkers.
“Laa-Laa’s favourite thing is a giant orange ball and she loves to dance,” says Nikky. “Her catchphrase is ‘bibbly cheese.’ She was instantly lovable.”
The Teletubbies became global icons and the series has been watched in 120 countries, withthree billion viewers a year. A single based on its theme song sold over two million copies and reached the number one spot in December 1997.
Nikky was a struggling dancer, who lived on benefits for almost 10 years, when she saw an ad in September 1995 “seeking unusual characters for a new kids’ show”.
“I was almost penniless,” she said. “I lived in a rough neighbourhood and had been beaten up,” she says. “I was a jobbing actor and dancer but there were times I was on benefits and unable to pay the rent.
“At the time my mandatory dance classes which I had to do daily cost £3 and that was all I could afford.
“It was a daily choice between dance class and eating money wise.
“I was living in a council flat.
“Jobs varied weekly. I ran a cabaret club for a while.
“I was a hair model. It was up and down work wise and a constant hustle as most jobbing actors know.
“The casting ad for the children’s series called for ‘artists with stamina for a new children's show’. They wanted something wacky and different and that was me.”
For the audition, she dressed up as a table and did a skit about its love for a chair. It was a hit, and she beat thousands of hopefuls to the coveted role.
Becoming Laa-Laa was a gruelling process. The cast recorded for up to 12 hours a day, five days a week and then did concerts, live appearances and rehearsals at the weekend.
“The costume was too big for our Portacabin dressing rooms,” she said.
“We each had a Portacabin and the costumes had two portacabins they were so large
“I had to stand outside on a tarpaulin to get dressed in Laa Laa’s outfit
“If it was raining we’d get dressed on set near the Teletubby beds helped by our own personal dresser.”
“Being a Teletubby takes amazing strength and stamina. “In real life, the costumes are gigantic. Laa-Laa’s is 7ft tall and weighs about four stone.
"You can’t walk through a door in it. Learning to wear the costume while performing was a job in itself.”
She said: “Laa Laa gave me super strong neck and shoulder muscles. I didn’t need to go to the gym – playing her made me the fittest I’ve ever been.”
Nikky had to psych herself up to get into the suit and would chant, “spirit of yellow, spirit of yellow, keep me mellow” before she put it on. She says the suits were so hot the cast were given rehydration drinks.
“Being a Teletubby was pongy,” she said. “I would sweat through multiple T-shirts, shorts and leggings. When I took the costume off, the smell was awful.
“The dresser would complain if we sweated out a curry. Spicy foods were banned, the pong was too much. I had to carefully schedule loo breaks and if you farted in your suit, you only had yourself to blame.”
Nikky says the cast would spend “up to two hours” in the suits at a time, but this limit has now been reduced to 20 minutes because of health and safety.
The Teletubbies were famed for their love of Tubby custard, but Nikky says it tasted “disgusting” in real life. “You really wouldn’t want to eat it,” she says. “It's not custard in real life. It's made from runny, powdered mashed potato dyed pink – and it stank.”
The show was filmed at a lush green set in Wimpstone, Warwickshire, from March to October each year.
Nikky said: “The Teletubbies had rabbits which ran around the outdoor set. The five tame rabbits that were used onset were constantly ‘at it’. You can't film a TV show for kids with rude rabbits. We’d have to cut filming and start over.
“The rabbits had their own wrangler. They were all female and named after the Spice Girls. It was all action onset for those risqué rabbits.”
Fans went mad for the show – grown-up fans sent Nikky touching letters and kids sent drawings and craft items they had made.
Nikki also received a number of weird letters from an obsessed fan.
“They were addressed to Laa-Laa and labelled her a ‘saucy Teletubby’. It was weird and concerning but as Teletubbies we were protected and looked after by the crew."
Nikky says the Teletubbies’ appeal was so far reaching that she was once even recognised while in the passport queue in Oman. “The security officers asked what my occupation was,” she says.
“When I explained I was an actress and played Laa-Laa their faces lit up. They asked me for my autograph and if I would send a voice recording to their children. It was surreal and totally bonkers.”
Teletubbies merchandise, which included computer games, cuddly toys and posters raked in billions.
Nikky, who is married but doesn’t have children, said she made ‘decent wage’ which allowed her to buy a two-bedroom house in Warwickshire, where she still lives.
She is now behind the camera and has worked on shows such as Boobah and In The Night Garden. She is also a choreographer for YouTube animation channel, Cocomelon.
Teletubbies was rebooted in 2014 and Nikky helped train the next generation of actors.
She has since written a memoir called Over the Hills and Far Away: My Life as a Teletubby, which was released in August 2022.
Nikky is also performing at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe with her one woman show Confessions of a Teletubby in August.
“I have Laa-Laa to thank for my amazing career. I wouldn't have it any other way bonking bunnies and all,” she says.
But unfortunately she didn’t become friends with any ‘00s celebs, she said. “Being a Teletubby actually put a dampener on my celebrity hobnobbing.
“The Teletubbies were carefully guarded and not allowed to misbehave as they were children’s characters. We always had minders with us but we knew we had a lot of celebrity fans like Taylor Swift.”
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However, she was mates with the other Teletubbies including Simon Barnes who played the much loved purple Teletubby Tinky Winky on the popular children’s TV show from 1998 to 2001 but died in Liverpool in 2018 aged 53.
“We all got on as Teletubbies,” she said. “We loved the fact we were so chilled with each other. We bonded from the start. It was Tubby-brilliant.”
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