The actor Simon Barnes, best known for playing Tinky Winky in the BBC children’s series Teletubbies, has died aged 52.
The father of three, who once described being in the Teletubbies as being “a bit like the Beatles or Take That of television”, died four days after celebrating his birthday.
Barnes was a trained ballet dancer and choreographer, but found fame as the tallest Teletubby who always carried a red “magic” handbag.
He became embroiled in a furore over the sexuality of Tinky Winky, who was accused of being a gay role model who could be morally damaging to children by evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell in 1999.
“He is purple – the gay-pride colour; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle – the gay-pride symbol,’’ he wrote in the National Liberty Journal.
“People always ask me if Tinky Winky is gay,” Barnes said. “But the character is supposed to be a three-year-old so the question is really quite silly.”
Barnes’ niece and Inbetweeners actor, Emily Atack, paid tribute to him on Instagram:
“My wonderful uncle Simon Barnes has been taken from us all so suddenly. The kindest and most talented man you could ever wish to meet. Loved by all who knew him, and will be forever.”
Barnes took over the role of Tinky Winky in 1997 from Dave Thompson, who claimed he was fired after 70 episodes because his “interpretation of the role was not acceptable”.
The BBC refused to acknowledge the change at the time, with a spokesperson saying:
“We are not allowed to say. As far as we are concerned they are real.”
Teletubbies first aired on BBC2 on 31 March 1997.
Writing about the show’s impact on its 20th anniversary last year, Stuart Heritage wrote in the Guardian:
“Teletubbies was different. It was brightly coloured. It was airy. It was shot outside, so it had the slightest drab tinge to it. The characters communicated in what sounded like a stream of unbroken nonsense.”
The show was sold to broadcasters around the world and the group had a No 1 single in December 1997 with the song Eh-oh, while merchandise sales totalled more than £1bn globally.