First Shakespeare, now Mr. Blobby

August 31, 1994|By Dick Polman | Dick Polman,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

You may have heard the term "British invasion." Once upon a time, it meant four cute and cuddly moptops from Liverpool, waving on the airport tarmac in New York, four guys with great tunes and dry wit who were poised to take the nation by storm.

But that was 30 years ago. Today, the British invader is a cute and cuddly, pink and yellow seven-foot clown in a latex rubber suit, with a rotund polka dot stomach and a frozen maniacal grin, who doesn't say anything except his name, and whose major talent seems to be his ability to fall on top of people.

From the Beatles to Mr. Blobby.

Whether this is a fresh symptom of the decline of mass culture is a matter for the arbiters of taste; certainly, British critics are sneering about "blandness elevated to an art form." But for now, what matters to those Americans who watch television or shop for toys -- a fair percentage of the population -- is that Mr. Blobby is coming. Big time.

He gave everyone a quick tease back in June, when he arrived in New York on the Concorde, paraded through town in a pink-and-yellow Cadillac, mussed up Larry King's hair on CNN and writhed around on the floor of an NBC studio with an unwilling "Today Show" hostess.

Then the Concorde flew him back. The marketing folks at the BBC, which owns him, didn't want to overexpose him. Not yet, anyway. So they decided to map a second trip -- four days in October, followed by a burst of Blobbymania on the store shelves. Step aside, Barney.

It won't be quite the feeding frenzy of Britain, where you can pick up Blobby dolls, Blobby soap, Blobby mugs, Blobby badges, Blobby balloons, Blobby pillows, Blobby candles, Blobby sweat shirts, Blobby lunch boxes, Blobby lemonade, Blobby bubble bath, Blobby boxer shorts, a Blobby video with another on the way, a top-selling Blobby audiotape, and enough food products (cakes, sausages, jam, ice cream, tomato sauce) to produce a Blobby waistline.

But Mr. Blobby is definitely coming to a cash register near you.

Virtually overnight, this clown, which first appeared on a BBC variety show two years ago, has raked in about $31 million in British sales alone.

Not bad for a character that was created by a BBC producer fTC with a green felt pen on the back of a note pad, for the sole purpose of goofing on guest celebrities on a Saturday morning children's show.

"I'd love to think that we've done all this by design," says John Howson, the head of licensing at the BBC, and the brains behind the marketing of Blobby. "But I suspect that we haven't."

Mr. Howson is talking in his London office, in the midst of a busy morning.

He is 53, with a white shirt and curly gray hair -- by appearances, a Brit who would look most at home in the House of Commons. He says, "It's quite silly to sit around and talk about Blobby, isn't it?" He puts on a videotape that shows Mr. Blobby in a New York studio, tearing up a newswoman's script. He giggles.

There's little mystery about why Mr. Blobby has conquered Britain. Robert Gilmour, a social psychologist at Lancaster University, says simply: "When things are bad, people will cast the most unlikely hero. If there's a cultural vacuum, something will drift in and fill it."

And what a vacuum -- in '90s Britain, virtually every major institution is in disrepute. The monarchy is a tabloid's dream, the Conservative government is the lowest-ranked regime since polling began, the Anglican church is losing parishioners, the film industry hangs by a thread, the car industry has been sold off to the Germans, the railroads are crippled by strikes, and the banks are shedding their work force.

Enter the Blobby phenomenon. "It's escapism," says Mr. Howson. "Escapism from reality. If you watch the news all day, you've got a doom wish, perhaps."

Naturally, the spoilsports in Britain take a dimmer view. Martin Lloyd-Elliott, an arts psychologist, grumbles: "It is simply that people are being subjected to such marketing and hype that some of the mud sticks." He dismisses Mr. Blobby as "a transparent con."

But the most withering assault was made not long ago by a social critic, Joanna Coles: "I defy you to come up with a more worthless cultural icon . . . the most pointless mascot imaginable. . . . He doesn't say anything, he doesn't do anything. He is the diminution of popular entertainment to a single cell, an irreducible cultural amoeba . . . an eloquent testament to British bad taste."

Actually, it's not quite true that Mr. Blobby doesn't do anything. He horses around with kids and crashes into grown-ups.

But a BBC spokeswoman, Caroline Kriss, says it's hard work being Mr. Blobby. The only man to ever inhabit his rubber skin is Barry Killerby, a classically trained Shakespearean actor. Ms. Kriss recalls, "When we were in New York last June, it was so hot that when Barry took the costume off, he was like a running pool of water."

Unimpressed with either Mr. Killerby's training or his zeal, Joanna Coles noted caustically, "Shakespeare dominated popular culture also, but that was 400 years ago. We have moved on since then."

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