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‘It disappeared into the ether. It just rose to heaven.’ Illustration: Toby Morris
‘It disappeared into the ether. It just rose to heaven.’ Illustration: Toby Morris

Pop CultureJune 21, 2021

The hunt for Little Ted’s head

‘It disappeared into the ether. It just rose to heaven.’ Illustration: Toby Morris
‘It disappeared into the ether. It just rose to heaven.’ Illustration: Toby Morris

It has been an enduring local mystery for over three decades: where in the world is Little Ted’s head? Hayden Donnell set out to find the truth. 

In August 2009, Otago Daily Times reporter Ellie Rowley received a strange phone call. The man at the end of the line was clearly amused, and perhaps a little attention-seeking. He wanted to talk about one of Rowley’s stories from that day’s paper, about a new exhibit in the Otago Settlers Museum. It was displaying a collection of toys from the popular 80s children’s TV show Play School. There was Grubber the kiwi and Harry, Humpty’s cousin from the country. But the most curious item was the charred, decapitated body of the show’s most popular toy, Little Ted. 

Museum curator Peter Read had told Rowley the head was blown off when cast members “got a bit carried away” during the show’s final day of filming in Dunedin. Her story carried a plea for readers to come forward if they had more information. This man was responding to that appeal. He said he knew what happened to the head. In fact, he was looking at it. “It’s sitting on top of my cupboard in the kitchen,” he said. Rowley tried to find out more, but he refused to give further details, saying it was “more fun this way”. Then he hung up. Rowley wrote their conversation up in a short report for the paper the following day, and made another appeal for information. No calls came. The trail on Little Ted’s head went cold.

Photo: NZ On Screen

That silence has hung in the air for 12 years. Stories have repeatedly popped up in the mainstream media about Little Ted’s beheading, but no leads have emerged on the head’s location, or the identity of the mysterious man who called Rowley, all those years ago. I first joined the search for the head in 2017 while researching plot lines for a prospective second season of Get It To Te Papa. The decapitated bear, with its beguiling backstory and obvious national significance, seemed a shoo-in candidate for the museum’s collection. My pleas for TV networks to fund that season were wildly unsuccessful, but the fate of the soft toy’s dismembered head has haunted me ever since. 

In May, I picked up its trail again. My ultimate aim was to find its location, and perhaps deliver it to a final resting place befitting its stature. That meant revisiting the pivotal moment in the teddy bear’s life: a day in 1989 when an explosion rang out at the Garrison Hall TV studio in central Dunedin, and severed its head from its body. 

‘I was absolutely horrified’

Just as the authors of the Biblical gospels give different accounts of the same events, former Play School staffers tell different stories about Little Ted’s decapitation. By piecing together their accounts I established the act was partly a way of marking the show’s final day of filming at Garrison Hall, where it had been produced for 14 years along with much of TVNZ’s news content. It was also a prank on director Frances Neill-Weston. Before a dress rehearsal, the crew set up a series of pratfalls. A pair of scissors were superglued together. The set was rigged to fall down. But the most ambitious stunt was stuffing Little Ted’s head with explosives.

Play School’s wardrobe department always made sure there were multiple versions of the show’s main cast of stuffed toys on hand, mainly to safeguard against the wear and tear they inevitably suffered. The crew selected an older, backup version of Little Ted, cut into his neck, and shoved a canister of gunpowder inside. They placed a fuse near the canister. When Neill-Weston cut to a shot of Little Ted, a crew member pressed a button. There was a flash and a pop. The head hit the ceiling and fell to the floor. Neill-Weston looked on in disbelief as wisps of smoke rose from the beloved toy’s blackened neckline. “I was absolutely horrified,” she told me. “Little Ted was every child’s idol. They just adored him. I thought this was awful on the final programme. It was a floor manager’s last joke. Well I didn’t think it was very funny.”

What happened next was the subject of debate, dispute, and above all, confusion. Cameraman Graeme Patrick thought “someone in production” must have taken the head away. Play School presenter Barry Dorking was sitting next to Little Ted at the time of the explosion. He believed the head must have been “shredded”, and thought the man who called the Otago Daily Times in 2009 was likely a prankster or a fantasist. Others were more hopeful. Play School floor manager Donald Knewstubb said Neill-Weston might have taken the head away. Neill-Weston said she hadn’t, though she did keep the bear’s body in a “special box” for several years. “I have no idea what happened to the head though. It disappeared into the ether. It just rose to heaven.”

Photo: Youtube

‘I believe the head exists’

The bear didn’t rise to heaven. I had to believe it descended into the clutches of a man who read a story in the Otago Daily Times in 2009, and decided to call the paper. I rang Rowley to ask if she had any detail on that caller beyond what was already in her story. She didn’t, but did say she believed Dorking was wrong, and the man’s claims were credible. “I believe the head exists, for all that is worth.”

Toitū Otago Settlers Museum delivered a more encouraging lead. Read, still working as a curator, revealed that the museum received its own anonymous phone call in 2012, from a man claiming to possess the head. The call came through after Read was quoted in the Christchurch Star saying he believed the head had been destroyed. The man at the end of the line wanted to set the record straight. “This caller said that the head hit the roof and somebody picked it up and souvenired it,” Read said. He also dug up the documents from when Little Ted’s headless body was delivered to the museum following a Play School reunion in 2005. According to Toitū’s records, they were delivered by Lorraine Isaacs, Play School’s former executive producer.

Isaacs picked up the phone at her Dunedin home in late May. The head was still whole, she told me, and was “in a safe place”. Isaacs wouldn’t give details beyond that tantalising line. She seemed to hint that many of the Play School cast members knew who had the head, but were protecting its owner. “I don’t have permission to reveal its whereabouts,” she said. Still, she agreed to be an intermediary. I asked her to query whether the man who possessed the head would agree to an interview, or at least just let me see the bear’s remains.

The man with the head said no to both options. But I’d established a link. Soon after, I had a brainwave, inspired by hostage situations in movies. I asked Isaacs whether the man would be willing to take a photo of the head in front of a current copy of the Otago Daily Times. She agreed, but said the photo would be sent by someone “unaffiliated with Play School”. A few days later, an email appeared in my spam folder from a Hotmail address. “Little Ted Pic Attached,” read the subject line. The body contained a single, chilling photo.

A quick search of newspaper archives confirmed the head was pictured in front of the May 28 edition of the Otago Daily Times. It was current. The head existed, it was whole, and it was safe.

The photo’s metadata revealed only that it was taken by a Panasonic DC-TZ220 on May 28. The email with the photo attached came from Tom Conroy, a former TV producer from Invercargill who wasn’t replying directly to my emails. Just as Isaacs promised, it was hard to link him to any Play School crew members. I started writing the story, tying up as many loose ends as I could, when I stumbled on the name of one Play School alumni I hadn’t called yet. 

That contact was the key to cracking the case, and as it turns out, he’d been sitting under the media’s nose this whole time. Ross Wilson, now working as a cameraman at TVNZ in Dunedin, remembers the moment Little Ted’s head exploded. “I actually think it might have been on my camera that it blew up, and we were just pissing ourselves,” he said. Wilson’s account matched the other Play School cast members, with two crucial differences: he knew who had the head, and he didn’t want to protect him. “It’s time to give it back,” he said. “It should be in a museum.” I asked Wilson for a name, and he gave me one.

‘You can ruin the whole story by uniting Little Ted’

The man who has the head of Little Ted is listed in the Dunedin White Pages. He picked up my call on a rainy afternoon in June. “There’s no easy way to say this,” I said. “But I believe you have the head of Little Ted.” At first, the man was wary. “So, what does it matter if I do?” he said. As we talked, he started to concede more. He confessed it was him who set the charge inside Little Ted’s head; who pushed the button that set off a small explosion and a 30-year mystery. “Guilty, your honour,” he said. “Guilty.” His memory was that the crew had decided by “general consensus” he could have the head. “I didn’t grab it,” he said.

The man claimed he’d kept the head a secret because a mystery was more exciting than a museum exhibit. He was worried I would spoil his fun. “The only reason that it’s interesting is because nobody knows where it is. You can ruin the whole story by uniting Little Ted,” he said.

I found that argument unconvincing. Little Ted and his head don’t just belong to one man, or even the cast of Play School, but to the hundreds of thousands of people who grew up watching and idolising the bear on TV. Besides, mysteries are made to be solved, and this one had been running for more than 30 years. I put it to him that there was no point keeping hold of the head now that I’d uncovered his identity. “You could blow my cover,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean to say I’ll give the head over. It might mean I make sure that no-one gets it.”

The man quickly clarified he wouldn’t “get rid” of the head, so much as ensure it never fell into public ownership. We kept arguing. The more we talked, the more it seemed there were deeper reasons for his actions than just the spikes of glee he got out of the news stories and social media posts on the head. For one thing, the timeline didn’t fit. The first stories about Little Ted’s decapitation only started appearing roughly 12 years ago, after the bear’s body was first displayed in Toitū. This man had kept the head in his possession for nearly 20 years before anyone even started making enquiries. Why? “The thing is when you work in radio and television, at the end of the day you have nothing to show for it,” he said. “Everything you do goes to air live or gets recorded and finally it gets erased. You don’t have anything at the end of the day, apart from some memories. And I’ve got Little Ted’s head. It’s just something.”

Photo: Youtube

The head was a lone keepsake from a 47 year radio and TV career that seemed to have left a bitter taste in his mouth. But it meant even more than that. The man was getting older. He lived alone, and his adult children were in Australia. He was receiving ongoing treatment for cancer. This disembodied head from a 30-year-old show had become his most enduring companion, and perhaps even a kind of friend. “He’s one of the family here. There’s only him and me,” he said. “I see him every day and look after him. He peers down at me every day.”

It’s unlikely the bear will be surrendered anytime soon. The man didn’t trust museums and wouldn’t consider Te Papa as a potential destination for the head. It was too far away, he said, and inaccessible for too many people. Toitū was a more promising option. I called its director Cam McCracken, who offered three proposals for taking the head into the museum’s collection: accepting it on a five-year loan, paying for it, or receiving it in a bequest. Those terms weren’t acceptable to the head’s caretaker. He’d arranged for fellow Play School alumni to take the head once he died, though he didn’t rule out its new caretakers coming to an agreement with the museum. “It might go to public ownership at some point,” he said. “In the meantime he’s going to keep me company for a while.”

I’m not going to name the man who has Little Ted’s head. Doing so could put the head further out of reach, while exposing an unwell, older person to unwanted attention. But I hope he does put the head into public ownership one day. Play School’s other Little Teds have all been lost without trace. His bear is the only one we have left. He’s waited 30 years in that Dunedin kitchen, sitting there as his glory days have faded, and the people chasing him have dwindled in number. In that time, he’s brought a lot of happiness to one person. But it’s possible he could bring joy to more, by appearing in person to those who once watched him on screen. Until then, Little Ted will stay hidden, protecting a mystery that no longer really exists. His keeper was right when he called Rowley at the Otago Daily Times 12 years ago: it has been fun this way. But fun is always best when it’s shared with others.

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