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THEY'RE chirpy, bright and very friendly and the BBC hope they will be as big a success as the Teletubbies.

The Tweenies are the creation of Coventry's panto dame Iain Lauchlan and will be appearing on TV screens this autumn.

But there is already a rival in sight in the shape of GMTV's new 3D animation series Jellikins.

Competition for the lucrative children's market is fierce and behind the cuddly characters a lot of serious work has been going on behind the scenes.

A lot of painstaking research, development and ground-breaking animatronics has gone into the Tweenies series, which has been commissioned to run for 260 episodes from September. The 20-minute programmes will be scheduled immediately after Teletubbies at 10.30am on BBC2.

The new pounds 5 million daily pre-school series was launched the same day that GMTV unveiled its own series for children, Jellikins.

But Coventry favourite Iain Lauchlan is hopeful the Tweenies will prove a hit with young viewers. He set up Tell-Tale Productions to make the Tweenies and won the commission out of 15 bidders.

He says: ''Why do children watch Neighbours? It is because of the characters. There are bits of sitcom and soap opera all the way through this.''

Iain had long been a favourite at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre and this year celebrated his 10th city pantomime. He will be back to mark the millennium with a major production of Jack And The Beanstalk, but says if Tweenies becomes a hit it could mean him having to cut back on stage work to spend more time producing.

Tweenies is aimed at pre-school children and follows the multi-million success of Teletubbies which has spurred broadcasters to try to create their own cuddly heirs.

Tinky Winky, Po, Laa Laa and Dipsy have generated pounds 9 million for independent Stratford producers Ragdoll and poured millions more into BBC coffers from programme sales in 120 countries around the world.

Then there are the inevitable merchandising spin-offs, from cuddly toys to lunchboxes.

Tweenies have been commissioned by the BBC for three-to-five years olds - graduates of the Teletubbies who want something for their own age group. Their slogan is "Are you ready to play?" and BBC Worldwide is already predicting that they will be its next big global brand.

Iain Lauchlan says education in the form of stories, letter and number work and social skills was the ''foundation'' of the programme but was invisible under the entertainment.

ITV is hitting back with rival series Jellikins about the adventures of six multi-coloured teddy bear-shaped jelly beans who live in Jolly Jelly World with Duffy the Dragon.

The Jellikins are Bouncey, Denny, Coral, Amber, Strum and Pepper and are 3D animated characters.

Rik Mayall voices the the new GMTV series and the 78 episodes will go out early weekend mornings. A merchandising deal has already been tied up by a British firm.

Mike Prince, head of Winchester Television who make Jellikins, is convinced they have a success on their hands. "Get set for Jellymania," he warns. "We can't wait to find out how kids will react to the Jellikins - we hope they find them as irresistible as we do."

The series is aimed at children between two and five years old and each 20-minute episode includes three stories, two songs and an educational round-up at the end.

More than 20 3D designers and animators have gone into creating Jellikins and TV bosses are predicting Jellikin toys will be the "must have" gifts for Christmas 1999.

Peter McHugh, GMTV's director of programmes says: "What we hope for Jellikins is that we're getting a foothold in the new tradition of well produced British-based pre-school TV. …