Never call it a doll…

‘I once sold Chris Farlowe an Action Man…’

I’ve been known to stop any conversation stone dead with that line. It’s all true too. This would have been in the late 80s when working near the Stables bit of Camden Market. We had a stall selling all sorts of odds and sods. We (that’s my brother Glen and I, working under the name of ‘The Tosh Brothers’) had a ‘totters eye’ so would occasionally find the odd gem in among the usual ‘tosh’ we picked up at various jumble sales and boot fairs.

So, one Sunday afternoon, I spy Chris Farlowe heading in our direction. I spotted him straight away despite he then being a larger man than in his 60s heyday. ‘How much is the Action Man?’ He asked. In truth I can’t remember what it was priced up at, but I admired his collectors eye, because what he had seen was in fact a GI Joe figure, which was the US forerunner of the action figure we all knew and loved.

I had noticed the GI Joe name stamped on the toys right arse cheek (never use the word doll around Action Men aficionados) earlier that the week when I picked it up for 10p or whatever along with a bag of Action Man clothes and bits and pieces of actual broken figures. We were always being asked if we had any Action Man ‘stuff’ so knew this would sell at a decent profit.
I then did the deal with Chris F and have dined and supped out on the story ever since.

In truth I was a big fan of the toy myself in my younger days and had many a figure dressed in many a costume. I collected the stars that came within the cardboard box the toy was housed in, to then purchase a new outfit, a tank or horse or whatever. Of course this had the effect of destroying the packaging that later became very, very collectable. In truth us kids back then wouldn’t have given that a second thought in our rush to get at the goods and as then we stuck our stars on the card provided.

I also distinctly remember throwing an Action Man off a 3rd floor balcony of the Lewis Trust building I lived in, in Camberwell until the age of 6 or 7. I remember he had a parachute attached, though whether it was standard issue or something my mum made for me is lost in time. I then ran down the stairs to discover if he had survived the fall and being delighted to see he had. Over the next few years I collected loads of Action Man stuff, which my mum finally gave away to a kid a few doors down.

Well I was 35 by then, so fair enough I suppose…

The aforementioned GI Joe was made by the US company HASBRO in 1964. The UK license for HASBRO products was held by Palitoy of Coalville in Leicester, a company established by one Alfred Edward Pallett (there really is no escape pallet watchers…) as far back as 1909 that then grew to a leading toy maker in the UK.
Pailtoy employee Hal Belton picked up a GI Joe in the States whilst on a sales trip and then gave it to his grandson. He quickly made the production team aware of how well the toy had gone down, despite the ‘should boys be playing with dolls’ questions of those days.  Eventually a deal was done by Palitoy with Hasbro and the UK version was branded with a new name. Action Man was launched at the British Toy Fair of January 1966 at the price of 32/11, about £30.00 in today’s money. The first three versions out of the traps were Action Soldier, Action Sailor and Action Pilot.

Within a year or so, it had become the market leader, seeing off all the competition of far more inferior makes trying to cash in. To further establish a British identity for the toy, Pailtoy developed an adventurer and sportsman story for him, to compliment the already established military angle, which then of course meant a bigger array of costumes and accessories being available for sale.

The figure came complete with a trademarked scar on his cheek and dog tags made of thin stamped aluminium (later, complete with bullet holes)

His high density Polyethylene body was held together by metal rivets on early models, complete with inner hooks and elastic holding his limbs in place, with good movement then being achieved in knees, elbows, wrists and ankles.

He had a plastic moulded head at first with the choice of four hair colours, black, brown, blonde and red. The hair later morphed to a ‘flocked’ more realistic ‘fuzzy’ appearance, when along with a decent number of British youth in 1970, Action Man went Suedehead. Beards also appeared on the ‘Adventurer’ series, well before Hoxton Hipsters were a thing.

Hands that were once moulded plastic became ‘grippers’ with a more flexible, rubber consistency. I remember problems with these though and definitely losing a digit or two along the way. In the late 1960s, a talking version hit the market, complete with 8 vocal commands operated by a pull cord. Catchphrases such as ‘This is your commander speaking’ ‘Action Man patrol fall in’ & ‘Volunteer needed for a special mission’ became well known SE5 catchphrases.

Eyes in the UK gradually went blue from brown and by 1976 had also gone ‘eagle eyed’ by use of a switch at the back of the head.

Some of my particular favourite ‘looks’ would include the Polar explorer accompanied by an husky, the Deep Sea Diver, the Household Cavalry Life Guard complete with horse, the very hard to find Judo player, the SAS Key Figure, the Astronaut, in a silver space suit and his own space capsule, the Canadian Mountie with dog, and of course the footballer with a variety of kits. Throw in the tanks and helicopters and you had hours of fun ahead of you.

By 1979, 8 million figures had been made and sold.

Sadly though, by 1984 it was all over when the plug was pulled as a result of Palitoy losing the sales battle against the Star Wars merchandise of that time.

But as we know, this stuff never really dies. In 2006, there was a 40th anniversary Action Man available, as a nostalgic collection was launched with an identical uniform range from the period of 1966 to 1984.

2016 then saw a limited edition of 1,966 ‘Bobby Moore’ figures see the light of day, to both celebrate the 50th anniversary of England winning the World Cup, and also to raise money for the Bobby Moore Fund, with £6 from each sale going to help beat bowel cancer.

And who among you, can forget when the figures ‘camped it up’ in a Moneysupermarket advert of 2018, with many of the classic outfits on display.

There is now a growing scene of Action Man collectors fairs, when men, and it is mainly men of a certain vintage, buy, swap and then drool over market stalls full of classic Action Man gear.

Declared the ‘Toy of the Decade’ in the 1970s, it looks to your correspondent that this figure will be around for a good bit longer yet.

I wonder if that kid has still got my Action Man stuff?

The Mumper of SE5



Sign up to our newsletter and receive an exclusive promo code, latest news & Art Gallery Clothing offers.

Newsletter Signup