“Went to church – Civic service, more etc there. Went up woods wiv Nig and chucked Action Men”
Like most 15-year-old boys in 1973, my earlier youth had been obsessed with the toy phenomenon known as “Action Man”.
This fully-poseable ‘action figure’, made its debut in the UK in 1966 to the kind of rapturous applause toymaker Hasbro could only imagine in their wildest dreams.
The first figures released were an “Action Soldier” in green khakis, an “Action Pilot” in an orange jumpsuit and an “Action Sailor” in his denim two-piece ensemble
Each Action Man came in a box with instructions, and a metal ID tag.
I owned the soldier and the sailor – the latter a nod to my father’s time in the Merchant Navy. However, the real beauty of the dolls was – as young girls with their Barbie’s will know – the ability to purchase extra uniforms and equipment to dress them in.
In much the same way as kids of today will hassle their parents for ‘new games’ for their video console, this young TRO would hassle his for new clothes for his Action Man.
Christmas was… well, like Christmas for me. I would ask for a whole slew of uniforms and Action Man ‘stuff’ and be more than happy with whatever my parents and distant overseas family could afford to buy for me.
I would also save up my own meagre pocket money and then go to Welch’s or Ingrams in Eastleigh and buy something in my price range.
I can’t remember everything I had, but I vividly recall the Artic outfit (snowsuit, skis, poles, snowshoes, etc) , the deep sea diver’s kit (which included a waterproof suit and even weighted boots!) and, even though I can’t imagine why, the French Resistance Fighter uniform (maybe I thought the black polo neck sweater was groovy?)
My chums who lived near me also collected and played with Action Men and we would invariably combine ‘forces’ to invent all kinds of war-type scenarios in our homes and neighbourhood back alleyways.
Most of the play was relatively innocuous, but borderline ‘girlie’ I suppose (dolls?!!). Things did take a turn when I was 10 or 11 though. Martin, a new boy in the neighbourhood seemed to be knee-deep in Action Man stuff… his parents must have been loaded.
He had everything – the much sought-after talking commander (I did get one of these eventually), the Scorpion tank, a pair of jeeps, the personnel carrier and even the space capsule (released, undoubtedly, to cash in on the moon landings). Clothes and equipment galore too, including every gun, rifle, hat, utility belt and grenade. (I remember being jealous he had the German SS Officers kit – complete with Luger gun – and handful of Russian anti-tank grenades)
His introduction to our playgroup was a coup at first but – maybe because he had SO much stuff that none of it was important to him – he soon started adding new, and disturbing, elements.
Martin is the reason I have a dark circle at the base of one of my index fingers. The result of an Action Man ‘game’ where we pinned our dolls to a large board and then…. erm… threw darts at them! Yours truly managed to get in the way of a stray dart which duly embedded itself into my hand. As I recall, Martin’s mum merely removed the dart, popped a sticking plaster over the top of the bleeding hole and told everyone to be more careful. Not cancel the game that had caused the injury, just “be more careful”
It’s a wonder I still have all my fingers and/or my eyesight too. Why I can remember this next event so clearly I don’t know, but I can. We were in Trev’s back garden. It must have been around Guy Fawkes/Bonfire night, because Martin had procured a large supply of packs of “bangers”. Basically a small stick of incendiary gunpowder with a short fuse that one could light, throw on the ground and then wait for it to explode with a “bang” (hence the name).
Yes, kids of 8 to 10 played with this kind of stuff in the 70’s. By and large totally unsupervised by grown-ups too! Anyway, Martin had this (admittedly excellent) idea to put the bangers inside our Action Men, light them and see what happened. The head of an Action Man was secured with just the right amount of elastic where one could lift it up and pop the firework inside, light it and then put the doll into a ‘setting’ – usually the seat of one of the jeeps. We would then wait for the bang – the ‘death’ of the character – followed by huge plumes of black smoke which would snake out of every opening on the doll.
Alternatively, we would create a scene with half a dozen or so Action Men and then place 3 or 4 bangers in their midst, lighting them all at once. It was after one of these that I stopped my own figures from being used. A banger had melted the tiny ear of one of my ‘guys’ and I got upset about it. It didn’t stop Martin though – his excitement grew to (in hindsight) silly levels of ‘ignorance’ where he was placing entire packs of bangers under the tank and then setting fire to one, setting off a chain reaction of explosions.
It all seems so crazy now – and phenomenally dangerous. I guess at such a tender age we knew no different? I’ve always secretly suspected Martin grew up to be some kind of explosions expert for Hollywood special effects studios, such was his abundant enthusiasm that afternoon.
My “chucked Action Men” comment in 1975 however, referred to something FAR more grown up. *cough*. Here we would hold an Action Man by its feet and throw it up into the trees above us, and wait for it to crash down back to earth through all the branches and limbs. The ‘game’ was to ‘chuck’ it up as high as you could. Every so often an Action Man would get caught in the tree, requiring either some climbing skills or pinpoint aim with sticks or rocks. I can’t recall ever losing a figure, so we were either stupidly lucky or luckily stupid.
This disregard for our toys is the reason why collectors now have to pay so much for ‘pristine’ Action Men from that era nowadays. Like all boys we would throw them about and subject them to all kinds of abuse, making looked-after examples rare indeed.
I suspect the collectors at the Action Man HQ will probably have conniptions after reading what Martin, Trev and I did to our dolls in the late 60’s. Hopefully though they won’t have minded me ‘yanking’ & manipping a handful of images from their site to use in this post? I saw no © notice, nor could I find a contact address to make a friendly request – hopefully the link is satisfactory? – but did want to note that the images originated from them and their excellent resource of a site.