Happy 50th birthday Action Man

A boy examines a display of Action Man toys at the British Toy Fair in Brighton, January 1966 Image copyright Hulton Archive
Image caption Seven-year-old John Rider examines a display of Action Man figures at the British Toy Fair in Brighton, in January 1966

It is 50 years since Action Man, the must-have toy of the 1970s, arrived in the UK.

The plastic moulded figures, rebranded from the US GI Joe version, made their debut in the UK at the British Toy Fair in Brighton, in January 1966, after a toy executive realised their market potential.

The early toys were imports but Palitoy, based in Coalville, Leicestershire, would go on to make its own version with "lifelike hair", "beards" and "gripping hands" in the early 1970s.

According to Rob Burman, editor of the Collectors Gazette, Palitoy bosses gave strict instructions not to call them "dolls" as boys could be put off.

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Media captionAction Man toys first appeared on toy shop shelves in 1966

They were hugely popular, with sales topping 20 million by the end of the 1970s.

Modifications kept the toys fresh and collectable, for example "eagle eyes" were introduced in 1976 by Hasbro, the US makers, and Palitoy brought in "flocked" hair and non-military costumes such as football kits.

However, despite a loyal band of collectors, the success did not last into the 1980s.

"The 60s and 70s were the big times for Action Man and then Star Wars came along," said Mr Burman.

"Everyone wanted intergalactic characters, they weren't bothered about poor old Action Man."

Image copyright BBC/Plum Pictures/Anne Binckebanck
Image caption Action Man was the subject of a James May Christmas programme in 2014

The toy expert said the figure made a bit of a comeback in the 1990s but nowadays people are generally more "politically correct" and so there is little interest in soldier toys.

However, there is still a thirst for the old outfits - a boxed judo costume recently sold for £6,000 at auction.

Chris Malbon, 58, from Nottingham, who runs Warwickshire-based Metropolis Toys, had at one time one of the most "comprehensive" Action Man collections in the UK.

Image copyright Metropolis Toys
Image caption Palitoy started non-military outfits including karate and even football kits

He started collecting in 1989 and spent thousands on his acquisitions, which he admits got a "bit out of hand", and he later he sold them all for a "substantial" fee.

"I collected the entire range," said the trader. "Both boxed and loose, together with US, French, German, Spanish, Japanese variations. I guess around 200 figures."

However, it all became a bit of a burden.

He said: "It's not because of the money... you end up wanting that elusive item or upgrading what you have to the exclusion of other things."

Mr Malbon, a former soldier himself, did not want to say what he sold his collection for but said it was as much as he paid for his house in the 1990s.

Image caption Action Man originated from the US version, which was called GI Joe

Palitoy's former chief toy designer Bob Brechin, who modelled Action Man's gripping hands on his own, said the toy has endured.

"It's hard to believe it has been 50 years," he said.

"He's timeless, universal, we never gave Action Man a story, we just gave children [the figures] and the outfits you dress him in and left it to their imaginations."

Hasbro has announced it is releasing a set of vintage figures as part of the anniversary celebrations.

It seems Action Man is not quite ready to leave the battlefield.

Image copyright Metropolis Toys
Image caption Some feel the military-themed toys are not appropriate for children today

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