Exclusive Insights From One of the “Founding Fathers” of Palitoy’s Iconic (UK) Action Man
When Bob Brechin (the former Chief Designer for Palitoy) wrote to us recently to discuss his memories of the history and development of Action Man and his involvement with “The Story of Action Man” DVD (a wonderfully informative film produced by Tony Roberts), we grabbed our reporter’s pads and pencils and stood up at attention. We knew whatever Brechin had to say, it would be coming “straight from the top.”
If you aren’t already aware, Brechin is the UK’s equivalent of America’s iconic toy creator and former top Hasbro executive, Don Levine (now deceased) and is without a doubt, one of the 1:6 scale hobby’s most beloved “Founding Fathers.” To millions of collectors around the world, Bob is especially admired for all the work he did EXPANDING the Action Man line. So many new uniforms, equipment sets and vehicles were introduced during his tenure that it literally boggles the mind. When his email “blinged” into our inbox, we couldn’t wait to read what UK’s toy legend had to say!
Here’s what Brechin wrote to The Joe Report:
“Having just read your feature by Mike talking about the VAME show on 6th of June and noticing the post he included about the showing of the ‘The Story of Action Man’ (see HERE, ed.) I thought I would follow that up and tell you more about it…
About this time of the year (50 years ago), the management at Palitoy were negotiating with the Hassenfeld Brothers for the license to market in the UK what was controversially called ‘a rugged doll for boys’ by its inventor, Stan Weston. Having seen the success of G.I. Joe in the States, the company saw the potential in the toy and (like the Hassenfeld Brothers), ignored comments such as, ‘boys will not play with a doll.’
“So confident was the company (Palitoy), that marketing plans were decided and Toy Fair catalogues were printed before the licence was agreed and signed very late in 1965. The ink had barely dried when the toy was launched at the British Toy Fair the following January. As you are aware, it went on to be an enormous success; collecting The Toy of the Year award in its first year and later being voted The Toy of the Decade in 1980.
Although Action Man was still selling well, in 1984 General Mills decided to cease production because plans were afoot to get out of the toy business. The design and development department was closed down and the following year Palitoy became Kenner Parker and the intentions of the new company was to distribute American developed products only, throughout Europe. The intellectual rights to Action Man were passed over to Hasbro and as we know they resurrected the 12” toy in the late 90’s.”
“I joined Palitoy in 1967, a year after the launch, right through until its demise in 1984. Throughout that time, I was the lead designer for Action Man, helping to transform what was essentially G.I. Joe in Palitoy packaging into a British phenomenon. I also led a team that developed the range ‘Action Force’ before we were aware of Hasbro’s intentions to develop the same range of 3 3/4 “ action figures that was to be a “resurrected” G.I. Joe.
It was later that we introduced some Hasbro product into the Action Force range that saved us from some big tooling investment. Action Force was very popular (after the conceptual repositioning in year 2) and money for new tooling was forthcoming. One of my proudest designs was the ‘Roboskull,’ which seems to be very popular with the fans in the States.”
“After leaving Palitoy, I remained in toy design and development and it was during this period I became aware of the collecting mania that had grown. My first real awareness was when I took my (old) boss Bill Pugh, who conceived the ideas to give Action Man ‘realistic hair’ and ‘gripping hands’ (kung-fu grip to G.I. Joe fans ), to an Action Man collector’s show at the Tank Museum in the south of England.
He was totally amazed with the whole collecting scene as we walked amongst the tanks (many from WWI) and the Action Man displays. Sadly, shortly after our visit he passed away. But I was pleased to be able to show him a glimpse of the love that collectors have for a toy that we were able to play a part in bringing to the nation.”
“Since that immersion into the Action Man collecting community, I have been approached by individuals and groups for my thoughts and to attend meetings as a guest. I was involved in the production of the book ‘Action Man: The Official Dossier’ by Ian Harrison, writing the foreword as a dedication to Bill Pugh.
It was with some interest later, in July 2011, when I received an email from a curator at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnall Green, London, that a collector wanted to talk to me about a film he was making about the history of Action Man. After some thought, I told the curator that this person should contact me. Apparently, he took three days composing his email to get it right because he didn’t want to lose me. (He didn’t.)”
“Tony Roberts lives in Perth, Australia. He emigrated there from England when he was a young boy. Whilst in England, he was given an Action Man as a present and fell in love with it straight away. Every birthday and Christmas, he had to have something Action Man as a present and little did he know—he was building up his collection!
When his family moved to Australia, Tony’s love for the toy did not wane and his collection grew. When he grew up, he wanted to emulate his hero, so joined the Australian Army. After serving his time, during which he was seriously collecting, he move back to England and joined the British Army.”
“The London Iranian Embassy Siege, that began on 30th April 1980 and was so dramatically ended by the SAS on 5th May, resulted in Palitoy fast-tracking an Action Man version. It must have also inspired young Tony because later when he was serving with the British Army, he applied for the famous SAS. He was rejected; but Action Man doesn’t give in; so he reapplied and was successful.
After serving with the regiment in the Middle East, Tony took on the role as a security consultant, managing a team that was protecting politicians, industrialists and aid-workers who were part of the operation trying to rebuild Iraq after the conflict. Still collecting Action Man and sending them back home, during this time in Iraq he developed his other love of film-making.”
“Many of his films that were shot from the dashboard of his Humvee received high praise from his colleagues and they would invariably ask for a copy to take with them when their tour of duty ended. When Tony’s own time came, he was unsure of what to do next. Many of his chums were taking up roles on merchant ships protecting them from pirates around the horn of Africa. Tony wanted out; but still unsure of where his life should go.
One day he had a thought. ‘People keep telling me my films are good, they always ask for a copy. That would be an interesting and different career move.’ But he needed a subject. ‘Well, I have this wonderful and almost complete collection of Action Man. The history of the development of the toy would make a great film.’ Bingo!”
“On his return to his home in Perth, he eagerly set to work building dioramas and began shooting. He needed to flesh out the film with face-to-face interviews with some of the people involved in Action Man’s ‘story,’ so yet another return trip was made to England so as to track them (including myself) down.
Tony’s email convinced me with its sincerity and enthusiasm that I should help him with this film. After all, there were plenty of books out there on the subject already, but no definitive story for the screen. So, we spoke on the phone and agreed that he should travel up from his family’s base in the south to Coalville, the old home of Palitoy.”
“In the meantime, I contacted some old ex-colleagues. A room at a local hotel was booked for a couple of days so that Tony could conduct his interviews before he went off to a show to conduct similar interviews with collectors. A few months later, he returned with the first draft of his film.
I arranged with Snibston Discovery Museum (only a stone’s throw from the old Palitoy factory) to show the film there to all those involved, including their friends and family. The attendees were very impressed and thoroughly entertained. From their comments, he returned to Australia and re-edited the film before finally offering it for sale as a DVD from his website.”
“The Snibston Discovery Museum is due for closure at the end of July due to the county council having to make cuts in its budget as a result of the national government’s austerity programme. It is a tragedy that such important places that are guardians of local and national heritage are being closed.
Coalville, as its name suggests, was a coal mining town that grew from humble beginnings and now has a population well over 30,000. The Snibston museum celebrates this industrial heritage, but also is home for other interesting collections; one of which is the TOYS that were once made at Palitoy!”
“My plan WAS to celebrate Action Man’s 50th anniversary at Snibston, so as to promote the toy AND the museum together. But with its closure imminent, an alternative venue was needed. Since the Century Theatre is also part of the Snibston establishment, I have arranged for the Story of Action Man to be screened there, instead.
The showing will help kick off Action Man’s 50th Anniversary, and enable the people of Coalville to see it—especially those that worked at Palitoy and their family and friends. Collectors and fans are particularly welcome. This is a one-off, non-profit event with a £3 ticket price to cover the use of the theatre.”
Bottom Line: Our sincerest thanks and best wishes go out to Bob Brechin for his generous contributions to this article, and to Tony Roberts and all of the other Action Man fans living in the UK, Australia, and elsewhere around the world, as they prepare to celebrate their 1:6 scale hero’s fantastic 50th Anniversary. If you can make the trip to Snibston on July 4th, be sure to attend the film’s showing at the Century Theatre. For complete showtime information, go HERE.
FLASH! THIS JUST IN (6-12-15):
“Hi Mark, I just read the feature you included on The Joe Report. The only thing I must take issue with is putting me up on the same pedestal as Don Levine. I don’t think I deserve that. If Don was in the gold medal position he was up there with Bill Pugh. I would have been lower down (silver medal?).
If you want to make your feelings known about the closure of Snibston, the HOME of Palitoy and Action Man toys, please write to Nicholas Rushton, Leader of the Council, Leicestershire County Council, County Hall, Leicester, LE3 8RA.
Keep issuing great stories about G.I. Joe (and Action Man). I will keep you posted on any 50th news!”Regards, Bob Brechin
FLASH! THIS JUST IN (6-13-15):
“Hello again Mark, I have reread the article in The Joe Report and you say that the Century Theatre was the alternative for celebrating the 50th anniversary of Action Man. I also reread my email to you and could see how you misunderstood me. Century Theatre is not an alternative for the celebrations.
It was always the intention to show the film in the theatre but follow that up with a 50th anniversary show in the museum next year. The theatre had a reprieve but the closure of the museum is still imminent so hence a need for an alternative for next year.” —Bob Brechin