Giving at the Office: Palitoy’s Action Man

Recollections / December 10, 2018

So this week we’re each going to talk about a toy from Christmas past that one of the other guys has figuratively “gifted” us. I volunteered Richard to be my secret Santa because I expected a gift so quintessentially representative of the forlorn British ’70s of his youth that I could simply rag on him and his homeland for a few paragraphs. No such luck. I got some pretty inoffensive stuff up front: a cricket (the “sport,” not the insect) board game, a silly toy called Steer-n-go (no wonder Brits can’t drive), the George v Mildred Dice Game (admittedly, this one’s almost sad enough), and some other bullshit that I can’t remember. I chose Action Man because Atomic Man looked pretty cool, and because Richard described the Adventurer figure as “Manifest Destiny Libertarian,” which gave me a chuckle.

Yeah, Action Man was the British version of G.I. Joe, licensed from Hasbro starting in 1966. Both lines were explicitly WWII military-themed until about 1968, when a significant number of parents decided that selling war toys while soldiers and civilians were being needlessly slaughtered by the thousands in Vietnam was not a particularly good idea. In 1970, Hasbro launched G.I. Joe Adventure Team, which focused more on high-octane exploration, rescuing, and non-political intrigue. Action Man, less violent from inception, followed suit, even including sports figures like World Cup Footballer and Olympic Champion. After Star Wars, both Hasbro and Palitoy sent their respective good guys to the stars, with the newly christened Super Joe Adventure Team getting there first. The Super Joes folded in 1978, and the Action Team Space Rangers debuted in 1980 (among them, for some reason, was ROM the Spaceknight, licensed from Parker Brothers).

The differences between the American and British franchises probably will not surprise you. Where the Adventure Team was marked by sensationalism and feats of nearly superhuman bravado, with sets called Peril of the Raging Inferno, White Tiger Hunt, and Jaws of Death (each came with its own mini comic book), Action Man was impeccably detailed, historically precise, and protective of the impressionable minds of children, with sets like Team Control Centre, Sea Rescue, and Special Operations Tent. Both lines were assembled and presented with a quality and care that hasn’t been seen in children’s toys for decades.

Writing the above has got me thinking: what would a Richard McKenna Action Man doll look like? Well, let me tell you. Instead of “gripping hands,” it would boast “nervously gesticulating hands”; instead of “realistic hair,” it would sport “realistic wisps of hair”; and, far from “eagle eyes,” its face would present a “persistent nearsighted squint.” McKenna, dressed in a wool sport coat found in the wardrobe of a deceased octogenarian bank clerk (quite famous in the Napoleonic wargaming community of South Yorkshire), a vintage Italian necktie given to him for translating a pornographic historical novel (I, Cunnilingus) into English, brown corduroy slacks, and open-toed sandals over argyle socks, Action Man McKenna comes with spectacles (obviously), a walking stick, and a gourd-like backpack that is not removable from his body (inside is a 2012 MacBook that may or may not contain the feature he was supposed to have written). Pressing the red button set into the lower back of this particular “movable writing man” will elicit phrases such as, “This eggplant casserole is quite nice,” or “Christ, birthdays give me the existential collywobbles,” or “You spoiled yank bastards: Weebles were a prestige toy in socialist ’70s UK, and we wept in front of our black and white TV sets nightly when the advert came on.” Once in a while, though, the doll will say something so spontaneously and lastingly brilliant that you can hardly believe the fucking thing only cost you two quid. 

K.E. Roberts

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