Exhibit / January 7, 2020
Of all the weird remnants to have filtered down into British popular culture of the late 20th century, the toy soldier was one of the most pervasive. The British Army had long been an important element—read facilitator and enforcer—of the country’s imperialist culture, and the total war mindset programmed into us by the First and Second World Wars was still very much a part of the psychological and physical landscape until well into the 1980s. At the beginning of the decade, newsagents still sold multiple weekly and fortnightly war story comics for children, Sven Hassel books were as ubiquitous as ashtrays, TV was still full of war films, and it was not considered in any way peculiar for a 9-year-old school friend to turn up to a fancy-dress party in a surprisingly accurate Wehrmacht uniform (well, maybe a bit strange—my mum did ask what his German stepdad did). And a large range of toy soldiers depicting the various fighting forces of World War II was still standard stock in toy shops: what better way to accustom children to the idea that war wasn’t something terrible and only to be entered into when absolutely necessary? That it was natural—just another game?
Founded in 1893 and famous for the accuracy and detailing of its products, stuffy British toy company Britains (I know) was the most establishment of the country’s toy producers. It had revolutionized the national toy industry with the invention of the hollow casting process, which allowed its lead figures to break the German stranglehold of the lucrative toy soldier market, and it continued to produce lead figures until costs and safety concerns forced a shift to plastic (produced in Hong Kong) on heavy metal bases in the late 1960s.
Britains’ soldiers were prestige toys to be collected, placed on a shelf, and admired for their craftsmanship—not set on fire with lighter fuel or buried in the back garden. Neither I nor any of the other children I knew in the consumerist ’70s had any, because, for the price of two Britains figures (which you would probably have had to go to a special “posh” toy shop to get), you could get a whole squadron of unpainted, injection-molded Airfix British Tommies, or an entire army in a plastic bag from one of the less accuracy-minded toy companies. To those of us less concerned with unsightly flanges of molding flash than with the thought of having an entire platoon at our command, Britains’ toys barely registered. But then, we were not their quarry. It’s clear from a glance at the company’s catalogs over the years that its target audience must have been the children of the nation’s wealthy farmers: at least, it’s hard to imagine why the hell else eight of the twenty pages of the 1980 catalog were dedicated to farm animals and, even more confusingly, farm equipment. Britains’ farm line had been introduced after the First World War when the nation was, understandably, looking for a something that didn’t remind them of the vast numbers of corpses that littered the continent. As undeniably beautiful as the models are, though, it’s hard to imagine any child of 1980 who had not been raised in Britain’s (the country, not the toy maker) most frightening cult—middle-class farmers—asking Santa for a 1:32 scale Vicon vari-spreader. Appropriately, one of Britains’ (the toy maker) rare forays into the populist cesspit of licensing (another was the 1924 Nestlé World Cow) was a model of Worzel Gummidge, the nation’s favorite TV scarecrow, as played by ex-Doctor Who Jon Pertwee. Throughout the postwar period, then, Britains’ business model had been based on two of the pursuits that have shaped and enslaved the human race over the millennia: farming and war—capitalism and imperialism, if you like.
By the end of the 1970s, American products had forced their way into the British market, and a dated domestic industry found it was struggling to retain kids’ affections and obtain their cash. Now add to that a movie called Star Wars. Global behemoth Lego had released its Space range in 1977 and the other big UK toy companies had already come out with their own ripostes to the changing landscape: Matchbox with the Adventure 2000 series and Corgi with its doom-laden X-Ploratrons. In 1981, Britains evidently decided that it could no longer afford to ignore the laser blasts shaking the heavens and embarked on its belated, ill-omened attempt to seize the thrashing tail of the zeitgest. What emerged was an unexpectedly joyous eruption of plastic that felt as though the warehouse-coat-clad bods usually charged with creating photo-accurate 1:32 scale diecast baling machines had done a load of mushrooms while reading a pile of sci-fi comics and listening to Hawkwind.
The relativism and lack of perspective implicit in calling a range of plastic space people transcendently beautiful, as I did above, doesn’t escape me, but in this case I feel as though it’s to some extent merited. Originally given a name whose uninspiring nature was fully in keeping with Britains’ reputation for dull worthiness—“Space”—the range’s strange cosmology posited an unexplained army of space soldiers clad in beautifully-designed bright yellow spacesuits, their feet anchored, like all Britains figures, to unwieldy metal lozenges for stability. Arrayed against them, for no clear reason, were their nemeses, the “Aliens.” The unexplained antagonism between the two sides was made even stranger by the fact that they shared exactly the same bodies, though the aliens’ suits were black and, in place of helmets, their heads took the skull-motif of the Cylon helmet to its extreme conclusion and colored it blood red.
The figures were alluringly idiosyncratic even by the standards of other space toys, and, incredibly, given their origins, some of the figures were even women—women who seemed almost to be in a position of equality with the men. In the world of 1980s British toys, women who wore unisex uniforms, carried weapons, and competently piloted vehicles were very much the exception. And stranger yet, there were female aliens too. Was it a genuine nod to sexual equality? Who knows. “Space”, of course, still existed in the realm of childish Manicheism: the (white) humans were the goodies, the be-tendrilled weirdos were the baddies. And as the range grew, more baddies were added, first among which were the Mutants (ahem). Surely one of the strangest of all the toys produced in the UK over this particularly fecund period, the Mutants in particular seemed almost a slap in the face to the tight-lipped Protestant worthiness of Britains’ other toys, a demented explosion of tentacles and forms that even now looks inexplicable, as though decades of repressed imagination were erupting through them. Obviously, the “Space” range also included its own line of distinctive spacecraft and accessories, all beautifully designed (initially) examples of Britains’ precision craftsmanship.
Unfortunately, British kids—drunk on years of heady backstories and manipulative advertising campaigns—were not impressed. Britain’s Space fitted into no greater marketing narrative: it was just there, in all its glorious, costly weirdness. It’s hard to imagine how children could not have been immediately entranced by the grotesque forms, but Britains’ toys remained prohibitively expensive and available in a relatively limited number of outlets. Presumably in response to the lack of interest, the range underwent increasingly bizarre mutations over the following years, becoming Stargard and Star System and god knows what else, and adding cheaper- and cheaper-looking accessories before eventually disappearing from Britains’ annual catalogue altogether in 1988. I never managed to get my hands on any: my one attempt, which involved sending away six empty packets of Outer Spacers snacks, was doomed to failure, the 19½p in change I’d enclosed to pay for postage presumably snaffled by some venal postal worker before it ever reached its destination.
With its incongruous egalitarianism and its grotesque mutations, did Britains’ Stargard mean anything, in the wider sense? I doubt it. It was a daft toy that represented a tiny bubble of creativity and absurdity that ran completely counter to the company’s reputation as a purveyor of sturdy, well-crafted, establishment-supporting dullness. Yet there it now sits, its peculiar beauty somehow burnished even more by its complete and absolute triviality. And in some strange way, Britains’ Space, or Stargard, or Star Force, or whatever the hell it ended up being called, evokes the UK’s own recent history: the dream of an explosively egalitarian future sabotaged by a grotesque reflux of farmers and generals hacking, plowing, and shooting their way back into the past.