It’s always nice when you realise you were ahead of the curve when it comes to popular trends… sometimes by a matter of decades.
Take, for example, Kit Harington – he of Jon Snow fame from Game Of Thrones – talking recently about his “gender fluid” upbringing. He would ask for an Action Man and his mum would buy him a doll.
Well, back in the early 60s, I was being given an Action Man and still played with my sisters’ dolls. In fact, I once had a hissy fit because my mum said I couldn’t take a pram and dollies to nursery with me. Seeing as we lived in a bit rough-around-the-edges housing scheme it was probably for the best.
Back then, gender fluid wasn’t a thing. Boys played with toy guns, girls collected scraps. End of.
Still, I had the last laugh by continuing to play with dolls. After all, what is Action Man? An action figure? Aye, right. It’s a doll for boys.
This fiction was regularly put right on Blue Peter of all places. Because the BBC couldn’t endorse products, John Noakes had to show us how to make our own uniforms for our “dolls”. A generation of wee boys winced at that one.
Still, I always had an Action Man around as a kid, starting with the first one when he had a painted on head (complete with the iconic scar on his cheek) and came with combat fatigues, including a wee plastic cap and boots and outsized dog tags.
You could also get him as a pilot or a sailor, but the squaddie was the go-to choice. All the better to relive those World War Two films we were force fed every Sunday afternoon as kids.
But getting the “moveable fighting man” was just your starter for 10. You then needed to start parting with your pocket money to buy him all the kit he needed. You just had to have the field pack, with its little canteen, rucksack, and spade. And where would Action Man be without his paratrooper parachute pack? And he really, really needs that all-white ski patrol outfit.
No wonder John Noakes was showing us how to make stuff out of dad’s old shirts and sticky-back plastic.
As the years went on, though, Action Man got more and more sophisticated. I mean, real hair, wow! Well, it was like that fuzzy stuff that went on flock wallpaper, but the idea was there. He even got a beard at one point. And for one glorious moment he could speak, courtesy of a pull-out string. Not that you could understand what he was saying, but the thought was there.
Then there were grippable hands, all the better to hold his death-dealing pistols and machine guns. If you balanced it right, you could flip his arm and watch him throw a hand-grenade. The grippable hands weren’t that grippable.
Of course, there was eagle-eye Action Man. A button at the back of his head made his eyes move from side to side. Ooooh! Personally I think they missed a trick. Around this time they were branching out of the purely military into other areas of life… Ol’ swivel-eyes could have been billed as Optician Action Man – “What’s better, lens one or lens two” – eye chart an optional extra.
And there were lots of optional extras… you could buy a Jeep (about the extent of what my family’s budget ran to), a tank (if your parents were posh) and even a helicopter. A geeky kid round the corner had one of those and went from Johnny No-Mates to kids round at his house all the time, until the novelty wore off.
You just need to look at the official equipment manual for Action Man from the 60s through to the 80s (yes, they exist and, yes, you can find them online) to see how our hero changed. It’s a fascinating nostalgia binge (I had that rubber dinghy!).
Suddenly, Action Man could be tricked out in football strips (yes, the England ’66 one was front and foremost).
Action Man became a space man, complete with a Gemini style space capsule. (Santa clearly never got my letters). As the years went on Space Action Man got a bit, well rubbish, with Star Wars-stylee outfits and weird monsters. What’s a Gargon?
But the backbone of Action Man was always the military stuff, with uniforms for famous British regiments lovingly recreated. And it wasn’t limited to British military.
Fancy having your very own Nazi Stormtrooper or German Staff Officer, complete with Iron Cross? There you go…. Hard to imagine that happening these days, but back then the German uniforms were among the highest sellers for Action Man. Disturbing, but true.
On the subject of highest sellers – a rare Action Man judo kit fetched upwards of £5,000 in auction five years ago. Ah, if only I had taken better care of my Action Men and their gear, I might have been minted.
But I did what all small boys did after a while. I decided to see how much effort it would take to pull his head off and reveal that hexagonal spike thing.
You wound up his arms to make them birl with the elastic inside until said elastic broke. Then you pulled off his arms to see what went wrong. Note to young self. Once the limbs are off, they are tricky to re-attach.
You picked at his flock hair to figure out what it actually was. You and your mates put Action Man on a dart board for target practice. Finally, you tossed him to one side and discovered the joys of music and girls instead. You might just remember the good old days when Action Man was your bestie, when, raking under your bed for that other platform shoe, you pull out a dusty, dismembered, bald action doll fit only for the bin…
It is a bit like Toy Story via the gorier bits of Game of Thrones… imagine if Ramsay Bolton had an Action Man.
The irony is, Kit Harrington, well Jon Snow, now has his very own action figure for Game Of Thrones fans. No word on whether his mum is going to buy it for him.
If she did, though, he would be well advised to keep it in mint condition in its box. Give it 50 years and it will be worth a sight more than an Action Man judo outfit.