Snibston Discovery Museum predicts a return to toys like Action Man and Tiny Tears

By Richard Moss | 16 August 2011
a photo of two dolls in a 1970s advertisement
A Palitoy toy fair advertisement from 1970© Courtesy Leicestershire County Council
It may seem unlikely in the era of Nintendo and Xbox, but the relatively humble Action Man and Pippa Doll of yesterday could be about to make a comeback.

That’s according to an unlikely alliance of curators and healthcare professionals in Leicestershire who reckon the nostalgic British toys could provide a welcome alternative to the latest technological gadgets.

They may be biased. The county is home to Snibston Discovery Museum in Coalville, which holds the best collection of toys from the local British toy maker Palitoy whose Coalville factory turned out everything from Action Man to Tiny Tears.

an advertising photo of two children playing with dolls and action figures
© Courtesy Leicestershire County Council
“When you mention toy manufacturers, people usually associate them with being made in China,” says Fiona Ure, Curator of Home and Life at Leicestershire County Council. “Yet some of the most iconic toys from the 20th Century like Action Man and Star Wars figures were actually made right here in Britain.
“Any child growing up in the mid to late 20th Century would have played with a Palitoy toy. Of course this was before the time of the Xbox and Playstation, but even now parents are re-introducing the joy of playing with traditional toys to their children as a welcome distraction from the ever growing technological gadgets available.”

Her views are backed up by Dr Peter Marks, Director of Public Health for Leicestershire who also sees the benefits of a return to the toys of yesteryear. “Many traditional toys, in addition to providing a lot of fun for children, also help them to be more active in their everyday lives with all the positive health benefits that can bring” he says. 

So could it be that it’s not just men of a certain age who hanker after vintage Dinky toys, space hoppers, Hornby train sets and Airfix kits?

If so it could be good news for US company Hasbro, the originator of many of the toys churned out at Coalville and who bought back the moulds and licenses from Palitoy when it closed in 1984.

a photo of an Action Man doll dressed in military uniform
An early Action Man© Courtesy Leicestershire County Council
At least the British manufacturer had an impressive run in the world of children’s toy manufacture between the 1960s and 1980s, when Coalville became a base camp for a miniature army of Action Men.

Originating in the US as the Hasbro-manufactured GI Joe, Palitoy’s Action Man was the first British made action figure for boys. It went on to fire the imaginations of countless youngsters who dressed, played and created fantasy worlds with their plastic companions.

Action Man soon branched out from military hero into the fields of sport, exploration and adventure. Along the way he developed talking skills, hands that gripped, hair that bristled and eagle eyes that moved from side to side (courtesy of a handy lever at the back of his head).

Throughout this evolution he retained the enigmatic scar on his right cheek.

As well as countless outfits and accoutrements ranging from French resistance fighter and astronaut kit to sandbags, bazookas and machine guns, Action Man also drove plastic armoured cars, jeeps, dinghies, tanks, and even piloted a helicopter with moving rotor blades. 

As a result, between 1966 and 1984, Action Man was on the top of most little boy’s wish lists.   

But Action Man wasn’t the only success story for Palitoy. Visitors to Snibston can discover some of the most famous and popular toys of the late 20th Century including Tiny Tears, the ‘fashion doll’ Pippa, countless Star Wars figures and the Care Bears - many of them donated by the company’s former employees.

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