It’s an unwritten rule of any exercise in boyhood nostalgia of the 60s or 70s that Action Man has got to be in there somewhere. And why not? There can’t have been many boys of that era who either didn’t have at least one Action Man of their own or, at the very least, took temporary command of the ones belonging to an obliging friend. I’ll confess from the start that I’m following in the footsteps of the likes of James May, and his excellent Toy Stories episode attempting to send Action Man into space, and Al Murray in his autobiography, ‘Watching War Films With My Dad’. I think my favourite journey into the world of Action Man, though, has to be in Harry Pearson’s book on a life playing with model soldiers, ‘Achtung Schweinhund’, which was one of those books that has me chortling out loud every time I re-read it.
Up to the point that music and girls took over as the driving force in any MidCentury Chap’s life, the dominant influence tended to be either sport or war. Fortunately for me, I’m pretty sure that I was looking the other way when the sport gene was handed out, so that left no competition for the steady diet of war films and Airfix kits that hallmarked my youth. Airfix’s HO/00 scale soldiers played a big part in helping me act out my ambitions as a military commander, and the yellow base of our paddling pool was regularly pressed into service as a particularly radiant section of Normandy beach, but a combination of their tiny proportions and plastic immobility was a nagging frustration. Action Man, on the other hand, offered infinite variety in both posture and costume. Of course, there were certain limitations from the outset – a box of Airfix soldiers could yield a couple of platoons (even if the bizarrely-posed characters were returned to unit). Conversely, most Action Men saw out their service in solitary operations, sharing danger with at most one or two comrades in arms, or facing the might of a single opponent. Outfits weren’t cheap either, and the agonising wait for birthday or Christmas was at least as frustrating as the real military procurement cycle! For the 1960s Action Man, there was also a strangely transatlantic feel to his outfits. Of course, we know now that was because he was a repackaged GI Joe but, until the series of historic uniforms became available in the 1970s, we were forced to act out conflicts that smacked more of the US servicemen in Vietnam (less the Platoon-style uniform customisation) than the Second World War tommies we eagerly followed in our Commando and Warlord comics.
A common theme for we sons of the wartime austerity generation was the addition of some home-made garb to the Action Man wardrobe. Equipped with a set of neo-Action Man skis (ie not quite the real Palitoy article), mine set off on his Nordic adventures in a rather natty knitted sweater. Mind you, he fell short of qualifying as a one-man quick reaction force, given the inordinate time needed to feed his stiff hands through the woollen sleeves. For waterborne operations, he took to a simple plywood landing craft, hampered only by the total absence of any form of propulsion which, while stealthy, would have made any assault less than swift. His pride and joy, though, was the extensive training area available in close proximity to his barracks, where the edge of the woodland at the end of our garden allowed me to construct a length of trench, complete with dugout and forward saps, which he occupied after snatching some well-earned rest in a garden netting bivouac. Fortunately, reinforcements were secured in the shape of a blonde version of Action Man snapped up at a local Scout jumble sale. Sadly, it transpired that the new man had recently left Action Man Field Hospital after undergoing replacement of his broken hand joint with a metal washer. This ground-breaking surgical procedure had left him with only one flaw – a very limp wrist which prevented him from carrying any weapon in a warlike fashion. This, combined with Action Man’s innate inability to adopt any unsupported pose with a degree of naturalism, meant that the pair of them bore less resemblance to highly trained troops and more to a pair of mime artists embarking on a piece of street art.
But for all that, we loved them. Luckily for me, my fairly small collection of uniforms (there was always too much competition from Airfix for my pocket money), included all those now regarded as classics of their kind: the Red Devil parachutist (forever crashing fatally to the patio outside my bedroom window), Deep Sea Diver (whose exploits were limited by the fact that his head came level with the overflow outlet on the bathtub), WW2 British Tommy and German Stormtrooper, and – for some inexplicable reason – the footballer, doubtless a gift from a distant family member ignorant of my total uninterest in team sport. One birthday even brought me the coveted Armoured Car, allowing me to join the ranks of those blissfully believing that our Armed Forces whizzed about the battlefield in something about the size of a Mini, but also earning me enough of the stars to acquire the Action Man 7” record, with stirring marching song on one side and, on the other, authentic sounds from the only conflict to go from first shot to full-scale air/land/maritime combined operations and back to ceasefire within 3 minutes.
With no thought to their future collectability, the whole lot went in the small ads of the local classified paper to raise funds for a Mamod steam engine, leaving only the equipment manuals and original cardboard box that had become separated and stored away in the loft. So far, I’ve resisted the temptation to join the ranks of the Action Man collectors’ fraternity – well, apart from adding a copy of the record to my vinyl collection. Am I tempted by the prospect of a 50th anniversary figure, though? Of course I am!
There are some amazing on-line resources for all things Action Man. Action Man HQ is the completists’ nirvana, with everything from a detailed history of the evolution of the figure himself (including the realistic hair, eagle eyes and gripping hands essential to any Action Man nostalgia-fest), to catalogues of uniforms, equipment, vehicles and even instruction manuals. Its associated Facebook Page will keep you up to date with all Action Man news.