The 1970s was a difficult time for the British toy industry, with events at home and abroad having a significant impact. In the UK, the decade was a time of political upheaval, uncertainty and economic recession, characterised by a series of strikes by various workers. Further afield, the Arab-Israeli war caused an oil shortage, resulting in rising petrol prices, with the ensuing inflation disastrous for the toy industry which relied on oil for plastics production. The price of wood doubled in 1972 and 1973, and labour costs rose. Several leading firms, including the giant Lines Bros, went out of business or were taken over by larger companies during this period. Others decided to cut costs by moving production to the Far East.
Despite these problems, the 1970s proved to be a highly innovative period. Manufacturers could no longer rely on traditional products to attract customers. New types of toy were being designed as a result of changes in popular culture, changing concerns over ethics, and new technology.
One of these was Action Man. Originally created by Stanley Weston in 1964, when it was considered a risky business to make a boy’s doll, in the ’70s Action Man changed. Palitoy launched GI Joe in the US and renamed him as Action Man in Britain in 1966. He was far more lifelike than the wooden and metal soldiers that children had been used to playing with. At first he was a strongly military character, but gradually became something of an adventurous figure, partly in response to calls for anti-war toys. When first produced, Action Man’s hands were moulded in a shape that appeared to be for holding weapons, but this could only be achieved by using an elastic band. He acquired hands that gripped properly in the early ’70s and grew hair, as opposed to the painted hair of the 1960s. Moveable ‘eagle eyes’ operated by a lever on the back of his head helped to complete the improvements. By the early 1980s redesigned legs enabled him to sit and he gained a jointed body; ready for any adventures that faced him.
One of the century’s best-loved toys, Lego, won three awards for Toy of the Year in the 1970s. Lego bricks were already old favourites, having been launched in 1955, but became hugely popular until the ’70s. The company, whose name is derived from two Danish words which mean ‘play well’, was originally founded in 1932 in Billund, Denmark. The concept of the interlocking brick was not new: a wooden version had been in existence in 19th century, followed by a rubber version in the shape of Minibrix in the 1930s and Kiddicraft’s Interlocking cubes. Lego, however, invented the stud and tube coupling system, patented in 1958, which made the structures more stable. Duplo, a set of big Lego blocks, was introduced in 1969 for pre-school chidren and in 1977 a set for the technically minded child called Lego Technic was launched. From the 1960s Lego added a series of pre-designed model sets which came with drawings and building instructions, which while veering away from the original philosophy of open ended block play nonetheless offered children new opportunities for developing their technical skills. Lego was named Toy of the Century by the British Association of Toy Retailers in 2000.
The Spacehopper (1968) was one of the main ‘must-have’ toys and remains one of the best remembered. It was said to have been inspired by one of Mettoy’s directors who saw children bobbing up and down on a floating buoy in a Norwegian quay.
The highly successful new wave of films made for cinema and television inspired toy manufacturers to produce toys based on new monsters and superheroes like Jaws, Superman the Bionic Woman. The theme was, as ever, the conflict between good and evil. Later in the decade, against the background of excitement surrounding the launch of the space shuttle in 1977, and the massive popularity of the epic film Star Wars, heroes and villains took on a more extraterrestrial nature and could be unrecognisable creatures of fantasy.
Children were already prepared for this world of created mythology: they had read Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963) and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy (1967-72), as well as CS Lewis’ earlier Chronicles of Narnia and JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. These worlds provided children and adults with an escape route to a world where everyday reality was not relevant and they were free to enact ever-changing roles in a creation of their own imagination. An entirely new category of role playing games began in 1973 when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson turned a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy into a playable adventure in the form of Dungeons and Dragons. Most Dungeons and Dragons games used some form of map, but the adventure largely took place in the imaginations of those playing. One of the players served as the Dungeon Master, the all-seeing eye that narrated the adventure, held all the secret maps and controlled all the non-player characters. The rest of the players each took a character of their own.
Undoubtedly the biggest innovation in toys during the 1970s were the first video games. In 1972 Atari released Pong, a version of Ping-Pong with a white ‘ball’ that was moved back and forth across the screen by two ‘bats’ that were controlled by knobs. Nolan Bushnell had founded Atari earlier that year, later selling it to Time-Warner for $28 million. This marked the beginning of the huge video gaming industry over which Sony and Nintendo would eventually reign. Computer technology had arrived in the world of toys, a world in which reality had been replaced by fantasy and surreality.