Action replay

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In the years he has impinged on boyish lives, not much has changed for Action Man. For three decades, fondling the famous 12 inches of plastic manhood in the privacy of their own bedrooms has been part of the process of growing up for small boys; the dressing and undressing of their hero in various items of warlike attire a vital early acquaintance with the pleasures of uniform.

When he first came along, in 1966, there was always one thing about him that was a bit confusing for the nascent militarist. Strip him down to the basics, ready for a quick change into the outfit of a commando, Grenadier Guardsman or German storm trooper, and you were confronted by an odd, flat, featureless piece of plastic where his groin should have been, a sort of Lincolnshire of the nether regions. Traditionalists will be delighted to learn that when the keen Action Man fan gets him ready for Operation Desert Storm or to do battle with his new enemy, Dr X, in full diver's kit, his plaything is as challenged as he has always been in the groin area: the forces of modernism have at least been kept at bay down there.

Action Man was born in the early Sixties. Stanley Weston, the inventor, received $100,000 for his idea from the toy conglomerate Palitoy; it seemed like wealth indeed at the time, but he must have had nightmares ever since at the thought of the royalties he might have made. In order to compensate for perceived prejudice at the idea of a boy's doll, GI Joe, as the toy is still known in America, was absurdly macho. A brooding, John Wayne figure, he was muscle-bound, unsmiling, with an ugly gash on his cheek, and hands permanently ready to grab a weapon. No anti-Vietnam patsy was GI Joe.

When he came to England in 1966, the country was not quite as obeisant to all things American as it is now. GI Joe was translated into Action Man, and the outfits reflected Britain's rather than America's military traditions. These outfits, bought separately from the figure, were the piece of marketing that made Action Man a cast-iron financial winner. Targeting a small boy's need to collect, it offered endless accessories (350 at its peak in the mid-Seventies, ranging from space ranger's to cricketer's) allowing him to build up armouries of gleaming hardware. And, as the toy company knew full well, militarism and collectability are perfect bedfellows: there is, after all, no kit fetishist like an army officer.

Man of the Seventies

Action Man won the Toy of the Decade award for the Seventies, when it was estimated that children in the UK owned an average of 1.3 Action Men per head. All sorts of men appeared on the market: developments included Action Man with textured hair, the talking Action Man with a string on his back which, when pulled, suggested, in unconvincing mechanical tones, that "we attack the ridge immediately", and one less successful item (the Michael Portillo model) with wild, rotating eyes. None of them is still on the market.

Indeed, in 1984 the very concept of Action Man was deemed too old-fashioned to compete with computer games, and he was withdrawn from active service - though many thousands of fans who had not grown up since he entered their lives continued to collect him and his outfits, meeting for annual conventions, poring over each other's displays with all the relish of philatelists and car enthusiasts.

The nostalgia factor

In 1993, however, Hasbro, the company now in control of the rights, appreciated the power of parental nostalgia in the purchase of children's toys. The lads who had grown up with Action Man were happier for their own offspring to play with him than to waste their lives in front of screens. So, back he came, with remodelled hands, nylon hair and a tattoo on his forearm, but with the scowl and scar intact. It was a wise marketing decision. Take-up of the toy has been phenomenal: sales now represent an average of 2.1 Action Men per British child. And in London in July the biggest ever Action Man convention will be held, where thousands of collectors will gather with their arsenals and swap notes about the merits of the man with nothing downstairs