'HE'S BACK]' proclaim the posters in Hamleys, Argos and numerous other toy retailers. Action Man, he of the plastic pectorals, facial scar and weirdly furry hair, is indeed back in children's shops this morning with his gun and his impossibly tight boots. But was he ever away? 'A huge majority of people thought that Action Man was still on the market,' says Sally ffitch of Hasbro, suppliers of Action Man. 'It was only when they came to buy him for their own children that they found out he was in fact stopped eight years ago.'

From 1966 to 1984 Action Man was the perennial boy's toy; at the height of his fame, it was estimated that there were 1.3 Action Men for every boy in the country. 'Boys look up to him,' says Sally. Soldier, sailor, frogman, astronaut; Action Man and his limitless, manly wardrobe not only signalled to boys what were the correct pursuits for adult life, but made it acceptable to own a doll or, more properly, a 'figure'. 'You must never call Action Man a doll,' says Sally sternly.

Indeed, Action Man aficionados recall that in the early days a 'figure' designed specially for boys was so odd that some fathers forbade its ownership completely. Graham Perris, Action Man collector and toy dealer, says: 'I remember boys hiding their Action Men from their dads, or just keeping them at school in case they were taken away.'

Marketed in 1966 as The Movable Fighting Man, Action Man was a direct copy of the American toy GI Joe. His invincibility and toughness were highlighted by his arrival in a bullet-riddled box wearing a metal tag with a military rank


With movable arms, waist, wrists and ankles, he was way ahead of his plastic female contemporaries. 'He was far, far superior to Barbie,' Graham says. 'In those days, Barbie and Sindy didn't move. They were totally rigid. I remember girls being really jealous. We could move Action Man into 21 action positions.'

The 1993 model, which comes in four forms, is slightly different from his forerunners. The battle scar is still there, as is the steely gaze and flock hair; but the floppy wrists and ankles have been done away with, and the chest is beefed up, as if Action Man had just auditioned for The Chippendales. Which, of course, he never would. 'Action Man portray an actor or a dancer?' says Frances Baird, who has just written a book on Action Man and owns more than 300 'figures'. 'I don't think so. No, there has never been a gay Action Man, or a single father figure. No, nothing like that.'

Action Man did once have a sort of girlfriend, but she never really caught on. 'She didn't tie in with the rest of the set,' Frances says.

The 'rest of the set', which originally numbered more than 30 models, is as clear a guide to the aspirations of the Sixties and Seventies as you could wish for. At the start, Action Man's Second World War army uniforms continued the concept of British and US world dominance. With the onset of the Vietnam war and growing unease with the military, he was subtly transformed into a kind of Harrison Ford 'adventure' figure, equally able to dive into the ocean or bivouac on a mountainside. England win the World Cup? Action Man has a footballer's outfit. Neil Armstrong lands on the Moon? Action Man has a complete astronaut's get-up, reportedly made from the same material as that of the Apollo astronauts' clothing.

Every three years he was revamped. In 1970, he grew a beard; in 1973, his hands gripped. Three years later he gained creepy, follow-you-about eagle eyes, and the final transformation in 1979 gave him not only a sharpshooter head (allowing him to look down the sights of a gun while lying down), but also a pair of blue non- removable underpants. 'You know, he was a naked man before,' says Frances. Yes, but only just. Any biological detail on Action Man's nether regions has always been moulded into what is opaquely termed a 'mound'.

Today's Action Man collection consists of three 'goodies' and a masked 'baddie' who goes under the splendid title of Cobra Commander. Hasbro says it needed to produce a nasty version, as apparently boys, unlike girls, have to be given clear instructions about what role their 'figure' will play. 'They need an enemy given to them to play against,' Sally says.

'When we needed a baddie, we just used to dress up our Action Man in German uniform,' says Graham - 'or Russian.'

He brandishes a Sixties Action Man complete with Kalashnikov rifle and Order of Lenin badge. 'Remember, it was the height of the Cold War.'

The original face, based on an amalgam of 20 US Second World War heroes, has been softened; and the beautifully detailed jackets with real buttons are now secured with Velcro. But the intricate uniform is still there, as are the all-important accessories such as spy kits and knives.

Hasbro says it is going to extend the range significantly in 1994; so it is possible that we will see the return of the Talking Commander, who had a chest string attached to a device that emitted a series of wonderfully butch orders, such as 'Mortar Attack] Dig In]' or 'Enemy Aircraft] Action Stations]'

If Hasbro were to bring back a vocal Action Man, however, it is unlikely that he would embody the spirit of our era so accurately. Would Action Man ever say 'Hug Me', or 'I Love You?'

'I should think not]' splutters Graham. Action Man doesn't really belong in this decade. He was made for a time when men were cricketers, or frogmen, or pilots, but always macho; when the Russians knew that they were always the baddies, the Germans knew that they had been the baddies, and when we were always the good guys. Graham picks up his 1966 Action Man and tenderly clasps its movable wrist. 'It's a reminder of a simpler age, isn't it?' he says.

The Action Man Collectors' Convention is on 27-28 February 1993 at the Tank Museum, Bovington Camp, Wareham, Dorset.

'Action Man: 1966-1984', by Frances Baird, will be published by New Cavendish Books in November.

(Photograph omitted)