Gameboy? You need a Spacehoppa!

Nostalgia-afflicted parents are fuelling a Seventies toy revival. Dominic Lutyens goes in search of retro fun

Strange things are afoot in Toyland. The wasp-waisted queen bee Barbie and piranha-proof Action Man are selling better than computer games. And with another Star Wars trilogy looming, action figures of Luke Skywalker & Co will soon be joining their ranks.

According to Nicola Bell of the market research company NPD, "sales of video games were down 34 per cent in 1994 compared with 1993, while those of traditional toys went up 4 per cent in the same period. Video game sales peaked in 1993, but the novelty has begun to wear off."

"Parental endorsement", to use marketing jargon, is largely to blame. First-time thirtysomething parents abound, and many toy manufacturers put down the appeal of retro toys from the Sixties and the Seventies to parents' "recall", nostalgia in other words. As Jon Salisbury, editor of UK Toy News, says: "Adults love nothing better than to give children the toys they once had."

While toy collectors have long been tracking down original figures from Sixties and Seventies television series with train-spotter passion, the retro toy craze hit the mainstream in earnest in 1992 following TV reruns of the Sixties series Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90. Demand for a model of the International Rescue base, Tracey Island, was such that shoppers camped outside toy stores to beat early-morning stampedes. Gerry Anderson mania is here to stay. I recently spotted a model of Lady Penelope's classy pink Rolls, FAB 1, in uncharacteristically chipped condition, going for pounds 65 at the Camden Passage antiques market in north London - a bargain. Last year an original Captain Scarlet puppet went for pounds 12,075at a Phillips auction.

People have never had a problem with accepting Sixties nostalgia, thanks to Sixties aficionados. But Seventies retro? Five years ago hardly anyone took it seriously. Now, as if to make up for lost time, the floodgates have opened. Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) has been resurrected, while Kenny Everett shows really are in the best possible taste.

And we are not only talking about television. "The fashion for Seventies toys," says Mr Salisbury, referring to healthy sales of Spirograph, Spacehoppas, Creepy Crawlies, pogo-sticks and the like, "is just another facet of the Seventies revival we've already seen in fashion and music."

This year, Hot Wheels, the car toy with funky, orange loop-the-loop tracks (Argos, pounds 11.95), has been given a huge marketing push. Meanwhile, Stretch Armstrong, the Neanderthal figure that stretches to four times his length (Argos, pounds 8.25), is back from the grave - as are the more esoteric Liddle Kiddles, minuscule dolls with glossy, Troll-like tresses. Wrist-crunching Clackers - balls on strings that swung dangerously - are unlikely to be revived. But the much safer tiddlywinks-style game Pogs (originally a 1972 playground craze) is Hamleys' best-selling toy at pounds 3.49.

Does it matter that Nineties kids won't share their parents' nostalgia? More to the point, might they not take one look at a dated-looking doll, Joe 90, say, and think: this toy ain't us? Mr Salisbury thinks not: "Power Rangers and Thunderbirds figures have a lot in common. Both are cartoon- like, colour-coded and adventure-based."

In any case, most toys that make a comeback, such as Meccano and Action Man, are updated. When Meccano replaced its tightening key with a power tool, purists were horrified, but kids less hung up on the work ethic still hanker after the classic toy. Action Man - reborn in 1993 and Britain's fastest-selling toy - now comes complete with laptop computer. Ironically, second time around, the pint-sized he-man some dads forbade their sons (Boys playing with male "dolls"? Never heard of anything so queer!) boasts pneumatic pecs just like the gay doll Billy Boy. And news is that Gladiator Trojan is to play Action Man in a TV tie-in.

Barbie always keeps abreast of fashion. But last year, as Nostalgic Barbie, she sported a 1959 party frock to celebrate her 35th birthday - the first in a series of Barbie-through-the-ages dolls. This year's model, Solo in the Spotlight (Hamley's, pounds 34.99), is kitted out in a 1961 Monroesque cocktail dress. Judging by this Thursday's sale of Sixties and Seventies Barbie outfits at Christie's, she has her adult and kiddie fans.

That other diehard, Airfix, purveyor of Spitfires to several generations, is also still a hit with kids and grown-ups. A recent ad campaign featured female models, model planes and the slogan: "Super models of the year!" It's all very Seventies "Fly me, I'm Linda" stuff.

As with retro toys so with sweets. Introduced in 1948, Spangles melted into oblivion in the mid-Eighties but now are back. So too are the Cadbury's bars Old Jamaica and Grand Seville and the chocolate frog Freddo. Mars, the maker of Spangles, says it chose radio to air this year's zingy relaunch jingle "Spangles - sucked back in time" (aimed at adults over 25) because it seemed an appropriately retro medium.

For tuck-shop memories, there's always the inadvertent retro of sweet wrappers: Crunchie's telltale loveheart dotting the "i", Chewits' bubble- writing logo. Better still, this summer's fashion for Juicy Fruit T-shirts, Love Heart jewellery and liquescent Refresher-packet pastels. As for where to flaunt them, you could do worse than head for the London club Ker-Plunk.

MOVERS AND SHAKERS IN TOYLAND

Introduced Old Price Relaunched/Price Now

Meccano 1901 1971: from pounds 1.25 1987: from pounds 4.99

Action Man 1966 1976: from pounds 7 1993: from pounds 9

Liddle Kiddies 1966 1968: from pounds 1 1995: from pounds 3.99

Stretch Armstrong 1974 untraceable 1993: from pounds 8

Airfix 1939 1971: from 18p 1995: from pounds 2.99 (not relaunched)

Spangles 1948 1971: 21/2p 1995: from 30p

Freddo 1973 1973: 2p 1994: from 10p

Grand Seville 1971 1971:10p 1987: from 69p

Old Jamaica 1971 1971:10p 1987: from 69p

The Action Man Enthusiasts' Club is run by Chris Stevenson, White Lodge Stables, Main Street, Whissendine, Leicestershre LE15 7ES.

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