Mr Blobby bounces in from Peking: Fair shows the decline of British toys

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The Independent Online
THE HORNBY train has run into a siding, the Dinky toy is in a museum, the Meccano set has crossed the Channel to France. Even the plastic Union Jack to wave when the Queen drives by is made in China. All that remains of the once flourishing British toy industry seems to be board games, self-tying shoelaces and hollow imitation vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers.

Alone amid the hundreds of stands displaying 'Made in China' ware at the Harrogate International Toy Fair last week, was a selection of child-sized kettles, revolving washing lines, dust pans and brushes, mops, supermarket trolleys and the vacuum cleaner. They were the products of Cassidy Brothers of Blackpool, who fill what seems to be a constant need for British children to play mums and dads.

The Captain Scarlet dolls, dinosaurs, the Flintstones, Transformers, and electronic games might flood the market one year and as quickly disappear from the shelves the next, but role playing survives. It is a world to delight John Major.

Girls here are girls - hanging out the washing, making tea, dusting, and putting the baby to bed. Boys play soccer, push a wheelbarrow, pretend to drive the car and mow the lawn. The only centre of conflict is who will be in charge of the cash register, the company's most successful product.

'If it exists in real life, children want to do it and we want to copy it,' Paul Cassidy, managing director, said.

Firms which made large board games, jigsaws and such like, and bulky plastic 'adult imitation' toys survived the cheap foreign competition from the Far East which wiped out local manufacturers in the Seventies and Eighties. They succeeded largely because their size made transportation costs too high and thus uneconomic to produce outside Britain. Another factor in their favour was that they were not labour intensive.

Garry Conrad, chairman of the British Toy Importers and Distribution Association, said labour costs were the main reason for the British toy industry's collapse. British manufacturers were simply unable to compete with factories abroad. The Americans had started the trend in the Sixties by moving their manufacturing base to areas where labour costs were low first to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and in 1987 to China. The rest of the world, including British entrepreneurs, followed suit. Furthermore, the toy trade was a 'high fashion industry' and British makers had not been able to respond to changes rapidly. They were unprepared and short on investment.

''New products come on the market each year. Mr Blobby is all over the place today. This time next year he might just be a memory. To cope with this sort of change you need huge overheads. It's a risky business and its easy to go bust,' he said.

Just under half Britain's pounds 980m toy imports come from the Far East, according to figures released at Harrogate. Imports from China (including Mr Blobby) account for some 20 per cent of this total, a statistic representing the value of Chinese goods rather than their volume. It also masks the fact that many toys assembled elsewhere have Chinese-made components. Mr Conrad said that as soon as China loses its competitive edge and labour costs rise, toy makers will move their business elsewhere.

At Harrogate there was already talk of 'Made in Russia' and 'Made in Latvia' marks. It hasn't happened yet but some British dealers expect the former Soviet bloc countries to take over from China in a few years' time. German manufacturers are taking some business there and the rest of Europe is waiting to see if they succeed. Transport costs and delivery times would be greatly reduced.

The boom in electronic games sent total toy sales in Britain soaring last year to a record pounds 1.87bn. Electronic toys made up some 40 per cent, tripling from pounds 250m in 1991 to pounds 750m last year. The games, made in China and Japan, led the top 10 Christmas selling items at Hamleys and Argos.

At Hamleys, the four 'Made in Britain' toys among the top Christmas presents were self-tying shoelaces, a pen that changes colour, another that spits ink and a board game called Rapidough. At Argos it was pens. If you exclude video sales, the top toy at Argos was a plastic sketch pad called Magna Doodle which draws lines across a screen when you turn a nob. Argos spokesmen were not sure where that was made. They added, however, that products associated with the film Jurassic Park and Thunderbirds, the TV puppets, sold out over Christmas and that manufacturers could not meet demand. None was made in Britain.

Warren Cornelius, head of W H Cornelius, Britain's main and perhaps oldest supplier of so-called pocket-money toys - knicknacks that sell for a pounds 1 or less - said the industry was led by TV and the cinema. 'That's one reason why you don't see cowboy guns for sale any more. A space gun that goes zap will move straight away.'

Out of 1,700 toy lines he has for sale, 70 per cent are made in China. Mr Cornelius said less than 20 items were 'Made in Britain'. His most important was a 'bubble tub' - a container of soapy water the size and price of a Mars bar. He sold seven million last year.

'Britain hasn't got the technology and the overheads are too high. The Union Jacks I buy in China for 75p a dozen would cost four times as much if they were made in Britain.

Britain's role in the world's toy industry, he said, was a maker of traditional 'crafted' toys. 'We are very good at wooden rocking horses. People don't seem to mind how much money they pay for them.'

(Photograph omitted)