To any boy born in the late 1950s or early 1960s, there was only one toy that was the grail of desire: Action Man! Read how one of the UK's most loved special shape hot air balloons came to life, written by ex VABC Creative Director Mark Lockwood.
World War 2 was not such a distant memory, I remember Spitfires from RAF Northolt regularly flying over the house as some were still in active service, rationing had only just ended, we were basking in the post war years of plenty, we ‘Never Had it So Good’, and the space race was just beginning.
Kids played out their fantasies in mock battles in the woods with sticks for guns and acorns for bullets and then in 1966 along came this mini superhero with a mean facial scar and cool accessories and uniforms you could buy by saving up a few weeks pocket money. He was British Tommy Commando, German Wermacht soldaten, Russian Tank Commander, pilot, frogman, spaceman…whoever your heart desired to be existentially associated with. Best of all, he was, like Captain Scarlet, virtually indestructible. He fell from tall places, was mashed under the wheels of various Tonka toys and bicycles, chewed by pampered poodles, hurled into battle by a million snotty nosed small soldiers and always came back for more.
Action Man was a very ‘British’ extension from the hugely successful G.I.Joe American toy produced by a company across the pond. Leicestershire based Toy company Palitoy took the license in 1965 and soon realised that the American post Korean war ‘Joe’ had little synergy with the Eurocentric theatre minded average Brit 8 year old. It was they who made many of the iconic changes to the brand including the flocked hair, moving Eagle Eyes and, most importantly, Gripping Hands. These modifications actually went back across the Atlantic and became a part of the Joe legacy.
The original mouldings for the non gripping hands had a flaw. Poor G.I.Joe had his right thumbnail on the inside of his thumb, something the Far Eastern manufacturers probably considered as cocking a snook to the west, but turns out that it helped to identify the genuine from the flood of copies and knock off wannabe’s that appeared shortly thereafter. This flaw was deliberately carried forward to the new more flexible gripping hands and beyond, which is where we press the time machine button and rocket to 1993.
Palitoy went out of business in 1983 and Action Man went into a form of hypersleep throughout the increasingly PC oriented 1980s. Those skinned knee, snotty nosed kids of the 1960s grew up into accountants, lawyers, bankers and fathers of their own. In a desperate search to find toys to stimulate the next generation that did not include sitting in front of a TV playing Super Mario or staring vacuously at the tiny black and white screen of a Nintendo Gameboy, they asked ‘Where is Action Man?’ The mindset was, if it was good enough for me then it should be good enough for my little tyke.
The slumbering super hero was re-visited and a way was found of making him more acceptable to the more ‘correct’ way of 1990s thinking. We now had Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Sly Stallone and Steven Seagal as our action heroes who invariably saved the day against overwhelming odds. So Action Man was genetically re-engineered to be all of the above, and your Dad, all rolled into one action superhero package…without really shooting anyone.
Action Man was given a face-lift, or rather a serious hair implant complete with slicked back Morton Harket coiff and Superman kiss curl. He became more of a swarthy Latino lurve machine with ripped abs and bulging biceps but still managed to retain his mysterious facial scar and deformed thumbnail on new improved and tougher gripping hands. The problem was how to segue this traditionally military heritaged hero into the 1990’s world of political correctness.
Enter stage left, yours truly!
I forget the exact beginning of my relationship with ‘The A-Man’ however I believe it came about after one of many seminars we held for marketing managers, brand managers and red framed glasses and braces wearing advertising ‘suits’. These explained the methodology and justification in measurable terms for investing in a balloon or airship programme, comparing the results to the more traditional forms of media. The internet was in it’s infancy so YouTube, Facebook and Instagram were not even a glint in the eye of an ‘Internerd’ in 1997.
The UK brand manager (Boys Toys) was a very conscientious and correctly be-suited young man armed with a shiny new marketing degree and a severely limited budget to launch and build brand awareness and loyalty for what seemed a somewhat emasculated version of our all action hero. He was now an extreme sports skateboarder, free climber, super spy with gadgets James Bond would envy and, most importantly in my eagle eyes, a skydiver. Having looked at the various iterations of the new kid on the block and spending some time with sketchbook and magic marker, I soon realised that we could not build a full standing version of ‘The Man’ without him resembling Mr Blobby after eating all the pies at Mrs. Miggins extreme pie shop.
I toyed with the idea and drew up a custom designed rocket pack where the basket and burners were somewhere around his tight plastic bum and his legs were a cold inflated extension. It would have worked, but they didn’t have a rocket pack in the range and he would have looked like a bad dirtbike accident once those legs got a little floppy on cooling.
Being a skydiver I realised that this might be the solution and quickly drew up a design on the whiteboard in the office with him in a stable freefall position complete with mask, chest mounted reserve, oxygen tank and mask and suitably large parachute pack. I was left with a conundrum. No matter how I tried, his human proportions left me with the old leg problem as they ended up waving around in space like Evel Kenievel after a bad landing. I could shorten the legs to a small degree, but then he would have looked like Mini Me if unfolded.
At that moment, enter Kevin Meehan with coffee mug in hand. A mug that looked remarkably similar in proportion to…a smoke canister! Eureka! Like Gru’s ‘Lightbulb!’ the idea popped into my head and immediately afterwards onto the white board to link his flailing ankles to the parachute pack with a display style smoke canister, which also allowed a flow of hot air from the main envelope area into the feet adding lift and pressure to an area that needed it. It allowed me to take a smaller amount from his thigh and then designed the suit with an orange flash that gave the visual impression of the legs being the right proportion. I also immediately saw the opportunity to really use the smoke canisters to add to the overall effect at events and doodled madly for the next few hours to design a system that could be armed and activated from the basket with replaceable canisters.
Having solved the overall technical problem, it went to the drawing board and produced the final visual and design for presentation. The company immediately jumped on it and it went through the ever more complex procedure of approval higher up the food chain and came back down with green lights all over.
Next was to build the thing!
A race down the M5 to Camerons and long sessions with Dave Boxhall, Jim Howard and Dave McGibbon going through the various load and technical issues, creating the working version of the firing mechanism and really drilling down into the details of the artwork and branding. I forget how many weeks this took, the number of meetings, messing around with bits of him and cold air inflating them on the factory floor to see the details. Little things like adding support lines to the back of his hands to keep them from hanging down limply. Improving the inner jet conduits to get those super sized knees inflated.
A super top secret crack of sparrows test inflation at Ashton Court, Mike Moore’s sign off to airworthiness and then back to the factory for some tweaks and mods and ‘The Man’ arrived in Telford in late May 1997. I needed an A Team to operate this Brobdingnagian behemoth and Richard Turnbull drew the short straw. Together with his crew partner Jenny Pierce, experienced shape wranglers ‘Big Kev’ Johnson and Richard ‘Unc’ Newman he made his first flight over Telford with the marketing team on board and a camera balloon flying alongside, quickly proving that he was a gentle giant in the air and performed like a perfect super hero. Damn that envelope bag was big and heavy though!
Photo: Ballooning Pictures UK
His first season programme included all the major balloon fiestas and we were blessed with good weather at the majority of them. A vital lesson was learned at Northampton that year. He may be a superhero, but like a Gremlin you should never get him wet! Richard and all the other pilots who flew on the Saturday evening were caught in a downpour on landing and the envelope that normally weighed in at 350kgs, was manhandled into the trailer at a staggering 1 ton! They opened the doors and he literally flowed out onto the launch field and then followed over 5 hours of mopping and clearing before we could get all the water out of his various appendages. Finally unveiled to the world and appearing in the media at last, Action Man became the highest selling boys toy in the UK that year, winning several industry awards.
So what to do for year two? We needed to up the game a little and proposed that we added some bells and whistles to the whole programme. I had a perfect action stunt double in the shape of my old skydiving instructor and buddy, Dave Morris. The only issue, with the utmost respect, Dave looks as far from Action Man as I do from Brad Pitt! So we worked out an arena show where our hero has to rescue the balloon crew who have been kidnapped by his arch nemesis: Dr X. We did consider using Professor Gangrene, however someone pointed out that he bore a striking resemblance to a certain balloon manufacturer based in Bristol and this may have caused some confusion on his behalf in the minds of kids!
The stunt involved a helicopter, Dave dressed in Action Man crew suit wearing a full faced helmet, a suitable actor dressed as Dr X complete with custom made body armour and green radioactive arm, courtesy of an industrial rubber glove, some bits of sticky plastic and a can of car paint, and our piece de resistance: a modified trailer built to look like a generator complete with flexi silver power cable. Dr X roamed the crowds at the fiesta being evil and threatening and the poor actor, who was a lovely chap, had to put up with abuse and hurled drinks cans from the crowd.
On cue, Dave would skydive from the helicopter trailing orange smoke, swoop down at high speed and break the flexi power cable, which caused the ‘generator’ to explode into several pieces with a satisfying bang and smoke, courtesy of some special effects and pyros. Inside the Styrofoam structure was an air ram that pushed the pre-cut pieces into the air and allowed us to re-set the whole show time after time. After each performance we had to rig new pyros, which was a time consuming business.
Once our hero had saved the balloon crew and dragged Dr X into incarceration in the back of the balloon trailer, a quick change was done and the actor became Action Man and took the plaudits of the crowd. Poor Dave had to stay hidden until we could sneak him out backstage! We did this show twice a day and had it down quite well by the time we came to the last event of the season at Northampton. Knowing this was the last show, I decided to rig the pyros a little differently and with about 4 times the number we usually used. I relied on a few volunteers to help me wire them all up but neglected to check if they had done as asked. When the trailer was due to ‘blow up’, it popped apart correctly, but no big bang.
I went through the wiring and when the balloon took off, hit the firing button to see the generator perfectly disintegrate into a million pieces with a massive bang! Unfortunately it also blew the hubcaps off the wheels and the handbrake arm all the way across the launch field! I had borrowed the trailer from Kevin Meehan and had to undertake all the repairs before giving it back! Sorry Kev!
Action Man retired as many do and I lost track of him after I left VABC and subsequently the UK to work in warmer and more sandy climes. I did bump into him again in 2005 when I came back to attend Bristol and Northampton and helped a volunteer crew inflate him as they were a little confused to how all his bits went together. I was delighted to later find he had ended up in the hands of Gabrielle Grunauer and was still flying. An invitation to the Midlands Air Festival in 2018 allowed me to see him once again and actually inflate him. Age and porosity have got to both of us and his legs and knees were decidedly wobbly (and mine!) but he still looks every bit the superhero.
Photo: Ballooning Pictures UK
He now resides in a suitable balloon retirement home in the UK and Germany along with Babybel where I am sure he would be chasing the nurses and being a hero to the other inmates!
A huge thank you Mark Lockwood for writing this fascinating blog post and allowing us to share his original drawings. Look out for part 2 of this series of special blog posts in a few weeks!