In 1991 the BBC purchased the rights to air Thunderbirds on BBC2. Originally intended to be nothing more than a cheap filler programme for the Friday early evening timeslot the show proved to be a massive hit once again, and the runaway success of these repeats led to demand for toys and playsets based on the series. However, perhaps understandably, no toy manufacturer had considered the possibility that repeats of a thirty year-old series would be capable of such mass audience appeal. As a result Christmas 1991 came and went without a single Thunderbirds toy on the shelves, save for the occasional model kit imported from Japan.
By the time the series was repeated again the following year public interest was still just as high, and this time Britain’s toy and games manufacturers were ready to meet the demand. Matchbox led the way with their bestselling range of toys and action figures, and one item in particular produced during this period was the electronic Tracy Island playset. While it isn’t exactly difficult to get hold of this item today it is perhaps this toy more than any other that people think of when it comes to the ultimate item of Gerry Anderson merchandise, due to the panic in the nation’s toyshops when it quickly sold out.
Following Thunderbirds the BBC enjoyed an equally popular repeat run of Stingray, and Matchbox were again on hand to release a small selection of models and action figures based on the show. However, this was to be the last Anderson series the company would handle. Soon after this a group of Matchbox employees led by former managing director Nick Austin left to set up their own company, Vivid Imaginations, and the first property they acquired the rights to was Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. In the run-up to the show’s BBC2 repeat run Vivid Imaginations raced against the clock to get their toys on to the shelves in time for them to become the best-selling toy of Christmas 1993, firmly establishing Vivid as one of the country’s foremost toy and games manufacturers. Following this a Saturday-morning BBC1 repeat run of Joe 90 soon followed, which despite not being as successful as its predecessors provided Vivid Imaginations with another successful toy line. This put them in the ideal position to capitalise on the next Gerry Anderson production, 1995’s Space Precinct.
This new show, described by Anderson as ‘Hill Street Blues in space’, would seem to have been an ideal candidate for both a successful television series and a hugely popular toy line. Perhaps inspired by the huge success of the repeats of the previous Anderson series Vivid assumed that they had a hit on their hands and invested as heavily in the project as they had done with Captain Scarlet. A series of twelve action figures was produced, as well as two vehicles for them to ride in; the police cruiser which appeared in every episode of the show, and a police bike…which didn’t, until it was hastily inserted into the background of one scene in the episode Takeover in order to justify its appearance in the toy line.
Sadly, for whatever reason, Space Precinct failed to find the same mass audience that the previous Anderson shows (and their repeats) had enjoyed, and the merchandise warmed pegs and shelves in toy stores up and down the country. Nick Austin recalls “Space Precinct was not a commercial success for us. The BBC originally planned for an early evening prime time slot on Saturday evening, and then subsequently moved to Monday evening on BBC2. That one decision killed the project commercially for us.” Today, though certain figures are harder to find than others, the Space Precinct toys are relatively easy to track down for reasonable prices.
Despite this setback there were still future Anderson-related successes for Vivid to look forward to, as Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet all returned to BBC2 for more repeat runs in the early 2000s. Once again all three series were hugely popular and once again the associated toys all sold extremely well – and in the case of Tracy Island, sold out completely to the frustration of parents nationwide. Many of these new toys included sound chips and could play pre-recorded dialogue and sound effects at the push of a button.
Anderson’s final television series arrived on our screens in 2005. New Captain Scarlet was a CGI-reimagining of the original 1967 classic, and with it came the traditional deluge of merchandising in form of books comics and toys. Unfortunately, while the series was well received by fans and critics alike, it was placed within a Saturday morning kids show rather than be given a separate screening in its own right. This meant that the series had practically no chance to find an audience for itself, which almost instantly destroyed the future of both the show and the accompanying toy-line. This time it was Bandai who won the rights to produce the Captain Scarlet toys, producing a range of five action figures, four vehicles for them to ride, and four assortments of smaller vehicles and figures roughly in scale with their larger electronic Skybase playset. In 2006 Corgi also brought out a line of detailed die-cast vehicles based on both the new and old versions of Captain Scarlet.
Today interest in Gerry Anderson merchandise remains as strong as ever, with a continual stream of new merchandise arriving almost monthly and a second-hand market for the classic toys of yesteryear continuing to thrive. It’s a testament not only to the talent and skill of the people who worked on the original television series but also those who devised and marketed these toys that their popularity has endured well into the 21st century, with no sign of stopping – and that so many people have such fond memories of them!
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