Mark Simpson goes on a top secret mission to the bottom of the garden
I never had an Action Man (G.I. Joe to Americans). He was for sissies. I only garrisoned my bedroom with tiny non-moving, non-camp Airfix soldiers I’d painted myself. Naturally, this didn’t stop me playing endlessly with the famous male doll when I visited my mates. My best chum had the Eagle Eye Action Man with working combat hang-glider -- which is why he was my best mate. When he finally realised my real affections lay not with him but his 12-inch piece of moulded plastic, he dumped me in a fit of understandable pique.
It was my parents who had planted the suspicion of Action Man’s masculinity in my head and turned me into a closeted Action Manophile: “No, Father Christmas won’t be bringing you one of those dolls, Mark.”
“He’s not a doll!! He’s a soldier!!”
Of course, they were entirely correct in their concerns. Despite his butch trademarked name and rugged camouflaged gear, he was clearly Passive Man, as was betrayed by the advertising copy that shrieked at you to: “Move him into action positions!” Action Man: on land, on sea, and legs in the air.
My parents, though, were being more practical than prejudiced. They knew that once he entered our house, he’d take over. They knew this because my older sister had had a Barbie doll, made by the same company that made Action Man. The dolls themselves were a loss-leader -- it was the apparently infinite outfits and accessories they demanded that were the real agenda and the real money-spinner.
NG Taylor, author of ‘Action Man: on land, at sea, and in the air’ obviously had less cautious parents. Or several paper rounds. Splendidly pictured on the back of his book in a forest setting with moustache and camouflaged shirt, peering through field binoculars, he has been collecting Action Man since 1966. He has kept in impeccable, quartermasterly condition almost every outfit and accessory ever produced for the little plastic man. Hence perhaps the mention of his wife in the introduction.
Even if you have never understood the appeal of Action Man, this book will make you fall in love with him faster than Action Man would take to strip down a Stirling submachine and reassemble it -- if he actually had any fingers. Taylor has photographed him in more than a hundred different outfits, all in “real-life situations”, from “frozen Alps to tropical seashores and jungles”. That this probably means from his backyard in January to Skegness in August only makes the tableaux all the more fetching.
Perhaps because, unlike Jean Paul Gaultier, I think that the only men who look good in a kilt are Scottish football fans and trained killers, my personal favourites are the breathtaking photos of AM sporting the Argyll and Sutherland Highlander full dress uniform. Photographed on a craggy moor, or perhaps atop a rockery in Taylor’s local park, Action Man with his tasselled sporran and polished tunic buttons is a vision of pint-sized, manly pride and gorgeousness that I defy anyone to not be moved by.
The photos themselves with their saturated colour, grass and stones a bit too big, buttons, stitching and zips a little outsize, are subtly evocative of the innocence of childhood. But while the glorious outfits are the main objects of attention, it is Action Man who is the star. This book proves him to be an incredibly versatile actor, one who puts most of today’s Hollywood males to shame. The Tommy pictured in brown battledress is a Cockney sparrer who might cook you up a brew while whistling Colonel Bogey. The German Stormtrooper’s chin and jaw is Germanic and brutal beneath his square helmet, his eyes those of a merciless Aryan killer. The easygoing Action Sailor snapped by the sea in adorable blue denim bell-bottoms and shirt with cap is about to cadge a fag or a pint and tell you a dirty joke. The French Foreign Legionnaire in his white képi and cobalt blue great coat has a haunted look about the eyes that makes you want to buy him a Pernod or three.
In fact, AM’s face is exactly the same in all these pictures. It’s moulded plastic, after all. And yet, magically, his face seems to take on an entirely different aspect, character and romance according to the angle at which it is photographed, the outfit, the nationality and the background.
No doubt this is down to Taylor’s skill, and also the fantasies we -- or is it just me? -- project on to the different togs. But I also think this fetish has a life of its own. I’m convinced that AM’s face actually moves when you’re not looking: that pouty mouth with the jutting lower lip, those brooding eyes gazing forward to the world of masculine adventure which is never coming. He must have practised it in the mirror when we were all asleep.
Butchness may require paralysis of the facial muscles, but it’s a very calculated kind of paralysis all the same.
(Independent on Sunday, 14 March 2004)