The best (and worst) Toys of the 1980s (Part 2)
This was the precursor to the Laptop. A Laptop that could only run Microsoft Paint in black and white. It had a monochrome screen so everything you drew looked like it was set in the 1930s. I’m not sure what the appeal of the Etch-a-Sketch was because a pencil and a sketch pad was infinitely more enjoyable. and easier to use. and cheaper. and were already in your house.
If you weren’t used to which knob did what, or which direction went which way, you’d always twist one of the knobs in the wrong direction to make the cat you were drawing now have whiskers coming out of places it shouldn’t have whiskers. Diagonals were a challenge too as were circles so you could forget drawing Pacman eating a bag of Doritos. If you wanted to keep the picture you’d drawn, you either had to take a Polaroid of the screen or you had to frame it and then go out and buy another Etch-a-sketch.
To remove the picture you’d etched and sketched, in order to draw another one, you had to shake it up and down so the polystyrene beads inside smoothed out and recoated the glass with aluminium powder. My mission was to remove all the powder from the glass by meticulously moving the needle up and down the screen, 1 nanometre at a time.
This is what happens when you’ve worn out all the actual uses for a toy; you start inventing different uses for it. Like when you’d got bored of riding your bike, you’d turn it upside down and turn the pedal with your hand to see how fast you could make the back-wheel spin. Action Man became a teaching hospital specimen and the one of the speakers from your hi-fi became a makeshift stool when you had friends over and not enough seats.
Made of steel, making it ridiculously heavy, with one wheel bigger than the other resulting in involuntary wheelies and the fact it wobbled when you got up any kind of speed, the Raleigh Chopper was a death trap.
Add in the fact it had a T-bar gear stick not three inches away from your groin, there were plenty of opportunities for birth control if you braked too hard. First released in 1969, it was still a big seller in the 1980s until the BMX took over. The film ‘Raleigh Chopper Bandits’ didn’t quite have the same ring to it but would definitely have been a better film. The main draw for this bike was the sofa it had on the back in place of a conventional saddle. You could fit three maybe four of your friends on the back and take them for a short weekend break in Rhyl. The low-drop handle bars and the addition of a kick stand made you feel like a Hells Angel too; only with less tattoos (apart from the ones you got inside bubble gum which you licked and pressed onto the back of your hand).
Purple people eater
In 1958, Sheb Wooley had a song called the one eyed one horned flyin’ purple people eater. In it, there is a monster that wants to join a rock and roll band and tries to achieve this by eating purple people. In 1982, I thought I’d never sleep again when I got a Waddingtons Purple People Eater. It was made of rubber; a creepy latex type of rubber with a face that would have given Freddie Krueger nightmares.
The premise of the game was much like that of Operation – you had to remove the people from its mouth with a pair of tweezers without touching the sides. If you did touch it, its right eye lit up and it screamed a scream that made my soul temporarily leave my body. There’s an online legend I read in which a young chap’s dad used to wear the rubber monster over his head and chase him around the house. He still sleeps with both eyes open. Forty. Years. Later.
These days, the single biggest cause of repetitive strain injury is typing on keyboards. In the 80s it was Hungry Hippos giving us all carpal-tunnel syndrome. A game for up to four players, each taking their place behind a hippo with a lever on its back. Marbles are released into the playing area and each player has to smash the lever down as many times as possible in order to extend the hippo’s telescopic neck to grab as many marbles as possible. A game of luck, then, which invariably ended up with someone slamming the lever into the table so hard, the entire game was catapulted across the room into your Nan’s face whilst she was watching Metal Mickey.
If you get a chance, take a look at the commercial from the 1980s. It features four children pressing their lever lethargically for 30 seconds, looking like it’s not possible to have less fun. Then one of the kids shouts ‘I’ve won’ in the least excited voice of all time. The other three kids look relieved rather than upset that they’ve lost and they’re now allowed to leave and go wash the dishes or count the blades of grass in the back garden, you know, something less tedious.
This was the greatest lie ever told to an eight-year-old. Mr. Frosty was a plastic snowman with a blue hat and a circle cut out of his tummy. It was supposed to be an ice cone maker. However, in the television advert, someone put an ice cube into the hole in his head, popped the hat back on (to use as a kind of plunger) and then turned the handle on his back. What came out of the hole in his tummy was perfectly crushed ice, the type slush puppies are made of.
In reality, the handle wouldn’t turn and would eventually snap off – either that or 1% of the ice would shave after a few minutes because it had melted. What ice you were able to get out was then covered with syrup dispensed from a penguin’s head. The E numbers gave you the energy to turn the handle and shave the ice just like the advert!
“What’s this you’ve given me for Christmas Mummy? Ooh, a disembodied head! Thanks Mum!” Girl’s World was the slightly sexist Christmas gift for lovers of make overs and future YouTube beauty influencers. Its reason for existing was to practice your hairdressing and make-up skills; the manufacturers forgetting that each person who received one also had their own head to practice these things on, all they really needed was a much cheaper mirror and a £1.99 make-up set from Woolworths.
With the Girl’s World came some shampoo, conditioner (which seemed to work on nylon hair), rollers, a brush, a comb and some fake make-up which was designed to be washed off the dummy’s face once you were done. The make-up consisted of eyeshadow (colours ABBA would be scared to wear), blusher and lipstick. Most people who owned one got bored with it one day, cut its hair, ruined it, put it back in the box, put it on top of the wardrobe and never played with it again.
Ahh, the quintessentially English pastime of a gentle game of tennis. Wearing a white jumper and shorts combo, using a fuzzy little ball, two friends gently pat the ball back and forth over a net followed by finger sandwiches and a glass of Pimms. What fun!
Then… there’s Swingball.
It was an attempt to recreate Tennis but without all the ‘having to go and get the ball which has gone over a hedge’ business. It also eradicated the difficult ‘serving’ part too, so what went wrong? Well, for a start, the ball was attached to a rubber band connected to a spiral on top of a stick which had been hammered six feet into the ground. It didn’t resemble tennis in the slightest.
The point of the game was to try and get the ball to spiral around the stick until it reached either the top or bottom (depending on which you preferred) before your opponent did. What was supposed to be a relaxing game of chivalry soon descended into a frenzied pair of hyped-up children going berserk and smashing the tennis ball with more energy than either has put into the entire rest of their lives.
The ball would inevitably detach from the string after one last furious wallop of the racquet and fly through the glass of next door’s greenhouse. The participants would all then immediately scatter and deny ever having heard of swingball, and when questioned, tell the next-door neighbour that the stick in the back garden is part of an old washing line the previous owners of the house had.