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We polled TV Cream's readership to find the most well-remembered - for better or worse - toys that turned up in the stockings of yesteryear, from the tiniest fifty pee rubber novelty to the many bulky Bakelite candidates for that hallowed "main present" status. Quite often the little things, mainly through having lower expectations to live up to, went down better than the battery-hungry robo-gun-battleship thing mouldering in its box in the airing cupboard by Boxing Day. Anyway, enough of all this - it's now 6.30AM, and we've just been told by hungover parents that we can go downstairs and start sorting out the presents into piles. Let the blizzard of Mr Men wrapping paper commence...


Finger Frights
Because just having fingers isnt frightening enough
Like some vulcanised Gonzo or other freak cast-off from the Henson workshop, Finger Frights promised hours of joy for a girl or boy, or so cried the nicotine-stained street trader who sold them out of a suitcase in our city centre. (The same scruffy fella later made a living peddling Gordon the Gopher squeaky hand puppets, only to return the following year with the same stock dyed pink and touted as Mr Blobby.) Inexpensively fashioned in crude, coloured latex, these digit-targeted mini-monsters had distinctive, staring white eyes and wobbling rubber arms raised, Curse Of The Mummy style, in predatory fashion. Their appeal lay not in their perpetually snarling expression (for who was ever frightened of a Finger Fright?) but in their ubiquity and variety. We remember at the very least red, blue, gold, green, purple and white Frights, crammed in big boxes of novelties (pile em high and sell em cheap!) in toy shops and newsagents across the land, alongside squeaky spiders, chunky stacking felt-tips, gonks and Squirmles (those cute fluffy worm things you pulled around on invisible fishing wire). And yet it was impossible to own enough. Like pigeons, they were vermin. (Also like pigeons, it was quite easy for them to lose a limb through excessive gnawing or sheer violent accident.) But these were vermin of the playground and pencil case; wherever you stood or sat, you always knew you were less than two metres from one. Now that's frightening.
Fuzzy Felt
Reusable cloth collage kit
This early learning toy was the delight of many an infant school kid throughout the Cream era, mostly due to its simplicity, a highly tactile nature and the opportunity to make rude pictures when your teachers weren't looking. Available in a variety of themes, allowing depictions of any everyday scene from "Ballet" to "Farmyard", the typical Fuzzy Felt set comprised a piece of card (were reckoning about 10 by 6) with a dark, coloured Velcro-esque material glued to it and a collection of brightly coloured felt shapes (children, birds, trees) to attach to this background. The significant word here, of course, is shape, as the Fuzzy Felt pieces were simply silhouettes, lacking distinctive features or detail. This lent the resulting montages a melancholic air, as though of a world trapped in permanent shadow. Indeed, there is something rather poignant about felt in itself, neglected by the fashion industry in favour of more glamorous cousins such as linen or satin, yet named synaesthetically (of feeling, having had feelings) but most resolutely in the past tense. A child with Fuzzy Felt (and it was a hotly contested item at playtime, of that we can vouch) could spend hours fingering the soft felt pieces as they created their own, somewhat cluttered renderings of "Swan Lake" or "Sunny Field". The most prized shapes were the more individual, identifiable ones, such as the monkey from the Fuzzy Felt Jungle set, although this naturally meant they were more limited in their uses. A monkey is a monkey whichever way up you position it, although there was a surreal pleasure in an incongruous farm monkey from time to time. The most versatile (and therefore most popular) piece was the fairly common crescent moon shape, not least because it could be used as a makeshift willy on Fuzzy Felt animals. Despite this susceptibility to the base intent of toddlers, Fuzzy Felt was one of the most pleasant and gentle of toys from the period, though no less popular for that. The most amazing thing is that it sold so well for so long, when it amounted to nothing more than a bunch of cheap off-cuts.
Clockwork arcade games
Possessing a playground collectability factor rivalling that of Panini sticker albums and Top Trumps, Pocketeers were initially either teensy-ball-bearing variations of bagatelle, magnet-based racing games, or against-the-clock mazes. A Japanese invention (Pokemon be damned), they were marketed by Palitoy in the UK and were, naturally, just big enough to fit into a school-blazer-sized pocket (which was handily now empty of money). The imagination behind every game was astounding (nearly every field sport was adapted to hand-held size at least once), and each new title was just different enough from previous editions to make purchase a necessity. But, basically, a game would consist of a coloured, illustrated plastic box with a clear lid, some additional buttons or triggers, and sometimes a small wind-up timer that would click down to zero with a disproportionately loud whirr. No potential genre was ignored; Pocketeers embraced the fruit machine, the casino (cards and dice), duck-shoots, golf, Pac-man and Smurfs, before finally meeting their nemesis in the form of Space Invaders. The advent of the video game limited how impressive even the most sophisticated of moving parts in a Pocketeer could be made to look. Miniaturisation and the silicon chip rendered them archaic at best (and, for some reason, kids just don't get that same nostalgia buzz from old toys). Surely overdue a 21st Century eco-makeover by the likes of Trevor Baylis.
Ovoid characters with heavily-weighted nether regions
Like some vulcanised Gonzo or other freak cast-off from the The initial batches of Weebles were simply uniform smooth plastic castings, distinguishable only by a translucent sticker of bodily features attached to the outside. When it became obvious that said stickers were easily shed, and also wont to unpeel of their own accord, the more familiar moulded plastic Weeble was introduced. Initially only available in regular "family" varieties, the humble Weeble race soon proliferated to incorporate various animals, characters from fiction, and even the cast of "Sesame Street". Similarly, their multitudinous playsets started out as simple houses and parks (which included a series of Weeble slides, see-saws and roundabouts, providing scope for tremendous fun for those who were vindictive enough to want to see if their claim to wobble but not fall down was in fact supportable by empirical evidence), and progressed to such unlikely settings as a haunted house, featuring a witch, a glow-in-the-dark ghost and, rather disturbingly, two frightened children. Best of the lot though was Superweeble, a figure that could be transformed into a mild-mannered ice cream man at the flick of a switch, and the Tumblin' Weebles, who were weighted at both ends to produce a Mexican Jumping bean-like acrobatic effect. The legions of less successful imitators included "Shufflies", who made their way around tracks with the aid of weighted ball-bearing embedded in their underside, and the "Good Eggs", essentially Weebles with limbs (and without the wobbling-but-not-falling-down quality).
Test Match cricket
Tiny Oval fun
From Peter Pan Playthings. Officially endorsed by the England cricket team - with picture of fully padded Ian Botham & David Gower on the box. A fair stab at board game cricket the box contained a pitch, boundary fence as standard (no ball-off-table antics like Subbuteo), nine fielders, a batsman, a bowler, a wicket, some balls and a little scoreboard. The bowler had a long piece of drainpipe attached to his hand, and the batsman was connected to Subbuteo-keeper-style handle, with a trigger to activate bat movement (there was only one type of shot available in this game, the straight drive). The ball placed in the bowler's hand rolled down the pipe and headed towards the batsman (a grasscutter ball every time). With a flick of the trigger, the batsman would hopefully hit the ball. The pitch was divided into sectors, with each worth more runs the further out they were. Wherever the ball landed dictated the number of runs scored. The fielders had little "cups" between their feet, simulating a catch - your batsman was out if the ball landed in-between a fielder's legs. That and hitting the wicket were the only two ways to get out - no handling the ball or run out here. Fairly exciting at first, but long games tended to get tedious - and some games were VERY long. It wasn't long before Test Match would find itself at the bottom of the pile of board games, and in time it became a very popular star at jumble sales. The pitch was also prone to riding up, causing ripples here and there - an annoyance when your ball was hit "for six", only to roll back into a "two" sector. Possibly the most interesting part (for stat-obsessed young boys) was updating the scoreboard, a full-on proper cricket effort with many little wheels denoting team score, batsman's score, etc.
Quicksilver Maze
Discontinued plastic labyrinth
Of all the toys in our list, this is the one we can guarantee they'll never bring back. The kid's-plaything equivalent of the CFC-coolant fridge or leaded-petrol engine, the Quicksilver maze was so-called because it contained a measured blob of everyone's favourite poisonous liquid metal, mercury. As with pretty much every maze puzzle since the dawn of time, the object was to steer this blob along the correct path to the centre of the board whereupon it would fall through a hole and return to the start at the outside again. The USP of the Quicksilver game, of course, was the increased difficulty posed by the mercury's predisposition for splitting in two and heading off in different directions. Essentially, the game boiled down to man's age-old struggle to maintain a steady hand whilst compensating for the surface-tension and viscosity of a base element, although they didn't think to write that on the box. In the catalogues, they used to stock these in the same section as executive toys (Newton's Cradle, magnetic sculptures, and so on) that added an air of sophistication that was perhaps undeserved of a potentially lethal toy. Of the few varieties we recall, the most memorable was the hexagon-shaped maze, manufactured in regulation matt black plastic with the very minimum of extraneous markings and a transparent cover. Outside of the last day of term classroom, the only place these rare creatures could be found was in the toy department of British Home Stores, where it became quickly apparent that if the game was held upside down the mercury would collect in the lid, reform into one blob, and the maze itself could be bypassed. We sure that this, as much as the toxic qualities of the game, served to ensure its short-livedness in the affections of the nation's youth, although we're similarly surprised it wasn't revived in the mid-Nineties to cash in on the then groundbreaking Terminator 2 film, which it clearly influenced.
Smoking Monkey
Mail-order pocket-money sappers
In addition to the adverts for unfamiliar and strange-sounding confectionary such as Twinkies and Reese's Pieces, imported American comics held an additional attraction for British readers in that they provided exposure to all manner of gimmicky novelty items, normally promoted by sizeable adverts that occupied two thirds of a page yet only included microscopic illustrations of literally dozens of different products. The most fascinating of all these curious was the Smoking Monkey, a plastic chimp that exhaled smoke of some description when one of the special mock-cigarettes was inserted into its mouth. Aside from the fact that it was seriously politically incorrect on many, many levels at once, the Smoking Monkey was the source of much confusion for British youngsters, who could neither understand nor appreciate why anyone would actually want a toy chimpanzee dragging on a pretend cigarette nor indeed what possible use or purpose it might serve. Other classics of the genre included X-Ray Specs (promoted by an illustration that suggested that they gifted the wearer with the ability to see animal skeletons and women's legs, but in fact merely produced a hazy outline around objects through their suspiciously rose-tinted lenses); fart cushions ("emit a real Bronx cheer"); itching powder; a fake chewing gum packet which snapped the finger of anyone who tried to remove its contents with a spring-loaded metal paddle; unrealistic plastic ice cubes with unrealistic plastic flies embedded in them; equally unconvincing squirting buttonhole flowers; a more unconvincing still plastic chocolate digestive (which was not only unrealistic in texture and hue but also nowhere near the standard size of such a biscuit); and, most unforgettably of all, the ridiculous arrow-thru-head. Most of this stuff was in fact available in the UK, visible alongside the usual quota of glow-in-the-dark stars in the legendary "stocking fillas" catalogue and even occasionally advertised in the likes of Whizzer And Chips (using the same microscopic illustrations), but for some reason it suited everyone better to believe that they were only known to their Stateside counterparts.
Rubik's Cube
54 multicoloured facets of hell
We figure that, if we're going to count the Quicksilver maze as a toy, then this iconic puzzle has to make the list. For a start, it was one of those so-easy-to-manufacture products that blokes with suitcases down the precinct would have countless knock-offs of for sale at pocket money prices. Hence, we don't think we ever knew anyone who owned a branded version and that's what we really wanted. We're still unsure whether or not Professor Rubik actually endorsed the barrel, ball, hexagon or keyring incarnations of his original cube-shaped arthritis-provider, but we are confident that both Rubik's Magic and Snake are canon. Secondly, the sheer amount of peripheral merchandise that the cube craze generated qualifies it for inclusion, principally the section of John Menzies devoted to "solution" books that offered anything but. Inevitably written by either precocious fifteen year-olds who shared a tailor with antiques freak-boy James Harries or spatial engineers from Brunel, they all amounted to a single set of impenetrable instructions; get one side sorted then somehow magically conjure up the remaining sides. The hilarious dad-joke method of cracking the puzzle ("peel all the stickers off and put them back on in the right order") was rubbish and, in any case, impossible. Aside from the one kid in the class who could finish the thing fast enough to qualify him a spot on Record Breakers, the only option for mere mortals was to take a screwdriver to the thing. Rubik did, however, spark a short-lived interest in the wider potential of the geometric brainteaser, so we probably have him to thank for origami kits, 3D chess, and those bloody tangled steel wire puzzles that turn up in crackers to this day.
TV and comic tie-in robots
Supposedly hailing from some far and distant planet, Zoids were the part insectoid, part dinosaur skeleton-like vehicles used for transport by the small gold individuals that resided in their cockpit (i.e. head). The average Zoid was clockwork-powered and utilised a snap-together self-assembly method, which thanks to the sparse and wordless instructions was a task that made even the construction of an elaborate Lego playset seem like a relaxing two minutes. When they eventually were assembled to some degree of completion, they had a frustrating habit of only "walking" for a few steps before their somewhat peculiar centre of gravity caused them to topple over. Clockwork Zoids came in Tyrannosaurus Rex, Bird, Elephant, Spider and Frog flavours; far more impressive, however, was the battery-powered overlord Giant Zrk, a hefty and heavy Brontosaurus-like contraption that thundered along in an imposing fashion. For a time Zoids enjoyed considerable popularity, even starring in their own Marvel comic. Chief among the competition were Transformers, the not-very-well-disguised "robots in disguise" who haunted children's television with their incessant advertising and TV-AM supported cartoon series/commercial. Transformers' gimmick was that the robotic figures could, well, "transform" into a car, lorry, aeroplane, or (at the less sane end of the spectrum) a cassette tape. There was some back story about Autobots (the "good" Transformers, led by Optimus Prime) waging a battle to destroy the evil forces of The Decepticons (the villains, headed by Megatron), but few cared - although such was the magnitude of Transformers-mania that there was even an animated feature film, boasting the disparate vocal talents of Orson Welles and Eric Idle. Transformers were in fact predated by a good year or two by RoboMachines (later renamed Gobots to tie in with their similarly TV-AM favoured cartoon series) - a slicker and less plastic range of chameleonic constructions that failed to catch on with the general public - and were followed by a load of long-forgotten five minute wonders ("Robot Anti-Terror Squad... RrrrrrrrrrrrrATS!") which are now only remembered by the same sort of people who can remember that the A-Team figures were manufactured by "Galoob". That'd be just us, then.
Electronic Project/Chemistry set
Science syllabus fun for the junior boffin
"200 in one! 150 in one! The not very catchy 65 in one! And 50 in one! The oscillator-obsessed cousin to the generic chemistry set, Electronic Project (a product from the on-its-sleeve-for-nerdiness named Science Fair) was a big box full of circuits, cables and dials that boasted anything from 50 to 200 possible projects for you to build, depending on how much cash mum and dad were willing to shell out. In the 150 in one kit, there was mucho fun to be had from a 7-segment LED display and an advanced integrated circuit. And when you factor in some of Science Fair's other products - such as the build your own Solar Power Lab and, better than that, The Lie Detector Kit (sporting a box depicting an under-pressure dad surrounded by his suspicious family) then surely some wholesome Weird Science-type experimentation was but a crocodile-clip away? Yer commoner garden Chemistry Set box lid, meanwhile, always featured 12-year-old boy with brown hair in the pudding-bowl style, wearing a white lab coat and oversized safety goggles, peering in amazement at a few cubic centimetres of vaguely blue compound in a test tube. The substances in the kit, however, always included Bloody Copper Sulphate followed by a rack of anonymous-looking off-white powders ("Slaked" Lime, Tartaric Acid) and rubbish stuff like iron filings and litmus paper. C'mon guys, where do you keep all the fun stuff? The red lead? Arsenic? Silver Nitrate? A lame spirit burner provided the only vague threat of impending danger, and there were usually only enough chemicals to do about 13 experiments even though the box proudly advertised 150 different activities available. Warnings of "adult supervision recommended" abounded in the instructions, even though every single kid in the land threw these away after a while and just bunged a bit of everything in one test tube and heated it up to see what happened (a vague fizzing, and a chemical ponk).