Britain is the UK's oldest, best-known maker of toy soldiers; it also caters for 'adult-imitative' fashions in farming and offices. Charles Darwent reports on the responsiveness that it takes to be big in the little people's market.
'You know what children are like: as soon as they see something on TV they've got to have it. They see these soldiers engaged in peace-keeping activities all over the place and they want them.' Paul Webb is explaining why he started producing a range of plastic soldiers with pale blue helmets. Not that the children actually rang him. Watching the interests of these avid customers, and not wanting to be left behind, are equally avid retailers who quickly make their needs known to Webb.
Nervos belli, pecuniam infinitam, as they say. It's a dictum that might do well enough as a corporate motto for Britains, that felicitously-named firm of which Webb is managing director. To readers of the male sex and of a certain age, this name will probably bring a nostalgic tear to the eye: for Britains is Britain's oldest and best-known manufacturer of toy soldiers. In 1893 William Britain junior invented a method of manufacture known as 'hollow-casting', using a mixture of antimony and lead poured into moulds and rapidly poured out again. At a stroke, Britains - and Britain - stole the world toy soldier market from the Germans (hurrah), and has kept it for most of the succeeding century. Mafeking, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, all were to be faithfully recorded on a scale of 1:32 in Britains' factories. Bosnia is simply the latest proof that Cicero knew his stuff, marketing-wise: there's lots of money to be made from the materials of war.
Well, most of the time, anyway. In fact, Britains' little squaddies have had their off-days over the past 100 years. Early in the Great War the firm, which was then based in Hornsey (it has since removed to Nottingham), produced an especially realistic mini-military mise en scene called the Exploding Trench, complete with teeny detonating mortar bombs. Shortly thereafter, life chose to imitate art in a full-scale version of this tasteful plaything known as the Battle of the Somme. Sales of toy soldiers fell off sharply, and Britains wisely decided to turn its swords, quite literally, into ploughshares. From 1919, the firm was to run a line of die-cast farm models - pigs, tractors, muck spreaders, the lot - in tandem with its dinky guardsmen and fusiliers.
As things were to turn out, this was just as well. In the mid-1950s, it was discovered that William Britain's hollow-cast soldiers were not simply ideologically suspect but (being made of lead) were poisonous as well. By the time Dennis Britain - the last of the family - sold out in 1983, moo-cows and manure wagons had grown to represent 90% of Britains' sales. Such soldiers as the firm still produced were made of inglorious extruded plastic.
The trouble with Britains' most famous product was that it had been, in the contorted argot of toy-marketeers, an 'adult imitation' commodity. 'Toys', says Webb, 'are all about topicality': when adults decide that war is a bad thing, in other words, they stop buying their offspring toy soldiers. Unhappily for Britains, this toy industry truism still holds good today. 'If you look at farming in the real world of 1993,' says Webb, mournfully, 'you'll find it's all about set-aside rules. We're world leaders in the range we offer, but we do have to recognise that the needs of children now are different. The company's speciality is in making scale models of real things. If the real world isn't bringing out new tractors, we can't just magic them up out of thin air.' Webb's sales director, Barry Steer, adduces Britains' new Honda All-Terrain Vehicle - that dislikeable breed of four-wheeled motorbike now to be seen on most British lowland farms - as evidence in support of Webb's theory. Farmers' children ('our farm lines don't tend to have a huge client-base in the West End of London,' notes Steer) are discerning buyers.
To keep their custom, Britains has to update its pig breeds and other agricultural ephemera every season: hence the Honda ATV, which has sold well in the UK this year. In France, however, traditionally Britains' second biggest farm market, the ATV hasn't sold at all, for the very good reason that its full-scale prototype hasn't sold either. A 1:32 milk lake would doubtless fare better across the Channel, as might a flammable British artic full of hapless moutons, but the problem remains the same. 'We're world leaders in our sector,' says Steer, 'but it's a sector that's in decline.' This is not necessarily as unhappy a state of affairs as it may sound. Since 1983 the company has had a second string to its corporate bow, in the form of a toy typewriter brand called Britains Petite. Like Britains' farm range, the teeny typewriters for tots are adult-imitative. While small boys may play at committing suicide over EC milk quotas, their sisters can pretend to develop RSI while tapping away at qwerty keyboards (or azerty if the children in question happen to be French).
There have been passing problems with the office equipment line. The prototype electronic version was so successfully imitative that people bought it in the mistaken belief that 'they were getting a £3,000 IBM for 50 quid,' guffaws Webb. But its main drawback is generic rather than topical.
'Back in 1963 Petite typewriters were primarily aimed at 13-14 year old girls,' recalls Steer. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the genus 13-14 year old girl, circa 1993, will know that toy typewriters are probably not high on its list of consumer desirables. Indeed, says Steer, the product's age break-off point is now 'seven, eight absolute maximum'. The market for Britains Petite has, in other words, been effectively halved. But this does not cause furrowed brows at Britains' Nottingham base: rather, indeed, the opposite. 'Sales are half what they were at peak,' says Steer, 'but that means that we now have pretty well no competitors in the market. It's the same story with our farm models. Major players don't really want to get involved in relatively small niches.' Soothed by this belief, Britains' diminutive bucol-ics thus continue to plough their lonely furrows. The Petite division, too, pursues a more-of-the-same approach, recently branching out into full-blown 'activity-centres', including mini-offices replete with fax machines and mobile telephones. Those with a dim memory of tree-houses and catapults may find the idea of such adult simulacra a touch depressing, but not nearly so much so as the Play TV Reporter, an itsy-bitsy camcorder that makes every little girl her own potential Kate Adie. This last item even comes with its own tiny American Express card, presumably so that the lucrative mores of chequebook journalism can be instilled very early into impressionable minds.
Even allowing for these advances, troubles remain. With the fine and time-honoured dictum that children should be seen and not heard incomprehensibly losing ground, much of today's toy marketing skill lies in the harnessing of what Webb refers to as 'pester-power'. Computer games are the ultimate embodiment of this quality: Nintendo and its rivals today account for a horrifying one-third of the £1.5 billion UK toy market, largely, it seems, because small, shrill voices have decreed that it should be so. Unimaginative it may be, but it's hard to think of these same voices raised in a whining litany of 'Gimme a toy Singer sewing machine' (another Britains product). Yet Webb and Steer are both insistent that pester-power is easily matched by what is known as 'imposed purchase' (ie, parents giving the little darlings improving presents they probably don't want.) The duo is also convinced that the van of fashion is a dangerous place for a toy manufacturer to ride: 'I was in toys when ET came out,' recalls Steer. 'The whole thing was over in three months. People got stuck with millions of little plastic extra-terrestrials.' It does seem possible, however, to go too far the other way.
Or maybe not. Steer's sanguine philosophy after a lifetime in the toy business is that 'everything comes back round again eventually'. In this, too, the company's art appears to imitate life on a diminutive scale. Thirty years ago, psychedelic parents might well have bought their offspring little Farmer Gileses in the belief that this would encourage them in the virtues of earth-motherhood. Now, the dogs of war are loose again, and the Balkans are uncannily back in fashion.
Not just among the under-10s, moreover. In the last few years, Britains has resurrected its toy soldier marque, now guaranteed 100% lead-free and sold in its original, pre-war packaging. More curiously, it is also being sold to its original, pre-war customers: that is to say, to small male children who have grown up to be large male children. 'Collecting toy soldiers has become big business,' says Webb. 'We noticed the sorts of prices old Britains' pieces were fetching at Sotheby's and Christie's and we thought', he says straightfacedly, 'we could take advantage of our position in this particular market.' Britains' new beefeaters and grenadiers are now sold in tourist venues such as the Tower of London and Stratford-upon-Avon. That's apart from the 50% that are exported direct to the vast number of toy-soldier-collectors in the United States. Yet by no means all of them fall captive to foreigners: Daily Telegraph editor and soldier manque Max Hastings is reported to have bought a thousand pounds-worth on a recent visit to the factory.
Spoilsports at the EC have, predictably enough, decided, when the metal range was resuscitated, that these soldiers were too dangerous for real little boys to play with because of the metal content 'so we've got to put a 14-and-over label on the boxes,' sighs Webb. This is not altogether a cause for sorrow, since the 60-year-old boys, by and large, have more pocket money than six-year-olds. 'It allowed us to adjust our prices to what is an increasingly sophisticated market,' as Webb puts it. 'When we first started to do hollow-cast soldiers again, individual pieces cost us a pound each to produce. Now some boxed sets of 10 would probably retail at around the £100 mark.' Although the new-old soldiers account only for 8% of the company's turnover so far (being numbered 'somewhere in the high teens of millions'), Webb and Steer both insist that this is merely the first skirmish. Producing accessories for the cheaper plastic blue-helmets also seems likely to be rewarding. The firm has already run up a set of brown-helmeted foes, for example. 'They've got to have enemies, after all,' reasons Steer. Now there's talk of a 'play-base', a little Sarajevo or Mogadishu in which the peace can be kept. Swords beaten into ploughshares are now busily being turned back into swords. 'We have wondered about the ethics of it all,' Webb confesses. 'It's odd but it's what children want, and there's been a big call for it from our customers.'