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Your boss could be wired the way he is because of this guy

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Phil Hilton
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They’re bringing back Action Man, the toy I’m saying shaped the psyche of most male people over forty-five. He was a moveable figure with a set of military outfits and importantly, loads of guns and knives. He had a scar on his cheek, he could ski and shoot and wasn’t in insurance like my Dad.

It’s fifty years since he first appeared on our carpets, aiming his rifle at some foreigner on the nest of coffee tables by the sideboard and seeing him there once again, available on Amazon for £34.99, hit me hard.

It’s a toy worth looking at for a number of reasons but primarily because, with hindsight, I see him as key figure in my upbringing, and not necessarily a healthy influence. Also remember, men in their forties and fifties still run most of everything, and we frequently make a proper balls up of the whole show. So ponder for a second, when fighter planes test air space or some country squares up to another with a military exercise, these moves could well have been initiated by a man who spent his early years with a tiny, plastic killer.

Original Action Man. Credit: Rex Images

Originally GI Joe in the US, Action Man was a licensed copy made for the UK and basically your own SAS operative to do with as you will. Much has been written about Barbie and her unlikely physique, but Action Man was impossibly ripped. He and I spent our quality time together in the 1970s when there were two primary body shapes: skinny and skinny with a beer gut. Here for eight year-old me, was a man I could relate to - slim waist, muscular arms and close-cropped hair. I can’t say I’ve really thought about this before, but I’ve worn a Number One buzz cut since I was 26 and I go to the gym every day.

On his taut fighter’s body went the gear. The outfits were crucial to the pleasures of playing with these vinyl soldiers. I remember the basic squaddie with his khaki uniform and big, black boots but I also had the deep sea diver, the pilot, and the skiing one. As you placed Action Man in these miniature uniforms you became him, lived through him and obviously went on to kill your brother’s Action Man under the dining room table.

David Bowie and Mark Bolan. Credit: Rex Images

On Top Of The Pops, I watched weirdos in face glitter and gigantic shoes play distorted guitars. Closer to home, men wore tight shirts and gigantic hair. Nowadays, obviously Bowie and Bolan seem just extraordinary talents but no one wanted to be them as kids, no boy wanted a feather boa and a satin jump suit, there was no glam rock Action Man. Also, like all children of the period, I was forced to walk around in purple cords and a beige roll-neck, a look that makes visiting death on your enemies almost impossible.

Here was a man trained in all manner of outdoor skills, a man with neat kit but best of all was his face: steely, determined and brilliantly… scarred. Whoever thought of giving small boys a toy with a livid, poorly-healed welt on his face, truly understood the young, male mind. We were never told what bayonet or dagger inflicted the wound, but the mystery meant that he’d seen things and been places and returned a changed man.

Action Man. Credit: Rex Images

We hadn’t seen anything much; school, aunty Ruth’s house, Blue Peter, none of which changed our faces. But as primary school boys, we knew cuts and abrasions. Action Man had hurt himself but not cried and still skied and shot people and everything. This was the real lesson, our hero had a cold, emotionless outlook, he was skilled and determined. He probably didn’t miss his mum went she went out and didn’t come back till after bed time. A truly conservative figure in changing times, he joined Bruce Lee and Sean Connery’s James Bond (no one cared about Roger Moore) to make a set of male role models who spent longer on their killing skills than they did on their hair. Bowie released Ziggy Stardust in 1972, Enter the Dragon came out in 1973. We all picked the wrong man to admire.

So all those hours I spent with what, I now realise, was a doll, posing him, kitting him out, arming him, were all a lesson in being a man. I was lost in play, no other toy gave us such a vivid sense of being someone else, somewhere else.  Unfortunately that somewhere else was a really cool war.

Now I’m obviously a fully-rounded, emotionally available executive management person with a repertoire of dinner party-standard Mediterranean-fusion dishes. But seeing him again after all these years, makes me wonder how much of me I owe to him.

And how I’d look with a pretty hefty scar.

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Phil Hilton

Phil Hilton is the editorial director of ShortList. In his own words he'd describe himself as a writer, a dad and a big-nosed, bald man. Follow Phil on Twitter: @Phil_Hilton

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