- in Science
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, released on 19 December, is sure to set tills ringing just as loudly in toy shops as in cinemas. But the decades-spanning success of Star Wars toys owes much to the early hard work and vision of a group of British workers.
In 1977, Star Wars was still little more than a rumour. The first film in the franchise would not get its UK premiere until 27 December, seven months after it opened in the United States.
Among the first people to see previews of the movie were executives from Leicestershire firm Palitoy, tasked with rendering George Lucas’s celluloid galaxy in plastic.
Kenner, the company’s US sister firm, had bought the rights to Star Wars but needed a factory to manufacture the toys for the UK.
“I’d never heard of Star Wars, but they said ‘There’s a film. We can give you a quick look-see’,” said Bob Simpson, Palitoy’s managing director.
“I was amazed. It was just a toymaker’s dream.”
Mr Simpson was among the Palitoy employees tracked down for a new documentary that tells how its Coalville factory found itself at the centre of a manufacturing phenomenon.
But initially, with no guarantee that the first film would be a box office success, let alone spawn a smash-hit series, and with no actual toys or market data to show potential buyers, Palitoy had a tough job to convince retailers to invest.
“You have to remember, this was a film people weren’t sure about… they were reluctant to take stuff because it was what they thought was a B-movie – you know, science fiction, all that business,” said Bob Brechin, the firm’s chief designer.
Salvation came in the form of Action Man. Retailers were offered discounts on the firm’s hugely popular soldier figures if they would take Star Wars toys.
Sales manager John Nicholas recalled how one chain’s whisky-loving buyer was handed a bottle of Scotch and asked how many Star Wars figures he wanted.
About half an hour later, and with a third of the bottle gone, he had decided. He would take a million.
“Well, it was my biggest order ever. I’ve never taken an order for that, and, you know, when Woolworths came along and said, ‘All right, I’ll have 100,000’, it was ‘Oh, is that all?’.”
As the first film became a hit with audiences, demand grew. An entire cast of figures, at pocket-money prices, and a selection of spaceships and vehicles, helped confirm Star Wars as the must-have toy, boosting Palitoy’s sales to £20m in 1978.
Production line worker Gina Morton remembers a supervisor called Wendy urging the workers on. “She was rather like a schoolmistress, actually because, we were young girls – 17, 18… You know, if your Millennium Falcons weren’t touching, ‘Come on girls, what’s going off here? We’ve got to get this out!'”
By the time Return of the Jedi, the third movie, was released in 1983, 20 million Star Wars figures had been sold in the UK, and half of those in that year alone.
But with some parts of its empire posting losses, parent company General Mills, a food producer, was questioning its involvement in the traditionally volatile toy business.
The Palitoy brand was discontinued, production of Star Wars toys at Coalville ended, and in just under 10 years, the company was sold three times.
The factory closed in 1994. Its last owner was Hasbro, which still manufactures Star Wars toys today.
“Devastating” is how designer Brian Turner remembers the effect on the town, already reeling from the decline of coal-mining. “I think the life went out of the place,” he said.
Although they initially sold for a pound or two, original Star Wars figures can today fetch hundreds – even thousands – with Palitoy products, rarer than their US counterparts, particularly sought after by some collectors.
“I mean, I wish I’d put a few in the garage. I’ve always thought that,” said Bob Brechin.
Marketing manager Geoff Maisey said: “I think we’ve a lot to be proud of. We actually launched Star Wars and made it what it is.
“Other companies now have taken it and extended it. But without those efforts in the early days, it wouldn’t be here. So yeah, I’m really proud.”
Toy Empire: The British Force Behind Star Wars, will be shown on BBC 1 in the East Midlands on 9 December at 19:30 GMT, and then on BBC iPlayer. It will be shown on BBC Four on 16 December at 21:00 GMT.