Thursday, October 29, 2009

TV Review: James Mays Toy Stories

James May (the good one off Top Gear) has been appearing in various bits of the media for the last few months thanks to the BBC press machine gearing up for his new series "Toy Stories". So far we've heard about the Plasticine garden and Lego house. This week we finally saw the results of all this work with the series making it to air. Literally in this case as the toy in question being Airfix.

The programme followed a suitably (for the telly) simple narrative. May has spotted that plastic kit modelling (the show used the word "Airfix" as a verb throughout) has become an adult occupation. Kids have other things to to and actually making things is sneered about. He had decided to try and reintroduce the hobby to "da kidz" through a series of stunts culminating in building a full size Spitfire from a kit.

Now I have to admit I hate kids in TV shows but these were less loathsome than most. The first kit they were presented with was the Golden Hind. It was the first plastic kit manufactured by Airfix so this might seem sensible. Trouble is, it's a horrible kit full of fiddly bits. As you have a presenter from a motoring show, why not start with a car kit ? The results didn't encourage anyone much.

Next up were tanks. Anyone who has made one of these kits up will know that like the Hind they have loads of fiddly parts plus rubber tracks that you can never get to bend properly. A bit of TV trickery showed Dads helping their offspring to make the models and at this point the show had a great point to make but left it alone - the kits became a joint production and to descend in to Guardianese - a bonding activity. I like this. For lots of parents, computer games are divisive. The kids are faster at picking them up and becoming proficient. Mum and Dad therefore are excluded and the generations develop separate activities.

The tanks led to the first "stunt" where the finished models were taken to a tank driving range and the kids got to drive the real thing. This was the first point where you really despaired of modern youth. Given the chance to have a go at the controls of a tank, they weren't really interested. Good grief kids YOU ARE GETTING TO DRIVE A TANK , on a school day, for the telly. I never got the chance to do that.

The models were then used is a stop motion made film where most were blown up - I'm surprised May's mention of dismantling fireworks to do this in his youth made the final edit. Except one. Because the builder was proud of it, had made a really nice job and didn't want ti destroyed. Personally I would advise any government minister to find this child and give him a top job as he's obviously unusually well adjusted.

Along side all this there was a strand showing the creation of the full sized kit along with some historic stuff about Spitfires. The later was nice and the May's inability to speak once he had been allowed to fly a 2-seat Spitfire was obviously heartfelt. I liked the giant kit making bits as well - the guys trying to turn the idea into reality obviously had a tough job and I suspect they may have wondered why they agreed to take it on. It's not like the advertising will have generated any more sales. If you want a full size fibreglass Spitfire on a stick, you'll find them after all.

The penultimate stunt was building 1:24 Spits in a Coventry car plant. I know where it is as I broke down outside it once in my campervan... Anyway, by this time the kids were getting it. Sat beside an assembly line they were able to employ the same techniques to produce creditable models.

All this lead to the finale where the full size kit is unveiled. OK, it wasn't quite a pure as planned, the wing assembly had to be braced with metal for example, but the results were impressive. TV trickery to the fore, I think we were meant to believe that assembly took place over a day when it obviously didn't. Likewise the kids didn't do the whole thing but they did appear to be involved a lot of the time. May did his "old bloke who doesn't get youth culture" bit by not knowing who Beyonce was and generally played up his TV persona. By the end though the resulting "model" was impressive. Cosford are very wise to agree to keep it in the museum as it ought to generate a few extra people in the door for the future. Some of the kids even seemed to appreciate the hobby and get the message. OK, this might just be what you get by pointing a camera at them, but maybe just one or two will try again. And perhaps one or two parents will want to help.

I liked this programme a lot. OK, for me, it's preaching to the converted but the producers managed to walk the tightrope of popularity without dumbing the show down so much that I think Airfix modellers are being laughed at or insulted. This probably wasn't a cheap show to make but personally I'd swap the entire output of Eastenders for it any day.

Toy Stories on the BBC web site

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