James May on breaking the sound barrier with Action Man

"For small boys and girls whose minds are perhaps a bit twisted, as mine was back then, I can confirm that, yes, at one point his head comes off"

Action Man was always a bit useless, in my opinion. I seem to be the only bloke I know who never owned one. My brother had one, although he lost one of his legs in a parachuting accident. Not my brother – he still has both his legs. 

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I had my fair share of fictional heroes as a boy, ranging from Dick Dastardly to Roy of the Rovers, even though I was terrible at football. I read Commando war stories as well, because military men were admirable. But Action Man?

He was marketed as “the greatest hero of them all”, but was in reality an irritating dressing-up experience, and I find putting my own clothes on fairly tedious. It’s now almost 50 years since he first fell flat on his face in small boys’ bedrooms all over the country. Maybe it was time to rescue his reputation?

The idea behind my series Toy Stories was that it would be about pop science and basic physics, but explained using toys as they make these subjects more accessible.

I’ve argued for years that a good chunk of the school physics curriculum could be taught with a Scalextric set. It’s got to be better than all that smelly old lab equipment I had to put up with. A lot of techy stuff that seems boring can be made much more interesting with Lego and Meccano. Real architects and engineers use them, after all. We dismiss toys as playthings, but the best ones are lifelong tools for exercising the mind.

However, Toy Stories didn’t really work out quite like that. The unanticipated enthusiasm of the public for playing en mass, even in adulthood, meant that each project turned into some sort of community-bonding initiative. Toys, it seems, are a force for good in the world. 

But for this year’s Christmas special, we wanted to wrestle the original philosophy back, and we did this using two subjects that have long intrigued me: the so-called “sound barrier”, and so called “Action” Man.

The sound barrier is actually a bit of a myth; it’s a phrase coined in the 1940s when aeroplanes began to approach supersonic speed. Many people thought there was an invisible wall in the sky that caused aeroplanes to break up and go wildly out of control when they reached the speed of sound, which as any schoolchild knows is 1,235 kph or 761 mph at sea level. It of course varies with altitude and air temperature.

We now know that supersonic flight is possible. I experience it myself during the film. What’s less well understood is the unique and slightly counterintuitive aerodynamic problems that result from “breaking the barrier”. I thought these were worth a closer look. 

We needed a square-jawed test pilot in miniature. Action Man, the soldier-doll that was for many years the bestselling toy in Britain, presented himself for duty, slightly reluctantly. Time for him to prove himself, finally, by being the first toy to go beyond the speed of sound. 

In an attempt, our scar-faced and fuzzy headed toy-box warrior faces many perils, as pioneers must. For small boys and girls whose minds are perhaps a bit twisted, as mine was back then, I can confirm that, yes, at one point his head comes off.

A surprising rival emerges, turning the whole business into a race, and politics plays a part, just as it did during the Space Race of the 1960s and 70s. More than that I don’t want to say, because, just as with the work of the United States Air Force immediately after the Second World War, our activities were classified as Top Secret.

You can find out on Christmas Day if he makes it, or if Action Man is to be remembered for ever more as being a bit missing in action. 

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James May’s Toy Stories is on Christmas Day at 5.10pm on BBC2