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Men with no ears celebrate 25 years

They are tiny, their arms are in splints and they have restricted leg movement. But they gross pound;6.7m a year in Britain. Adrian Mourby on the silver jubilee of the Playmobil folk from Nuremberg.

PLAYMOBIL - those harmless, round-faced smiley people from Germany - notch up their first quarter century this month. Despite the fact that their cars have no steering, their legs can't move separately and their arms are permanently in splints these 7cm high earless creatures earn pound;6.7 million a year in Britain.

But this is nothing to Playmobil's impact on the Fatherland where it remains the number one toy for children aged between four and 10, grossing DM 195m (pound;69.6m).

Neil Leah, Playmobil's UK commercial director, said: "German parents grew up with Playmobil, so it's natural for them to send it into school with their children. We consider it to be the finest role-play item on the market, much much more than just a toy. Children can gain early experience of how the world works through the mini-worlds of Playmobil."

Given the high levels of concentration and social skills attainment in German schools, Leah had hoped, when he first joined the company, to promote Playmobil directly through UK middle and primary schools but the head office turned him down.

"Our parent company couldn't see the point. In Germany they just don't need to market it that way."

Playmobil was invented by the reclusive engineer, Horst Brandstatter, whose father's factory in Nuremberg produced beer barrels and hoola hoops until 1973 when young Horst came up with a new product. The Play People Policeman were small, stiff plastic figures which could have their arms raised, sit down and turn their heads. At the Nuremberg toy festival that year Holland ordered two million. And thus Playmobils were launched on an unsuspecting world in July 1974.

Horst Brandstatter now lives in Florida and even his own company admits he is somewhat eccentric. He refuses press interviews but is said to oversee every aspect of the product. He will not let his creation be associated with any product which he considers as being bad for children - red meat and confectionery are on his forbidden list.

Playmobil is expensive. A single cowboy or pirate can cost pound;1.99 and the basic train set nearly pound;130. Playmobil defends the price by saying it is what you have to pay for a quality toy which is made in Europe.

The company says that 95 per cent of toys these days are now made in China where labour costs are lower.

Playmobil, however, is still made in the same Nuremberg factory which Horst Brandstatter set up in l975. And the toys are virtually unbreakable. "An adult would have to stamp on one of our figures to break him," Neil Leah says.

The company has avoided creating a Playmobil army. Over the years Mr Brandstatter has put his imprimatur on gun-toting US cavalrymen, on knights with swords and battle-axes and a squadron of musket-bearing redcoats (useful for ruffing up the pirates) but there are no tanks, no armoured personal carriers and no 7cm Schwarzenegger clones bristling with bazookas.

Only in the past year or so that have Playmobil characters been painted with unsmiling faces and stubble. However, Playmobil is moving with the times. In 2,000 there are plans for a new space series which the company admits owes more than a passing similarity to Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace.

Role-play for the new millennium perhaps? Certainly, it looks likely to be the next mission for those smiley people from Nuremberg who have no ears.

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