Well played, old thing

Laurence Alster

Laurence Alster visits two museums packed with toys from past generations

As if proof were needed that Christmas really is barmy, newspapers in December carried stories of parents biffing each other in their frantic pursuit of Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po from the Teletubbies. Not that this surprises anyone nowadays. Twelve months earlier, adults desperate for Buzz Lightyears scrapped their way to the toy counter, and some years ago small wars broke out over a dearth of Cabbage Patch dolls. The exhibits at the Sussex Toy and Model Museum, Brighton, recall more polite times.

A mystery to most of the PlayStation generation, names like Hornby Dublo, Meccano, Tri-ang and Dinky evoke an age when computers were room-sized objects fed on punch cards and the nearest thing to the Spice Girls were the Beverley Sisters.

The centrepiece of this small museum is a largish room crammed with exhibits, an extravagant model railway layout being easily the most striking. Numerous engines pull rolling stock and passenger carriages through railway stations that delight with their fine detail: bridges, travellers, surrounding warehouses, signal boxes, even a heavily-ornamented lavatory with, just visible inside, a chap positioned in one of those huge iron stalls once thought vital to manly modesty.

Other toys denote different types of social realism. Among the pots, pans and kettles of a Fifties play kitchen, you spot a Kiddicraft miniature packet of 20 Capstan Navy Cut cigarettes, handy for a soothing drag when Junior Housewife's Oxo goes lumpy. Over in Meccano corner ("A hobby for bright boys" reads a caption), one box cover shows a smug-looking, sailor-suited lad telling his wing-collared dad: "It's so easy to make", though an enormous steam engine and a huge dockyard crane nearby scarcely look a pushover even for budding Brunels.

It's the same everywhere - for girls, dolls, puppets and miniature domestic appliances, while boys get all the adventure stuff, trains, boats and planes. Hundreds of examples of these and various toys, books and games tell of changing times, styles and aspirations. Let alone lifelong obsessions: housing one man's postal collection are two display cases crammed with collection plates, toy phone boxes, delivery vans, post office sets, games (Zoo Mail, "two rollicking games in one" - how uncool today, that "rollicking") and other themed items. However impressive this haul, you do wonder what kind of person spends their life gathering it in. After all, in times of woe a miniature pair of scales offers scant comfort - unlike, say, a teddy bear.

Then again, when the bear is a six-foot Rupert it would seem wiser to offer a handshake than try for a cuddle. Rupert lords it over the other bears in the Toy and Teddy Bear Museum, St Annes, an ursine host with some famous names - Paddington, Yogi (no Boo-Boo, though), Sooty, Pudsey and Superted - set among an impressive collection of dolls, toys, books and games. After a talk on the history of teddies from museum owner and committed arctophile (bear-lover) Irena Thompson, visitors can wonder at teddies in uniform (Harrods a favourite), spectacles, flying goggles, a wedding dress and all sorts of other outfits.

All these are set among dozens of other intriguing and charming objects, most obviously a lovely three-ring circus complete with acrobats, animals and trailers, some evocative pre-digital toy typewriters and several dolls' houses grand enough to warrant their own mortgages. It's a fascinating collection but, like those of so many other smaller museums, one that suffers from a dearth of information on the history and significance of too many of the exhibits. Fifty years from now, children will stare at Teletubbie dolls in toy museums and, unless informed, will wonder what on earth they meant. Which is precisely how many visitors must regard the items here.

The Sussex Toy and Model Museum, 52-55 Trafalgar Street, Brighton BN1 4EB. Tel:01273 749494. Open Monday to Friday 10am-5pm and Saturday 10am -5pm. Adults Pounds 3, children Pounds 1.50. School groups phone first.

The Toy and Teddy Bear Museum, 373 Clifton Drive North, St Annes, Lytham St Annes, Lancs FY8 2PA. Tel: 01253 713705734890. Open daily by appointment from 9.30am. Pounds 1.75 each for children and adults Previews by prior arrangement

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Laurence Alster

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