When we listed James May in our top five sexiest male geeks in Britain, we noted he had been working on a very special toy project. Some of that work has now aired on TV in James May’s Toy Stories, and it’s geek to the max.
The concept of the show is that May (who has previously presented traditional documentaries about the history of popular toys) takes a toy from his childhood and then, with the help of enthusiasts and the local community, brings it back to prominence on a spectacular scale.
The first episode dealt with Airfix, a range of plastic kit models which the owner would then assemble and paint until they had a scale model of a vehicle, usually of military origin. May decided to enlist a group of schoolchildren to make their own Airfix model of a Spitfire… in 1:1 scale.
The biggest difficulty proved to be the wings: the plastic alone was too flexible for such a size, but metal supports made them too heavy to support themselves. One solution involving polystyrene proved a failure after it was rotted by the glue used to put the kit together, but some lightweight wooden slats did the trick. To cap the project off, the pilot in the plane was produced by taking a full skull cast of May.
Episode two looked at Plasticine, a modelling clay best known in recent years for its use in the Wallace and Gromit animation series. The project was to build a full-size garden entirely from Plasticine and display it at the Chelsea Flower Show. I found this episode a little disappointing as there were no real engineering feats involved: it was “merely” a case of thousands of people working very hard to make the models. The judges at the show were unable to give a traditional award to May thanks to the minor technicality that his garden had no real flowers in it, but did award a special Plasticine medal.
Next up was Meccano, (or Erector in North America) a brand of small metal components which can be used to create genuine working models of pretty much any engineering project you can imagine. May’s idea for reviving the project was to go to Liverpool – the city where Meccano was originally made – and build a 23-meter bridge across the canal. An engineering firm won a contest to design the bridge, with their entry a combination of a tilting bridge which reached halfway across the water, where it activated a swing-bridge to the other side (the concept being that once the pedestrian stepped onto the swing bridge, the tilting bridge returned to vertical, making it a one-way journey.) Engineering students from a local university then built the bridge, complete with more than 100,000 parts, and May successfully walked across it without it collapsing.
The final episode for the moment looked at Scalextric, an electrically-powered motor racing game. The concept this time was to build the largest ever track, running the 2.5 mile length of Brooklands, a full-scale racing track which was the world’s first purpose-built motor racing venue.
That would have been impressive in itself, but there was another problem. Brooklands closed in 1939 and parts of the original route now house a residential street, a business park and a pond. That didn’t prove a deterrence, with May and his assistants coming up with solutions including a ramp over a 14-foot fence, a foam and plywood support for a floating track and a vertical spiral track to raise the track by a full story inside an office complex. The track then played host to a race between Scalextric enthusiasts and local residents.
The remaining two episodes, covering an attempt to make a 10-mile long model railway on a disused track and a full-sized house from Lego bricks, will be shown at Christmas. However, the full series will be available on region 2 DVD on 7 December while a book is available in both the UK and US.