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2nd December 2014
Location: Brighton Toy and Model Museum
Interviewer: Penelope Nightingale
Videographer: Dan Cash

00.04 – Steve: I think the Meccano set I didn’t get on too well with but there was a rival to Lego called ‘Betta Bilda’, very badly, deliberately badly spelt [spells Betta Bilda] and that’s literally how it was on the packet, the name.

And I could form quite ambitious constructions with those. They were completely incompatible with Lego in much the same was as Betamax and VHS in the ‘80’s were, total rivalry and n’er the twain shall meet.

And yeah, I suppose I developed great big fantasy cities if I could manage it and under- sea empires, that sort of thing as best I could.

Penelope: I know nothing about Betta Bilda so can you describe what the components are of it?

Steve: Yeah, whereas Lego’s got the two little flat discs at the top, which intersect with the corresponding holes in the other unit, these were very much … they had two discs at the top but they had a raised edge in the centre with a hole, so they were almost hollow. And obviously through trades and what have you, what’s the word I’m looking for? They couldn’t be anything like Lego or be seen to be looking like it. So it was a little bit unwieldy and I think there were slightly smaller bricks as well. But they were fascinating to work with and I thoroughly enjoyed making them.

Penelope: What were they made of?

Steve: Just plastic, the same as Lego. The basic primary colours, I think red, white, black and that was about it.

Penelope: How old were you when you got your first set?

Steve: Quite young, I think I’d be seven or thereabouts. That sort of figured right up to when I was about ten or thereabouts.

Penelope: That’s quite a long time to be playing with one toy, isn’t it?

Steve: I guess it is, yeah.

Penelope: You must have got very good at it.

Steve: Oh yeah, you could give me something and I would just play with it for years really.

Penelope: Construction

Steve: Yeah

Penelope: Underwater cities

Steve: Yes, something like that, yes.

Penelope: Tell me more about those.

Steve: Well I was very influenced by Gerry Andersen puppet series and Stingray I was a bit keen on and so I would modify Betta Bilda which was very much I suppose when you think about Lego and its rivals, it would have been symbolic of … Now I’ve become a bit of a historian in my older years, rebuilding the Europe after the Second World War … bomb sites and building, not on the scale that it is now, development, especially down here but it was very much a theme of building and I think I chose not to think along those lines.

I just lived in a realm of fantasy in my head really, I was quite content there.

ENDS 02m 57s

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2nd December 2014
Location: Brighton Toy and Model Museum
Interviewer: Penelope Nightingale
Videographer: Dan Cash

00.05- Steve: I was born in the city of London.

Penelope: What part of London was that?

Steve: Well, I was within the sound of Bow Bells and at St Bartholomew’s, when they still did births there.

Penelope: Oh really?

Steve: Yeah, so my parents both being of London heritage, they wanted the same for their little nipper, although they met in Brighton, which is part of my history really. If they hadn’t been doing national service in the RAF base, they wouldn’t have met.

Penelope: So what year was that Steve?

Steve:1957

Penelope: 1957. You were born in 1957. What were your parents doing at the time?

Steve: My dad was a printer and mum was pretty much a full time, traditional mum, although worked in Sainsbury’s in London Road later.

00.45 – Penelope: Do you think of yourself as a Cockney?

Steve: I do indeed although I’m quite well spoken [laughing] and being reunited with a cockney cousin just this year I haven’t seen since the ‘60’s and that sort of quite gets you there. There’s a lot of healing going on in the family.

Penelope: Good for you. Well, we’re going to be talking about toys, as you know and one of the things I am going to ask is whether you had a teddy bear?

01.11 – Steve: I did indeed. His name was Edward, 10/10 for originality and he had very pink, flat … I wouldn’t call it fur, I could draw in biro on his chest, and I did. I must have had some envy of school kids before I went to school, because I drew a blazer on him, complete with a pocket with pens and you could almost say I was chomping at the bit to get to school but I soon got disappointed once I went to school!

Penelope: So what was he made of?

Steve: He had a very solid chest but he must have been made of, I don’t know … cloth composite I suppose, there was quite a structure to it, it had quite a sound rib cage, pretty much like most teddy bears do but he was just very pink. I think one of his ears was ripped, but he lived through that.

Penelope: Did you rip it or did it get ripped in play? Steve: I have no idea. I can’t remember. Penelope: He lived life.

Steve: He did indeed. He lived life to the full, yeah.

Penelope: Do you still have him?

Steve: I expect my mother does, yeah.

Penelope: Did you take him to school with you?

Steve: No I didn’t, no.

Penelope: So he was a private toy?

Steve: Yes, I would say he was, yeah.

Penelope: Cuddling?

Steve: I guess so but I kind of outgrew it fairly quickly. I can remember that, that by the time I went to school, you know, teddy bears were old hat [laughing].

02:34 – Penelope: What did he look like? How tall was he?

Steve: He was so small I guess [gestures]

Penelope: That’s about 12” you’re showing me there. So he just had one ear and you drew on him so he didn’t have clothes?

Steve: No, he didn’t have clothes.

Penelope: No clothes, that was a good bear, so that was Edward Bear.

Steve: That was him alright.

Penelope: Now, what about other toys to go with him?

02.58 – Steve: I can remember there was a woman opposite in Lowther Road in Brighton near Blaker’s Park, Mrs Fitzcuster always used to knit woollen toys for all the members of the family and I used to have quite a succession of woollen toys. They used to be added to the collection every Christmas. One was for reasons I can’t imagine called Hokey the wolf and he was like a little fox type creature.

And the others, their appearances escape me but I do remember I had quite a collection of them at one point and because they were quite light, when my dad would read me a story at night and he would say good night, he would have this ritual, I don’t know which of us started it, of throwing the woollen toys over the door so I’d then catch them, or they’d land on the bed. And I used to call them my pals; I was an only child, very sad.

So righto dad, time for the pals to come over the door and that was it, a succession of woollen toys would be flung over the door.

Penelope: They sound quite important to you?

Steve: Oh they were quite important yes, and the flurry with them thrown over the door, that was very important to my childlike fantasy really.

Penelope: That’s interesting, because knitted toys for boys is quite an unusual thing but you obviously loved them.

Steve: Oh yeah, I loved them to bits, yeah.

Penelope: So you played with them. Did you play with other children with those toys?

Steve: I don’t think I did. I could be quite a private person as a child, yeah. Yeah, no I have no recollection of playing with those woollen toys with any other kids.

Penelope: Did you have fantasy games with your toys?

04.36 – Steve: Um, I guess I did but I graduated to cars quite quickly. In a blokey way [laughing]. I can’t remember what age it was, but I amassed quite a collection eventually of dinky cars and all those.

Penelope: You obviously enjoyed those as well.

Steve: Oh yes, immensely. Yes, they must have been put through the wringer a bit, like the teddy bear because I wasn’t very old when I remember going downstairs on Saturday morning and finding some of my really most battered vehicles, all the paint chipped off them, my dad was very helpfully painting them all fire engine red, which I hadn’t asked him to do. But he was working so hard on it, and he was so pleased when he’d done that I thought well, I’d better just accept that they’re all now fire engine red.

It was very funny looking back as I’ve tried to help my kids before with things unbidden, and sort of got that look of “right, ok dad”, sort of, it was one of those moments.

Penelope: One of those moments. You then went obviously straight from those soft toys, did you have other dolls? With a man, with a boy, one can think of toys as action men as dolls as Action Men.

Steve: Yeah, I wasn’t really taken with them at all. I didn’t get into the Action Man thing at all. I can remember a lot of kids my age, it would have been ’66 I suppose, we won the World Cup, Action Man was still permitted amongst young boys getting a sense of wanting to appear macho and different levels and action man seemed to just roll along until kids were nearly secondary school age as I remember. But I didn’t care for Action Man at all.

06.15 – Penelope: You were more into construction toys I understand?

Steve: Yeah I was. I think the Meccano set I didn’t get on too well with but there was a rival to Lego called ‘Betta Bilda’, very badly, deliberately badly spelt [spells Betta Bilda] and that’s literally how it was on the packet, the name.

And I could form quite ambitious constructions with those. They were completely incompatible with Lego in much the same was as Betamax and VHS in the ‘80’s were, total rivalry and n’er the twain shall meet.

And yeah, I suppose I developed great big fantasy cities if I could manage it and under- sea empires, that sort of thing as best I could.

Penelope: I know nothing about Betta Bilda so can you describe what the components are of it?

Steve: Yeah, whereas Lego’s got the two little flat discs at the top, which intersect with the corresponding holes in the other unit, these were very much … they had two discs at the top but they had a raised edge in the centre with a hole, so they were almost hollow. And obviously through trades and what have you, what’s the word I’m looking for? They couldn’t be anything like Lego or be seen to be looking like it. So it was a little bit unwieldy and I think there were slightly smaller bricks as well. But they were fascinating to work with and I thoroughly enjoyed making them.

Penelope: What were they made of?

Steve: Just plastic, the same as Lego. The basic primary colours, I think red, white, black and that was about it.

Penelope: How old were you when you got your first set?

Steve: Quite young, I think I’d be seven or thereabouts. That sort of figured right up to when I was about ten or thereabouts.

Penelope: That’s quite a long time to be playing with one toy, isn’t it?

Steve: I guess it is, yeah.

Penelope: You must have got very good at it.

Steve: Oh yeah, you could give me something and I would just play with it for years really.

Penelope: Construction

Steve: Yeah

Penelope: Underwater cities

Steve: Yes, something like that, yes. Penelope: Tell me more about those.

08.33 – Steve: Well I was very influenced by Gerry Andersen puppet series and Stingray I was a bit keen on and so I would modify Betta Bilda which was very much I suppose when you think about Lego and its rivals, it would have been symbolic of … Now I’ve become a bit of a historian in my older years, rebuilding the Europe after the Second World War … bomb sites and building, not on the scale that it is now, development, especially down here but it was very much a theme of building and I think I chose not to think along those lines.

I just lived in a realm of fantasy in my head really, I was quite content there.

Penelope: Do you think that was because you were an only child?

Steve: Oh definitely, yeah.

Penelope: Did you play with these things with other boys or other girls?

Steve: No, girls weren’t part of the whole thing. I had a few friends that would come round after school for tea and we would invariably play with Betta Bilda. I could be a bit possessive. I’d be the first to admit that. I was very tidy as a child and I liked things just so. I was almost OCD and if my cousins were around in my room and they’d been let in while I was out, they’d move things round. I used to go ballistic and my mum would say “will you stop that! You’re just like an old woman!”, she would say; which was a big put down, she would make me pull myself together. [laughing]

Penelope: If you’d made a construction, if you’d made a city or an underwater city, did you keep them for any length of time?

Steve: Not really, no. I would become used to the sight of them present in the room, different times of day, different times of night, waking up to them, doing something else and then I would soon grow tired of it and think ‘right, time to construct something else now.’

Penelope: So we know that your neighbour, no a relative of yours, knitted toys for you and gave you soft toys.

Steve: Actually, it was a neighbour.

Penelope: It was a neighbour – who gave you the Betta Bilda? Was it a Christmas present?

Steve: Yeah, I think it was a Christmas present and then it just started from there and once shops that sold the Betta Bilda and obviously not as widely distributed as Lego, once they were located, I would think ‘aha’, the finger would wag and that was it, there’s a Betta Bilda distributor there so I don’t know if I had pocket money or now and again, I’d get slipped half a crown I guess from my mum or my grandmother and I’d be able to get some.

11.00 – Penelope: Was it a toy that you asked for, was it a construction set that you asked for or were you just given it?

Steve: I was given it originally, I think and once I added to it, by finding out where Betta Bilda was sold, that became the start of the collector in me, you know; going for something that’s a little bit not mainstream, and thinking ‘well this is cool, because not everybody’s got it’.

Penelope: Your father read to you and played with you in that way. Did he play with the Betta Bilda with you?

Steve: I’m not sure that he did, no. I can’t recall that particularly.

Penelope: It was your fantasy world?

11.36 – Steve: It was. I could do what I darn well pleased really, yeah. I also remember the James Bond Austin Martin in the mid ‘60’s with the bullet proof shield that would ping up behind, from the roof of the car and the ejector suit where James Bond himself you would assume, although his features were indistinguishable from a plastic man. He would be able to ping out and pretty much everybody at my school, Balfour Primary School, had that and I think other kids’ mums had the same problem of when it was time to go to tea or when you grew tired of playing with the Austin Martin with the ejector seat and the little man going ping, mums would have to hoover the little man up or just fall short of hovering the little man up from the carpet, which on patterned carpets must have infuriated them no end. But it was the ‘60’s after all.

Penelope: It was indeed. And you were probably … were you still using Betta Bilda at that time? I’m wondering if you put those two things together, whether you’d build garages?

Steve: Yeah, I used to mix the whole thing up. Yeah, I mean what you had, was a lot of rival toy car manufacturers, all the different sizes, obviously they’re all here to see and it wouldn’t bother me that, you know, I’d have a motorway that would have cars that were dwarfing other cars, what the hey I thought, it’s a bit wide road and they can all get on there.

Penelope: Was that with the Betta Bilda or was that separate?

12.59 – Steve: Pretty much sometimes all mixed up, as much as they could be compatible. And it’s the same with … I think briefly I had scalextric and I didn’t get on too well with that and also a railway set, a very small railway set. I was fascinated by those with the little houses and buildings that you could get, outbuildings, bushes trees and I would like to mingle them up with all the rest of my toy collection. So I was quite resourceful because anything that was in the cupboard, I’d pretty much put it all together and play with it really.

Penelope: So how constructive were the train sets? Did you make those up yourself?

Steve: No, they were pretty much already constructed. But that was relatively short lived, I wasn’t madly enthusiastic about trains.

Penelope: More cars?

Steve: That’s right

Penelope: And garage?

Steve: Yeah, putting them in and putting them out, that was half the fun.

Penelope: Racing tracks?

Steve: Yeah. But I suppose after a while, I grew tired of toys altogether really and became more interested in television and doing impersonations of The Man From Uncle, Man in a Suitcase, Danger Man, all those espionage type TV programmes. A lot of us as kids were interested in them from a very early age.

14.17 – Penelope: Yes, I think so. It was a very exciting time, wasn’t it? What about toys you didn’t have, were there any toys that you particularly wanted but you never had?

Steve: No, I can’t recall that at all. No. I was never really what you’d call covetous, you know. I wouldn’t be like a spoilt child. People have said, you know, you’re an only child, you must have been spoilt. But I wasn’t really, ‘cos one Christmas, I had a coat, which was practical. That was my Christmas present. And I had to look and go “oh, just what I always wanted” [laughing]. That’s kind of how it went sometimes.

Penelope: What would you have wanted if you hadn’t had the coat?

Steve: I think somewhere down the line, I didn’t used to have a Christmas stocking, we had a Santa sack, there’d be something there to say “oh well, the coat was practical, but here’s the real gem.”

Penelope: What would the real gem have been?

Steve: I think James Bond guns were also doing the rounds. I had more fun looking at the toy catalogue and selecting in my mind than actually being presented with the toys themselves. Yeah, James Bond cap guns, as I recall and there were different sizes of the Gerry Andersen puppets and the series ‘Stingray’ vehicles. One manufacturer might do them fairly large and plastic and then you’d have a little metal one, which was like, you know, you’d have to strain your eyes that little bit more to look at it, which was more interesting.

15.35 – One of those, I’m pleased to say, somewhere like Polperro in Cornwall, when we were on holiday, when it was my birthday in July, we went past a shop and just said “oh look, a Stingray toy” I thought, that’s unusual, obscure, tiny little village in Cornwall, can’t see that in Brighton, so little did I know, hastily, one parent said “let’s go and get an ice cream”, while the other one bought it, which was rather sweet of them really ‘cos when I woke up in the tent in the morning and looked at my presents…”here, that was in the shop window the other day!” And they said: “Yes, I know!” [laughing].

Penelope: That’s very exciting for a child, isn’t it?

Steve: It was, very exciting, they made the effort, yeah.

Penelope: You had a very wide variety of experience with your toys it seems to me.

Steve: Yeah.

Penelope: Are there any particular instances, anything that really stands out in your memory as special?

Steve: Not particularly because on one hand, whilst I was able to sort of recycle toys and, you know, not get too tired of them, they’d always get a little bit of use, throughout the year until I gradually grew tired of toys, and nothing really jumps out at my, particularly.

16.48 – I began to do a lot of drawing so I was creating my own stuff really. I beg your pardon, you’re very good at coaxing this out of me … there was a plastic, red London bus and it was large and you were able to physically – it was very tactile – you could actually put little toys, like toy figures from other series actually up the stairs. You could almost, if you got a pair of tweezers or something, you could put them through the windows, and have them sitting down. And many was the time in my nan’s wool shop in Elm Grove, where I used to play at the back, people used to say: “I can’t believe how content he is they’d say. He just has that bus all day long and he just mucks about with it and finds different permutations. So yes, the bus would probably dwarf things created with the Betta Bilda set. But what the hey, the bus, now you come to think of it, the bus was top banana.

Penelope: The bus was the thing.

Steve: And of course, being a London bus as well.

Penelope: Do you remember the number?

Steve: No, there wasn’t any number on it. There was no stickers on it as such, it was just red plastic and all very basic.

Penelope: Steve, thank you very much for coming in and talking to us.

Steve: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

Penelope: It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Steve: I’d nearly forgotten about the London bus. [laughing]

Penelope: Well, you’ll be able to think about that when you go home.

Steve: I will. And in those days in Brighton, ‘cos we were in Elm Grove, with the race fields at the top, there were fleets of buses laid on especially for the races, which you don’t see now. And they used to come down the hall en masse at the end of race day. Yeah, I remember that very clearly.

Penelope: You can see it. Thank you very much for coming in.

Steve: Thank you very much. Ok, good.

INTERVIEW ENDS 18m 33s

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2nd December 2014
Location: Brighton Toy and Model Museum
Interviewer: Penelope Nightingale
Videographer: Dan Cash

Penelope: The first thing I’d like to ask you is, your name is Steven Andrews (that’s right) and you’d like to be called Steve. May I begin by asking you where you were born?

Steve: I was born in the city of London.

Penelope: What part of London was that?

Steve: Well, I was within the sound of Bow Bells and at St Bartholomew’s, when they still did births there.

Penelope: Oh really?

Steve: Yeah, so my parents both being of London heritage, they wanted the same for their little nipper, although they met in Brighton, which is part of my history really. If they hadn’t been doing national service in the RAF base, they wouldn’t have met.

Penelope: So what year was that Steve?

Steve: 1957

Penelope: 1957. You were born in 1957. What were your parents doing at the time?

Steve: My dad was a printer and mum was pretty much a full time, traditional mum, although worked in Sainsbury’s in London Road later.

00:54 – Penelope: Do you think of yourself as a Cockney?

Steve: I do indeed although I’m quite well spoken [laughing] and being reunited with a cockney cousin just this year I haven’t seen since the ‘60’s and that sort of quite gets you there. There’s a lot of healing going on in the family.

Penelope: Good for you. Well, we’re going to be talking about toys, as you know and one of the things I am going to ask is whether you had a teddy bear?

01:18 – Steve: I did indeed. His name was Edward, 10/10 for originality and he had very pink, flat … I wouldn’t call it fur, I could draw in biro on his chest, and I did. I must have had some envy of school kids before I went to school, because I drew a blazer on him, complete with a pocket with pens and you could almost say I was chomping at the bit to get to school but I soon got disappointed once I went to school!

Penelope: So what was he made of?

Steve: He had a very solid chest but he must have been made of, I don’t know … cloth composite I suppose, there was quite a structure to it, it had quite a sound rib cage, pretty much like most teddy bears do but he was just very pink. I think one of his ears was ripped, but he lived through that.

Penelope: Did you rip it or did it get ripped in play?

Steve: I have no idea. I can’t remember.

Penelope: He lived life.

Steve: He did indeed. He lived life to the full, yeah.

Penelope: Do you still have him?

Steve: I expect my mother does, yeah.

Penelope: Did you take him to school with you?

Steve: No I didn’t, no.

Penelope: So he was a private toy?

Steve: Yes, I would say he was, yeah.

Penelope: Cuddling?

Steve: I guess so but I kind of outgrew it fairly quickly. I can remember that, that by the time I went to school, you know, teddy bears were old hat [laughing].

Penelope: What did he look like? How tall was he?

Steve: He was so small I guess [gestures]

Penelope: That’s about 12” you’re showing me there. So he just had one ear and you drew on him so he didn’t have clothes?

Steve: No, he didn’t have clothes.

Penelope: No clothes, that was a good bear, so that was Edward Bear.

Steve: That was him alright.

Penelope: Now, what about other toys to go with him?

03:04 – Steve: I can remember there was a woman opposite in Lowther Road in Brighton near Blaker’s Park, Mrs Fitzcuster always used to knit woollen toys for all the members of the family and I used to have quite a succession of woollen toys.

They used to be added to the collection every Christmas. One was for reasons I can’t imagine called Hokey the wolf and he was like a little fox type creature.

And the others, their appearances escape me but I do remember I had quite a collection of them at one point and because they were quite light, when my dad would read me a story at night and he would say good night, he would have this ritual, I don’t know which of us started it, of throwing the woollen toys over the door so I’d then catch them, or they’d land on the bed. And I used to call them my pals; I was an only child, very sad.

So righto dad, time for the pals to come over the door and that was it, a succession of woollen toys would be flung over the door.

Penelope: They sound quite important to you?

Steve: Oh they were quite important yes, and the flurry with them thrown over the door, that was very important to my childlike fantasy really.

Penelope: That’s interesting, because knitted toys for boys is quite an unusual thing but you obviously loved them.

Steve: Oh yeah, I loved them to bits, yeah.

Penelope: So you played with them. Did you play with other children with those toys?

04:28 – Steve: I don’t think I did. I could be quite a private person as a child, yeah. Yeah, no I have no recollection of playing with those woollen toys with any other kids.

Penelope: Did you have fantasy games with your toys?

Steve: Um, I guess I did but I graduated to cars quite quickly. In a blokey way [laughing]. I can’t remember what age it was, but I amassed quite a collection eventually of dinky cars and all those.

05.00 – Penelope: You obviously enjoyed those as well.

Steve: Oh yes, immensely. Yes, they must have been put through the wringer a bit, like the teddy bear because I wasn’t very old when I remember going downstairs on Saturday morning and finding some of my really most battered vehicles, all the paint chipped off them, my dad was very helpfully painting them all fire engine red, which I hadn’t asked him to do. But he was working so hard on it, and he was so pleased when he’d done that I thought well, I’d better just accept that they’re all now fire engine red.

It was very funny looking back as I’ve tried to help my kids before with things unbidden, and sort of got that look of “right, ok dad”, sort of, it was one of those moments.

Penelope: One of those moments. You then went obviously straight from those soft toys, did you have other dolls? With a man, with a boy, one can think of toys as action men as dolls as Action Men.

Steve: Yeah, I wasn’t really taken with them at all. I didn’t get into the Action Man thing at all. I can remember a lot of kids my age, it would have been ’66 I suppose, we won the World Cup, Action Man was still permitted amongst young boys getting a sense of wanting to appear macho and different levels and Action Man seemed to just roll along until kids were nearly secondary school age as I remember. But I didn’t care for Action Man at all.

06:23 – Penelope: You were more into construction toys I understand?

Steve: Yeah I was. I think the Meccano set I didn’t get on too well with but there was a rival to Lego called ‘Betta Bilda’, very badly, deliberately badly spelt [spells Betta Bilda] and that’s literally how it was on the packet, the name.

And I could form quite ambitious constructions with those. They were completely incompatible with Lego in much the same was as Betamax and VHS in the ‘80’s were, total rivalry and n’er the twain shall meet.

And yeah, I suppose I developed great big fantasy cities if I could manage it and under- sea empires, that sort of thing as best I could.

Penelope: I know nothing about Betta Bilda so can you describe what the components are of it?

Steve: Yeah, whereas Lego’s got the two little flat discs as the top, which intersect with the corresponding holes in the other unit, these were very much … they had two discs at the top but they had a raised edge in the centre with a hole, so they were almost hollow. And obviously through trades and what have you, what’s the word I’m looking for? They couldn’t be anything like Lego or be seen to be looking like it. So it was a little bit unwieldy and I think there were slightly smaller bricks as well. But they were fascinating to work with and I thoroughly enjoyed making them.

Penelope: What were they made of?

Steve: Just plastic, the same as Lego. The basic primary colours, I think red, white, black and that was about it.

Penelope: How old were you when you got your first set?

Steve: Quite young, I think I’d be seven or thereabouts. That sort of figured right up to when I was about ten or thereabouts.

Penelope: That’s quite a long time to be playing with one toy, isn’t it?

Steve: I guess it is, yeah.

Penelope: You must have got very good at it.

Steve: Oh yeah, you could give me something and I would just play with it for years really.

Penelope: Construction

Steve: Yeah

Penelope: Underwater cities

Steve: Yes, something like that, yes.

Penelope: Tell me more about those.

Steve: Well I was very influenced by Gerry Andersen puppet series and Stingray I was a bit keen on and so I would modify Betta Bilda which was very much I suppose when you think about Lego and its rivals, it would have been symbolic of … Now I’ve become a bit of a historian in my older years, rebuilding the Europe after the Second World War … bomb sites and building, not on the scale that it is now, development, especially down here but it was very much a theme of building and I think I chose not to think along those lines.

I just lived in a realm of fantasy in my head really, I was quite content there.

Penelope: Do you think that was because you were an only child?

Steve: Oh definitely, yeah.

Penelope: Did you play with these things with other boys or other girls?

Steve: No, girls weren’t part of the whole thing. I had a few friends that would come round after school for tea and we would invariably play with Betta Bilda. I could be a bit possessive. I’d be the first to admit that. I was very tidy as a child and I liked things just so. I was almost OCD and if my cousins were around in my room and they’d been let in while I was out, they’d move things round. I used to go ballistic and my mum would say “will you stop that! You’re just like an old woman!”, she would say; which was a big put down, she would make me pull myself together. [laughing]

10:07 – Penelope: If you’d made a construction, if you’d made a city or an underwater city, did you keep them for any length of time?

Steve: Not really, no. I would become used to the sight of them present in the room, different times of day, different times of night, waking up to them, doing something else and then I would soon grow tired of it and think ‘right, time to construct something else now.’

Penelope: So we know that your neighbour, no a relative of yours, knitted toys for you and gave you soft toys.

Steve: Actually, it was a neighbour.

Penelope: It was a neighbour – who gave you the Betta Bilda? Was it a Christmas present?

Steve: Yeah, I think it was a Christmas present and then it just started from there and once shops that sold the Betta Bilda and obviously not as widely distributed as Lego, once they were located, I would think ‘aha’, the finger would wag and that was it, there’s a Betta Bilda distributor there so I don’t know if I had pocket money or now and again, I’d get slipped half a crown I guess from my mum or my grandmother and I’d be able to get some.

11:06 – Penelope: Was it a toy that you asked for, was it a construction set that you asked for or were you just given it?

Steve: I was given it originally, I think and once I added to it, by finding out where Betta Bilda was sold, that became the start of the collector in me, you know; going for something that’s a little bit not mainstream, and thinking ‘well this is cool, because not everybody’s got it’.

Penelope: Your father read to you and played with you in that way. Did he play with the Betta Bilda with you?

Steve: I’m not sure that he did, no. I can’t recall that particularly.

Penelope: It was your fantasy world?

Steve: It was. I could do what I darn well pleased really, yeah. I also remember the James Bond Austin Martin in the mid ‘60’s with the bullet proof shield that would ping up behind, from the roof of the car and the ejector suit where James Bond himself you would assume, although his features were indistinguishable from a plastic man. He would be able to ping out and pretty much everybody at my school, Balfour Primary School, had that and I think other kids’ mums had the same problem of when it was time to go to tea or when you grew tired of playing with the Austin Martin with the ejector seat and the little man going ping, mums would have to hoover the little man up or just fall short of hovering the little man up from the carpet, which on patterned carpets must have infuriated them no end. But it was the ‘60’s after all.

Penelope: It was indeed. And you were probably … were you still using Betta Bilda at that time? I’m wondering if you put those two things together, whether you’d build garages?

Steve: Yeah, I used to mix the whole thing up. Yeah, I mean what you had, was a lot of rival toy car manufacturers, all the different sizes, obviously they’re all here to see and it wouldn’t bother me that, you know, I’d have a motorway that would have cars that were dwarfing other cars, what the hey I thought, it’s a bit wide road and they can all get on there.

Penelope: Was that with the Betta Bilda or was that separate?

13:07 – Steve: Pretty much sometimes all mixed up, as much as they could be compatible. And it’s the same with … I think briefly I had scalextric and I didn’t get on too well with that and also a railway set, a very small railway set. I was fascinated by those with the little houses and buildings that you could get, outbuildings, bushes trees and I would like to mingle them up with all the rest of my toy collection. So I was quite resourceful because anything that was in the cupboard, I’d pretty much put it all together and play with it really.

Penelope: So how constructive were the train sets? Did you make those up yourself?

Steve: No, they were pretty much already constructed. But that was relatively short lived, I wasn’t madly enthusiastic about trains.

Penelope: More cars?

Steve: That’s right

Penelope: And garage?

Steve: Yeah, putting them in and putting them out, that was half the fun.

Penelope: Racing tracks?

Steve: Yeah. But I suppose after a while, I grew tired of toys altogether really and became more interested in television and doing impersonations of The Man From Uncle, Man in a Suitcase, Danger Man, all those espionage type TV programmes. A lot of us as kids were interested in them from a very early age.

14:06 – Penelope: Yes, I think so. It was a very exciting time, wasn’t it? What about toys you didn’t have, were there any toys that you particularly wanted but you never had?

Steve: No, I can’t recall that at all. No. I was never really what you’d call covetous, you know. I wouldn’t be like a spoilt child. People have said, you know, you’re an only child, you must have been spoilt. But I wasn’t really, ‘cos one Christmas, I had a coat, which was practical. That was my Christmas present. And I had to look and go “oh, just what I always wanted” [laughing]. That’s kind of how it went sometimes.

Penelope: What would you have wanted if you hadn’t had the coat?

Steve: I think somewhere down the line, I didn’t used to have a Christmas stocking, we had a Santa sack, there’d be something there to say “oh well, the coat was practical, but here’s the real gem.”

Penelope: What would the real gem have been?

Steve: I think James Bond guns were also doing the rounds. I had more fun looking at the toy catalogue and selecting in my mind than actually being presented with the toys themselves. Yeah, James Bond cap guns, as I recall and there were different sizes of the Gerry Andersen puppets and the series ‘Stingray’ vehicles. One manufacturer might do them fairly large and plastic and then you’d have a little metal one, which was like, you know, you’d have to strain your eyes that little bit more to look at it, which was more interesting.

15:45 – One of those, I’m pleased to say, somewhere like Polperro in Cornwall, when we were on holiday, when it was my birthday in July, we went past a shop and just said “oh look, a Stingray toy” I thought, that’s unusual, obscure, tiny little village in Cornwall, can’t see that in Brighton, so little did I know, hastily, one parent said “let’s go and get an ice cream”, while the other one bought it, which was rather sweet of them really ‘cos when I woke up in the tent in the morning and looked at my presents…”here, that was in the shop window the other day!” And they said: “Yes, I know!” [laughing].

16:15 – Penelope: That’s very exciting for a child, isn’t it?

Steve: It was, very exciting, they made the effort, yeah.

Penelope: You had a very wide variety of experience with your toys it seems to me.

Steve: Yeah.

Penelope: Are there any particular instances, anything that really stands out in your memory as special?

Steve: Not particularly because on one hand, whilst I was able to sort of recycle toys and, you know, not get too tired of them, they’d always get a little bit of use, throughout the year until I gradually grew tired of toys, and nothing really jumps out at my, particularly.

16:56 – I began to do a lot of drawing so I was creating my own stuff really. I beg your pardon, you’re very good at coaxing this out of me … there was a plastic, red London bus and it was large and you were able to physically – it was very tactile – you could actually put little toys, like toy figures from other series actually up the stairs. You could almost, if you got a pair of tweezers or something, you could put them through the windows, and have them sitting down. And many was the time in my nan’s wool shop in Elm Grove, where I used to play at the back, people used to say: “I can’t believe how content he is they’d say. He just has that bus all day long and he just mucks about with it and finds different permutations. So yes, the bus would probably dwarf things created with the Betta Bilda set. But what the hey, the bus, now you come to think of it, the bus was top banana.

Penelope: The bus was the thing.

Steve: And of course, being a London bus as well.

Penelope: Do you remember the number?

Steve: No, there wasn’t any number on it. There was no stickers on it as such, it was just red plastic and all very basic.

Penelope: Steve, thank you very much for coming in and talking to us.

Steve: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

Penelope: It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Steve: I’d nearly forgotten about the London bus. [laughing]

Penelope: Well, you’ll be able to think about that when you go home.

Steve: I will. And in those days in Brighton, ‘cos we were in Elm Grove, with the race fields at the top, there were fleets of buses laid on especially for the races, which you don’t see now. And they used to come down the hall en masse at the end of race day. Yeah, I remember that very clearly.

Penelope: You can see it. Thank you very much for coming in.

Steve: Thank you very much. Ok, good.

INTERVIEW ENDS 18m 40s

Steve

Steve was born in London in 1957 and grew up in Brighton. His father was a printer and his mother was a full time mother who later worked in Sainsbury’s. He had a range of toys, and particularly remembers Betta Bilda, which is the focus of the short version (02m 57s) of his interview. In the full version (18m 33s) he also talks about his teddy bear, handmade knitted toys and toy cars.